Hollywood cinema has had a complicated relationship with race and ethnicity since its very beginning.
So opens Luis I. Reyes latest cinematic study, Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film. Complicated? You bet. But as Reyes points out, that shouldn’t be the focus of the discussion. That would miss the forest for the trees: all the good work Latin American and Hispanic artists have contributed to America’s most exported art form.
“We were there from the beginning,” Reyes tells me from his home in Los Angeles. “It didn’t start with Andy Garcia and Edward James Olmos. It started way back when, at the dawn of the motion picture industry. One of the reasons [the studios] came to Hollywood was the fact that there was an available labor pool, Mexican labor. So [local Hispanics] were utilized in the building of sets, as extra players and as principal actors.”
And some of those actors went on to have significant careers. Anthony Quinn, born in a railroad boxcar somewhere in Chihuahua, Mexico, enjoyed a 60-year career in Hollywood playing just about every kind of leading and supporting player. Ditto for Ricardo Montalban, who continued working into the 21st century, even after a degenerative spinal disease left him reliant on a wheelchair. And Montalban wasn’t just a leading man; he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
“When you see the class photo of all the MGM stars of the late 1940s, Ricardo was right there,” Reyes says with a chuckle. “He was right there next to Lana Turner and Clark Gable.”
Reyes’ Viva Hollywood, available now from TCM and Running Press, explores the contributions of Montalban and Quinn, along with Antonio Moreno, Rita Moreno, Penelope Cruz, and hundreds more—some famous, some forgotten. Among the forgotten are actors like Lalo Rios, “Hollywood’s first Latino working-class rebel hero.” Reyes compares Rios to James Dean, but “instead of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Rios was a rebel with a cause, because he kind of exemplified the beginnings of the Mexican American civil rights movement.”
“Latins are part of the entire Hollywood cinematic experience,” Reyes says. “It’s our story… and I think Viva Hollywood shows that we’ve been there since the beginning. “The dreams that we’ve made—you know, celluloid dreams—really impacted the world. Hollywood movies are [America’s] greatest, most successful export to this day. And we’re there. I think our successes are incredible to behold in a very tough business.”