This month is Hispanic Heritage Month on Comcast On Demand, featuring a collection of films focusing on the Latino culture, including El Cantante, The Sea Inside, The Motorcycle Diaries, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Pan’s Labyrinth and Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez as the singing superstar whose amazing life was tragically cut short and Edward James Olmos as her devoted father.
Olmos is a legend in the Latino community for his roles in films like Stand and Deliver and series like ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ but Selena remains close to his heart. “It’s just been a tremendous journey we took with Selena,” he says. “I think Jennifer Lopez did the best performance she’s ever given in her life. She should have won the Academy Award for it. I was very surprised when they looked the other way. It was just terrible because she really deserved the nomination.”
The award snub certainly doesn’t mean that the film hasn’t had a lasting impact. “Selena is used in the dynamic of the culture,” he notes. “It’s like a glass of water in the middle of the desert. Film is a very strong medium in that it attacks the subconscious mind, so that’s why it’s so important that we share the stage and share the space so that indigenous people have access to it and Asian American people have access to it and Latino people have access to it. That’s really the key to this whole understanding because yes, Selena is seen a whole lot more today than it was on the day it came out because people now have it in their house. Some people have seen it – I know one kid who’s seen the doggone thing 89 times. Young girls, they love that movie. Young Latinos pass it around. If you haven’t seen it, it’s like, ‘What?! You haven’t seen Selena?!’ and they make you feel like, ‘Whoa, I guess I better see it.’”
“You don’t know what you have until you lose it,” he muses on Selena’s enduring popularity. “Well, that’s it. We appreciate her more now. I hear her music now more than I ever heard it when she was alive and in more interesting venues. I’ll hear it as Muzak. It’s like when the Beatles finally got in elevators. The Muzak, it’s the stuff they play in department stores and elevators, so she’s made it. It’s pretty awesome.”
“The sadness is that it’s such a dark film,” Olmos explains. “It’s an uplifting film all the way to the end, and then you realize, ‘Oh my God, this is really a difficult film to watch’ because you’ve been lead down this road to see the life and the beauty of these young kids and this family and what they went through and the joy an the love. It was just like what happened when we actually did the film. It was about 15 months after her death, and we didn’t want to do the movie, nobody wanted to do it. The parents didn’t want to do it, but there were three major motion pictures being done at that time developed on it. There were five documentaries. There were eight books, and I don’t know how much other stuff was coming out on her. And the movies were the things that the parents got really afraid of. So they went to Warner Brothers, and thank God Warner Brothers was strong enough to pull it off. They got everybody together, and we all went into production. But the only person who hung around with us during the whole production was the father, and after every single scene – and I mean every single scene – I would finish a scene like in the bus or any one of the major beautiful moments of joy and happiness and trauma and the stuff with her coming out with the bustier on, all those wonderful moments, I would turn and look at him and he’d be in a corner with his back towards us, heaving sobs. His whole body would just be jolting, and it never ceased to not happen. It just tore his heart out to have to do this. None of us wanted to do this movie, and the country didn’t want to see it. And yet it’s became a very popular movie, and it’s become a very popular movie, and it does stand true to everything about it – the good, the bad and the ugly of it.”
Unfortunately, the road is still hard for Latinos in the motion picture industry, and Olmos says he didn’t see any changes despite the popularity of Selena. “I think maybe the only thing that happened is that Jennifer got a chance to become an artist that could bank a picture,” he laments. “We hadn’t had one of those in awhile – a Latina who could bank a picture. What happens is the industry looks at these films like La Bamba, like Selena, like Stand and Deliver, like Walkout, and they actually end up saying, ‘This is the exception. This is not the norm. The norm is Latinos don’t exist.’ Andy Garcia has a problem trying to launch a movie. Jimmy Smits has a problem trying to launch a movie. It’s very difficult to launch movies. There’s very few people that can. What’s happened with the African American experience is really extraordinary. They hold down about 70% of the films coming out right now. Less than 2% are Latino. They’re going to undercount us like they do every census, but I figure right now we’re well over 20-21% of the population. One out of every five people who live in this country are Latino, and that’s a reality that people have to come to terms with, and then they don’t. They don’t want to look at it. Nobody does!”
Olmos is obviously a man proud of his culture and happy to help raise awareness of the films featured in On Demand’s Hispanic Heritage Month, but he’s also spoken to the United Nations about the need to stop categorizing different cultures as races. “I hate Latino Heritage Month,” he says, surprisingly. “I hate African-American Month. I hate Asian-American Month, and Indigenous Month. Is there a Caucasian American Month? Hello? Is there? No, there’s no need for it. Well, I want the need for a Latino Heritage Month to go away. I’m tired of doing the Latino and International Film Festival and the Latino Book and Family Festival and being known as a Latino actor. I’m tired of it. I’ve really gotten to the point of saying, ‘You’re going to go this route even though we all know that it’s wrong, and you’re not going to change it even then,’ and that’s when the world’s going to explode. We’re close to it now with immigration. Talk about the center of the storm. It’s right there. We’re right in the middle of it right now. You’re going to see elections forged on immigration. It’s coming. It’s coming hard.”
Given that political climate, it’s all too clear that the need for Hispanic Heritage Month has not gone away just yet, and Olmos will support the initiative to give these films a higher profile through channels like Video On Demand until it does. “El Cantante is a great, great piece of work also,” he notes. “I think that was the second best film that Jennifer’s ever made. They’re putting out Pan’s Labyrinth, which is also a phenomenal piece of artistic work and a wonderful story and a great journey. They’re all films that should be accessible to all of us in a really honestly great way, simple and easy. Films should be easy and accessible.”