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.