Lupe Ontiveros Omitted from Oscar Memorial Ignites Controversy

NBCLatinoBy Nina Terrero, NBCLatino

Lupe Ontiveros appeared in more than 100 films and dozens of television shows before passing away from liver cancer in July 2012 and was praised by members of the Latino community for helping carve out a Hispanic presence in Hollywood – making many feel that her absence from the obituary segment at the 85th Annual Academy Awards was glaring omission.

lupe_ontiverosThis year’s In Memoriam – an obituary segment which honors recently deceased movie talent – included luminaries the likes of filmmaker/screenwriter Nora Ephron, director Tony Scott and actor Michael Clarke Duncan. George Clooney introduced the emotional tribute (“So for those friends who are on this list tonight, and many others who aren’t, we thank you for the memories,” said Clooney) and following the video tribute, Barbra Streisand took to the stage to sing “The Way We Were,” which she dedicated to her deceased friend and composer Marvin Hamlisch.

And while the segment included nearly 40 members of the Hollywood community, the segment’s omission of Ontiveros – whose length list of film credits over a 35 year career including hits like “Selena” and “The Goonies” – sparked a near-immediate reaction from Latino movie goers and film fans on social media.

“Everyone in the audience would have recognized Lupe from one film or another had she been included in that tribute,” says Lalo Alcaraz, an award-winning illustrator and NBC Latino contributor. One of the first to tweet his disappointment over the Academy’s omission of Ontiveros, Alcaraz says that her absence is a reminder that the Mexican American actress may have died without finding acceptance from her peers in the industry.

“For the Academy to disregard her is a way of letting Latinos know that they never saw her as anything but a maid – that they didn’t find her important,” notes Alcaraz. “It’s a disservice to her great work.”

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Ontiveros, who once estimated that she had played a maid more than 150 times, was one of  Hollywood’s most popular Latina actresses, appearing in immigration films like 1983’s “El Norte” and movies as mainstream as “As Good as It Gets,” where the El Paso, Texas  native co-starred opposite two-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson.

And while the tribute reel also failed to include high-profile entertainment talent such as Andy Griffith, Larry Hagman, and Phyllis Diller, movie critic and NBC Latino contributor Jack Rico says the situation is sadly reflective of the Academy’s lack of awareness regarding Latino talent.

“There’s still a struggle for the Hispanic actor and filmmaking talent to make a name for themselves in Hollywood,” says Rico, who explains that the Academy’s selection process is largely guided by measuring accomplishment and popularity, which lead to the decision to omit actress Farrah Fawcett from the broadcast tribute following her death in 2009. “But if you are Hispanic, Lupe’s omission rubs you the wrong way, because she was certainly talented but the Academy didn’t see her as a high-profile actress. Hopefully this won’t set a precedent where if the Academy could omit Lupe, they can omit wonderful character actors like Luis Guzmán andDanny Trejo in the future.”

Charles Ramírez Berg, a Latino film and media studies professor at the University of Texas-Austin, says that the omission is reflective of the Academy’s lack of diversity.

“I don’t think anyone really said, ‘Let’s keep Latinos off the list,’ explains Ramírez Berg. “I think that there simply isn’t a Hispanic presence in the Academy to advocate for Latino talent.”

A 2012 LA Times study of Oscar voters found that 94 percent of the Academy’s 5,765 members are Caucasian and 77 percent male. Black voters are estimated to be about 2 percent of its membership, while Latinos comprise less than that number. While the Academy – which prides itself on including “the most accomplished men and women working in cinema” – does feature members like actor Erik Estrada, the fact remains says, Rico, “there needs to be more Hispanics in these committees to reflect the diversity of the industry in general.”

While the Academy did create an online gallery of photos honoring those who didn’t make it on to the broadcast, Ontiveros was also omitted from the slide show as well, prompting Ramírez Berg to comment that Ontiveros being excluded from Academy Awards history deprives audiences of a story reminiscent of the industry’s best films.

“Hers is an inspiring story about a girl who made it from El Paso to Hollywood – that’s literally as good as it gets,” says Ramírez Berg. “It’s the quintessential American story about making it if you have the talent to back it up.”

“And if anyone had the talent, it was Lupe Ontiveros.”

This article was first published in NBCLatino.

Nina Terrero is a web producer at NBCLatino. She is passionate about social issues, health, education, discovering untold stories among U.S. Latinos and exploring Latino culture through food, literature, theatre and the arts, she holds a B.A. in Government from Cornell University. She is also a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts & Science, where she received an M.A. in Political Science. Of Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage, Nina worked at ABC News as a digital reporter before joining the team at NBC Latino.

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