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When Life and Art Merge

Hundreds of thousands of people joining in a present-day walkout is life.

En español | Edward James Olmos’s Walkout, an HBO film chronicling the 1968 protest by Chicano students against injustices in the Los Angeles public school system, is art. Hundreds of thousands of people joining in a present-day walkout is life. Nearly four decades after the walkout that inspired the film, and just days after the film aired in March, half a million protesters rallied in Los Angeles—with thousands more gathering in cities across the country—against proposed immigration legislation.

The Olmos film led Juan Mendoza, a school cafeteria manager in East L.A., to the streets in March. Having grown up in Mexico, Mendoza, 42, knew nothing about the 1968 walkout until he became an extra in the film. Then he learned quickly. “The students started with a little gathering in the schools, and then they took the initiative to make a difference. They said, ‘Here we are, we need to get more respect,’ ” Mendoza says. “I was inspired by those people. They could make a difference. If they could do it, we could do it.”

Walkout is typical of an Olmos project: whatever he signs onto has to be about something. Known for his social conscience and lifelong political activism, Olmos directed this film, he says, because it unifies and empowers: “Unity is the factor—unity in one common goal makes your voice heard. It empowers the disenfranchised. They can band together in a common goal. You felt the strength of numbers in March, when so many people marched.”

Even when the 59-year-old actor agreed to star in Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, it had to be about something. The contemporary political parallels in the noir-ish show—in which humanity fights for its life against a race of human-made robots—drew him. He made sure the series, which debuted in 2003, featured no bumpy-headed aliens, no storylines about galactic empires.

“It’s based on how the country and the planet were after 9/11. How does the technology that we’ve created come back to haunt us and destroy us?” he says of the show, which won a 2005 Peabody Award.

Galactica and Walkout are just the latest in a series of activist film and television projects—El Pachuco in Zoot Suit, dedicated math teacher in Stand and Deliver, father in the PBS series American Family—that have come to define Olmos’s career. And they all spring from a background steeped in Latino pride and community good works.

He traces this back to his maternal great-grandfather, Enrique Flores Magón, an activist and journalist who was one of the principal propagandists of the Mexican Revolution. Olmos inherited his sense of fighting for justice from his father, a postal clerk, and his mother, a hospital worker.

“They were both activists, trying to bring about an understanding of the Latino struggle in the United States and make sure the community was understood,” he says.

Olmos took this sense of community and expanded it to encompass the world, from Miami’s Children’s Hospital to UCLA’s School of Film, Theater, and Television to UNICEF. He has made an even bigger mark as an activist for Latino culture. Olmos founded the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, now in its tenth year, because “film is the strongest medium in the world, and we were not seeing those images that dealt with our culture,” he says. The same impulse led him to create the Latino Book & Family Festival, a traveling smorgasbord of events co-produced by Latino Literacy Now. And Americanos, organized with the Smithsonian Institution, was a traveling exhibition that looked at Latino culture through photography, film, music, and print.

“The Americanos project is critical,” says Lea Ybarra, executive director of the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and the actor’s longtime friend. “When you look at the Americanos book, you see the reality of undocumented workers crossing the river, and he feels that’s as much our reality as the scientists and musicians in the book.”

Olmos has received more awards and honorary degrees (from Whittier College and National Hispanic University, for instance), sat on more national boards (National Council on Adoption and Children's Action Network, to name a few), and served as an official spokesperson for more organizations (such as the Southwest Voter Registration Project and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation) than seems humanly possible.

An all-work-and-no-play-makes-Edward-a-dull-boy scenario? No way. Olmos acknowledges that the stern patriarchs and hard-nosed gang bangers he’s played might leave the impression he’s humor-challenged, but in reality, he says, “I laugh a lot.”

No kidding. David Eick, Galactica’s executive producer, says Olmos is the big jokester on the set: “He’s got the foulest mouth, and everyone loves him for it. You expect this stoic, heavy type, and he completely disarms you.”

He’s also humble and self-effacing, Ybarra says, the kind of guy who respects his fans. “He will take the time to make everyone feel like he’s giving them his attention,” she says.

Olmos and his third wife, 28-year-old actress Lymari Nadal, have been married since 2001. He has four sons, two of them adopted. Brandon, 33, Michael, 35, and Bodie, 30, work in their father’s production company. Mico, 34, is a Zen Buddhist monk who, Olmos says proudly, takes care of the kids while his wife works as an immigration lawyer.

Olmos takes none of this—his family, fans, successes—for granted. His life lesson, he says, is “to be humble, be grateful when you wake up and humble when you go to sleep.”

Besides, his work isn’t done. There are meetings to attend, funds to be raised, voices to be heard. But the one thing Olmos would most like to accomplish is this: help the Hispanic community learn to grow in unity.

“We have to learn to live together,” he explains. “Right now we have a problem: there are different cultures, and we don’t often relate to one another. We have to learn so it will be easier for non-Latino cultures to relate to us more.”

His faith lies in today’s youth: “High school students are the most delicate structure of the human chain; they’re old enough to understand, but not to be taken seriously. But if they unite, then the voice becomes very strong, and it’s the strongest voice we have. When you empower the youth, you’re empowering the future leaders of the world.”

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