Mourning Lupe Ontiveros

Lupe Ontiveros

Sad news today: the one and only Chicana actor Lupe Ontiveros lost her battle with liver cancer. She was only 69 years old. (Yes, I say “only” because my parents are just a couple of years younger and they are still, in my mind, young enough for my sister and me to not have to worry about their dying any time soon. To me, “old” is my grandma, who just turned 94.)

Born in 1942 in El Paso, Texas, Lupe bucked the trends from an early age by graduating from high school and earning a bachelor’s degree, a notable accomplishment for a Chicana of her generation (as even today, according to some figures, only 46% of Chicanos graduate from high school and only 8% earn a BA. For more info on such statistics, please check out my Latina/os in Academia post). After working for some time in social services, Lupe managed to transform her work as a film and TV extra into a long, outstanding, full-time career.

Although Lupe frequently was cast as a maid–by her estimate, at least 150 times–she fully embodied such roles, so that instead of stereotypes, they became real people, living with dignity and humor, and making the best of their circumstances. As she told the LA Weekly in 2002,

I’ve had a hell of a good time playing those maids. No matter how much I resent the stupidity that is written into them, the audacity that the industry has when they portray us in such a nonsensical, idiotic, such — oh my God! — such a degrading manner, still, my humor survives in these maids. I’m very proud of them.

One of her performances that my mom and I love best is her turn as Nacha in El Norte. In one scene below, Nacha mentors recent immigrant Rosa over lunch after an INS raid at their factory (scene starts at 2:30):

To this day, my mom loves to say, “Qué tú no has conocido a Sears?!”

In 2010, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers honored Lupe with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Here’s a short video that shows the range of her work and the impact she had on her colleagues:

R.I.P Lupe. Thanks for sharing your talent with the world and please know that your legacy will live on.

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4 thoughts on “Mourning Lupe Ontiveros

  1. The fact that I didn’t know that she had died until I reread your jalapeno blood essay on Racialicious and decided I needed to worship you is very, very telling, I think. Thanks, media outlets.

  2. I was so saddened when I read this post about the death of Lupe. Lupe was such an amazing, talented actress. I always felt like she was one of my Tias or something. She really had the heart of a Mexicana/Chicana/Latina. I loved her in so many roles, but the funniest scene she did (my opinion) was when she played the novela-addicted mom of America in REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES. Ha,ha, it was too funny, and who doesn’t know somebody in their family who’s addicted to their novelas. Lupe captured that “family member” so perfectly. It was hysterical. Don’t get in the way of a novela addict and their novela on TV.Then she slso prayed to the Santos in her kitchen for her daughter to find a good man. She prayed with such high hopes as she worried to death about the fate of her unmarried hijita who was getting “old ” (at 18 yrs old) and running off to college as if it were pure nasty rebellion, no, more like a slap heard across the entire universe-a super harsh “pacatelas” slap in the brown face of such adecent and hardworking Latina mother who sacrficed everything (darnit) to give the best to her ungrateful kids! Man, can I relate to that, having run off to college myself right after high school graduation. Whew! Well, I pray for Lupe to be happy and tranquilita up in heaven. I also pray for her family who must miss her so much. Oh, and I hope my daughter, Raquel (born 1983, died 2010) gets to meet Lupe in heaven and give Lupe a big old HUG–AL estilo Latino.

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