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Movies for Grownups
by Antonio Mejías-Rentas, Fresia Rodríguez Cadavid, AARP VIVA, December 2007
These Latinos are riding high with breakthrough projects and multiple accolades. But their impact doesn't stop at the red carpet. Here, they sound off about their success and about financial security and health care.
This screen and stage veteran earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Babel.
Adriana Barraza was a long-time stage and television actress before director Alejandro González Iñárritu picked her for Amores perros and for Babel, in which she played the suffering nanny Amelia. The character gave a face, Barraza says, to "those invisible Latinas who so lovingly take care of other people's children." As a single mother, Barraza forsook stardom for steady work as a director and acting coach. The Oscar nominee still directs a telenovela acting workshop for Telemundo and soon will appear in the feature film Henry Poole Is Here. "I'm proud to be 51, a Mexican, a Latina, and to do what I know how to do," she says.
"[Health care] should be a main issue for our political leaders to address, since they are the voice of all people living in this country. Latinos here work very hard. They are—we are—a very important cog in the machinery that makes this country run, whether or not we have the proper papers. [Lack of access to health care] is troubling and sad."
On Financial Security:
"Go to banks and ask for the best [savings] option so you can get the best return for your money and have better access to education, to owning a house, and to health care. Ask and keep asking."
The "bad boy" on television's Wisteria Lane is moving on to roles on the big screen.
Ricardo Chavira relishes how his Carlos Solís character on ABC's Desperate Housewives has evolved over four seasons. "I used the models of...the Latino men I grew up with," says Chavira, 36, who flies home to Texas frequently to be with his young son. He'll appear in several upcoming films and has written his first script. "There aren't enough Latino writers, directors, or producers," he says. "I have the mind and the capability to handle those positions." As a teen, Chavira handled much more, losing his mother to cancer. This prompted his involvment with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
"So many businesses no longer provide health care—they've taken those benefits away from their employees. My father just retired, and when he left he didn't get health benefits. I've seen these issues affecting my family and also my community."
"Financially, Latinos have always been family-oriented. I'm the first in my family to have this luxury that is financial security, and I'm doing my best to take care of it—not just for myself and for my family now but also to make sure my son has enough money for college."
She made her screen debut in Quinceañera, the 2006 Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance.
Her role as the pregnant 15-year-old Magdalena earned Emily Rios ALMA and Imagen award nominations—not bad for a first-time actress discovered while shopping at a Southern California mall. "I decided to pursue acting as a career after Quinceañera," says the now 18-year-old, who has since worked on the features Vicious Circle (where she plays an epileptic rocker opposite Paul Rodríguez Jr.) and The Blue Hour (she's a Los Angeles graffiti artist). "I've learned so much with every project and every single person I've worked with," she says. "Every day I take it as a complete honor to be part of this industry."
"I see families struggle with the costs of health care all the time. I've experienced it. I only recently got health insurance. I went maybe two years without it. I couldn't afford to get sick."
"Every time I go into an audition, I say to myself, 'This is my job now, try to make a career of it.' At the same time, it's not guaranteed that you'll get the job. You never know in this business. I also have a job on the side to cover the bills: I work as a physical trainer with people with developmental disabilities."
The director-choreographer won Emmy and Alma Awards for High School Musical.
Kenny Ortega has parlayed his passion for musicals into award-winning spectacles. In a career that spans four decades, he's created such iconic pop moments as the parade scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Madonna's "Material Girl" video. But it's at age 57 that he's enjoying his "most exciting and creative period," he says. He's got two smash High School Musical TV movies, a feature film in the works, two platinum soundtracks, and a global ice-skating tour. Better than the awards, he says, is the satisfaction of delivering a positive message: "Kids universally have embraced this project centered on empowering themes."
On Financial Security and Health:
"Sometimes health issues became the reasons we were hurting financially as a family. My parents and grandparents were unable to afford good health insurance. I remember seeing my grandmother go without medication because she couldn't afford it. As Americans grow older, it seems wrong that we work hard, pay taxes, and end up with little or no health security. It's embarrassing that we live in a country of such wealth yet fail our citizens during what should be their golden age. This is a nonpartisan issue. I hope all political parties focus on this in the next election."
The model, TV personality, and entrepreneur does it all in style, and in two languages.
Keeping an open mind to opportunity has been the key to success for Daisy Fuentes, the first and only VJ to appear on MTV channels in English and in Spanish. "You never know what somebody might be thinking about for you, and it might just be bigger than your own dreams for yourself," says the 41-year-old Revlon model and creative director of her own fashion line for Kohl's. This year she hosts The EcoZone Project, a series in which "green" experts visit celebrities at home and offer ecologically sound improvement tips; hosts Ultimate Style on Style Network; and co-produces and hosts Premio de la gente on TV Azteca.
"It's shocking to me that in this day and age, health care is the way it is, in this country especially. The fact that people are dying simply because they cannot afford health care is shocking to me."
"My parents were very good about teaching me how to keep a checkbook. Even when I had a part-time job in high school, they taught me how to take a small check and still save part of the money. I'm surprised at how many young people don't know how to keep a checkbook or what a credit card entails."
From Broadway to Hollywood, this Latina is donning scrubs on ABC's hit show Grey's Anatomy.
It was only a few years ago that Ramirez, 32, received a Tony Award for her performance as the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python's Spamalot. Today, as the only Latina on Grey's Anatomy, Ramirez is flying high. "They've been just the most incredible years of my life. I look back at all the experiences, and I realize I have a lot of angels on my side," she says. But the show isn't the only place Ramirez focuses on health. The Mexican-born actress recently appeared in advertisements educating consumers about the benefits of milk. And as if that weren't enough, she's working on her first musical recording project, a Broadway record with Spamalot's Grammy-winning composers Eric Idle and John Du Prez.
"For health care, it always comes down to the money and the government. Playing a doctor makes me aware of how health care can be very deceptive. You think you're going in for one thing, but your diagnosis is something completely different. It's really a human right to know what's going on in your body."
"People need to start being honest with themselves and take responsibility for where their money goes and make a list of priorities. Perseverance is important. Never give up. The universe will bring you what you want. You have to build relationships with people who know about [financial] stuff. If you need to find a job, find one. If you need to save, then save."
The Dancing With the Stars sensation has a new sitcom on CW this year.
If you see Mario Lopez smile, it's probably because he's working. "I try to just enjoy life in general and be passionate about everything I do," he says. That includes wowing audiences on ABC's Dancing With the Stars, hosting Extra on weekends, and starring on the CW sitcom Eight Days a Week. In a workplace comedy with a multiethnic cast, the 34-year-old plays a young boss. The self-defined workaholic is also writing a book on physical fitness, drawing from personal philosophy. "You live longer, you live a healthier lifestyle, and you're going to be happier," he advises. "For every minute you work out, you add a minute to your life. I try to live by that."
"I don't think our health care is as bad as some movies and documentaries portray it, but it definitely needs improvement. I think every American deserves great health care, and I think every American has had their issues with certain government-run programs, but I still think this country offers the greatest health care."
"My generation has to be a lot smarter with how they budget their lifestyles as far as saving. I'm first-generation [in the United States]. My family is from Mexico; they're hard-working people. This business is very fickle, so I try to be a saver and invest in things that are sound. I never try any get-rich-quick schemes. I'm no financial guru, but I think it's just common sense."
The ALMA Award winner for The Shield practically grew up on stage.
On the groundbreaking FX series The Shield, Benito Martinez plays the politically ambitious David Aceveda, a Los Angeles cop who successfully ran for city council. His intense performance on one of cable television's most-watched shows earned him a 2007 ALMA. On this year's seventh and final season, Aceveda runs for mayor. "It's art imitating life," says the 36-year-old, referring to the fact that Antonio Villaraigosa is the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles. Both of Martinez's parents were artists—his father a musician and his mother a theater producer. "If my dad had a mariachi gig," he says, "I learned to play the vihuela and worked with him. If my mom needed a little boy in her play, I would have to learn the lines. To see your parents work that hard every day and laugh the entire time was a great gift."
"As artists, we didn't have a steady income. I saw my dad get sick, and it would take him weeks to go to the doctor. My mom would say, 'We don't have insurance so don't get sick.' And we didn't. When you don't have a choice, you don't have a choice."
"In [my daughters'] school, they have a savings program. They say, 'If [the students] keep putting the money away now, they'll keep doing it the rest of their lives,' and I believe they're right. How I try to reinforce it for them in the house is by keeping it real. You want them to see the money that goes toward paying a credit card. Otherwise they don't have the understanding of its true value. That's what my parents taught me."
This veteran film and TV actor plays the voice of reason on Medium.
When Miguel Sandoval moved to Hollywood 26 years ago, he briefly changed his name to Michael. "The roles for Latinos at that time were literally this: you could play a gardener or, if you were younger, a gangbanger," he says. "As Michael, I could maybe play a young lawyer." A sign of change: his character on NBC's Medium, District Attorney Devalos, was not originally written as a Latino. "The show's creator went for, in his opinion, the right actor for the part," says the 56-year-old veteran of more than 36 feature films and dozens of TV appearances. He enjoys voicing cartoon characters, such as El Toro Fuerte on Jackie Chan Adventures: "You can really be playful and use your imagination. You're not restricted to what you look like."
"We've got to do something to make insurance accessible to absolutely everyone, without exception. And we should immediately roll back the rates a good 20 to 50 percent and put some heavy regulations on future premium increases. We have to take [health care] out of the hands of the pharmaceutical and insurance companies."
"[My wife and I] are like the ant and the grasshopper. We're like the grasshopper because when you're an actor and don't have anything, when you get something you have a little fiesta. But right away we go back to the ant and sock it away. I know I'm not going to be able to work forever, and as I get older I'll be restricted to certain roles, so we're planning for the future and our retirement in a big way."
The veteran producer has reinvented himself with a one-man autobiographical show.
For Dan Guerrero, it's all about adapting to the times. After a 20-year career on Broadway—half as musical performer and half as theatrical agent—he moved home to Los Angeles to produce and direct Latino-themed projects—such as The Paul Rodríguez Show for Univision and a Vikki Carr special for PBS—and special events for the Kennedy Center and Los Angeles Opera. Along the way he reacquainted audiences with his father, the legendary Chicano songwriter Lalo Guerrero, who enjoyed a comeback of his own in his latter years. "You have to reinvent yourself, whether you're 20 or 60," says the 67-year-old. Returning to his musical roots, he currently tours the country with his autobiographical solo stage show, Gaytino!, which chronicles his life as a Chicano gay man. A related book is in the works.
"Before I was 65, I was paying about $500 a month for health insurance, and I didn't care what would happen, that was the first thing [I would pay]. Thank God I didn't have to choose between that and having dinner, but believe me, I would have chosen health insurance."
"You think you're young forever, and one day you reach an age and you're like, 'Hello!' In my business, you don't retire as such. I can't be jumping around the stage 10 years from today, but by that time I will have the book and there will be more writing and lectures. You don't ever retire. That doesn't mean you don't need financial security."
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