Teresa Yenque has appeared in seven episodes of "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: SVU", each time as a different character, as reported by Jezebel. She's played a nanny, a cleaning woman, a grieving mother, a grieving grandmother and three different housekeepers.
The common thread is that they're all stereotypical caricatures of Latinas -- submissive, god-fearing, scared of the police or La Migra.
Like Yenque, other talented Latina actresses have been relegated to similar roles throughout their careers. For whatever reason, they seem to fit nicely into what the creators of shows see as a typical maid, grandma or housekeeper. Still, behind the roles are actresses with many years of experience and well-rounded careers, including significant roles in Spanish-language films and TV.
Consider Lupe Ontiveros, who has played a maid more than 150 times, she told NPR. She played the likable housekeeper Rosalita in "The Goonies," a maid in the original "Charlie's Angels" TV series, a housekeeper in "Who's The Boss," had a recurring role on "Desperate Housewives", and on and on...
Ontiveros, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was born and raised on U.S. soil. "I was raised bicultural and bilingual in El Paso in Texas," she said in an interview with Maria Hinojosa. "I was so enriched by both cultures, if I didn't see my identity in the American cinema, I saw it in the Mexican one."
How does one with such a rich cultural background end up limited to a single type of role? Ontiveros says it's her "indigenous looks". There have been occasions when Ontiveros has had to push herself in order to appear or sound even more Latina. For instance, she has had to force an accent, which she doesn't really have.
"You want an accent?' And they'd say, 'Yes, we prefer for you to have an accent.' And the thicker and more waddly it is, the more they like it. This is what I'm against, really, truly," she said, referring to conversations with casting directors.
Ontiveros' first language is English, she told Hinojosa. Today, she speaks four languages plus sign language because one of her three sons is deaf. This knowledge has allowed her to play a few more diverse roles. She played Claire in the movie "Universal Signs" about a deaf man who shuts himself off from the world after his fiancee's daughter dies under his care. She also played "La Nacha," an undocumented immigrant working in a sewing factory, in the Oscar nominated film "El Norte," and as well as Beverly Franco, the theater producer, in the movie "Chuck & Buck."
But Ontiveros seems unable to break away from playing a maid or grandmother. She was recently cast as an abuela in the new sitcom "Rob!"
What does Ontiveros think about playing the these roles?
"Playing the maid is survival for me," she said. "I'll do the maid as long as you pay."
"Pero, ya basta!" (But, that's enough!), she yells in Spanish during her interview. Ontiveros dreams much bigger. She wants to play roles that test her skills, that challenge her in her craft. Nearing 60, Ontiveros still talks about wanting to play a judge, a lesbian, someone with "some chutzpah."
Instead, more Latina actresses continue to be cast in nonessential cliched roles. Actresses Miriam Colon, who is Puerto Rican, and Altagracia Guzman, who is Dominican, are prime examples.
Colon has had an active acting career since 1951. She's played roles in serious films like "Scarface" -- as Al Pacino's mother -- and "All The Pretty Horses", as well as popular fare like the "Goal!"series of movies, where she played the grandmother, and the HBO show "How To Make It In America," where she also played -- what else? -- the grandma. Though her acting has earned nominations for various awards (Colon she was nominated for an Imagen Award for her supporting role in "Goal!"), she's still mostly playing the same secondary characters.
Altagracia Guzman, 81, only became an actress 10 years ago after working as a seamstress for most of her life. She started her acting career as the grandmother in the movie "Raising Victor Vargas," and later appeared in "I Heart Huckabees" in 2004 and "Fighting" in 2009.
Beyond her acting roles, Guzman supported the Occupy Wall Street movement. In early November, she walked from northern Manhattan to the end of the island in a protest against discrimination and racism, carrying a sign that read in Spanish, "La inigualdad nos ENFERMA," and in English, "Inequalities make us SICK."
For these and so many other Latina actresses, being relegated to secondary roles as passive elderly women or feisty maids, the challenge remains how to creatively express their deep and rich life experiences and character. While they remain typecasted, the viewing public is being shortchanged.
LATINA ACTRESSES TYPECAST IN SECONDARY ROLES:
Lupe Ontiveros plays Rosalita, the maid who is hired by Mrs. Walsh to help pack the house for the big move. Rosalita's first language is Spanish and although it's not quite clear where Rosalita is originally from, she "doesn't speak a word of English." In "The Goonies," the portrayal of Rosalita is the common: the submissive, gullible maid.
"Real Women Have Curves" is a movie based on the story of Ana, played by America Ferrera, a first generation Mexican-American who lives in East Los Angeles. Ana is torn between her cultural background and her will to belong to a more mainstream American world. Ontiveros plays a very Latina mother but in this film the character of Carmen Garcia is a leading role.
Lupe Ontiveros plays the abuela in the new series Rob!
Altagracia Guzman, 81, became an actress 10 years ago after working as a seamstress for most of her life. She started her acting career as the grandmother in the movie "Raising Victor Vargas," and later appeared in "I Heart Huckabees" in 2004 and "Fighting" in 2009.
Altagracia Guzman played the role of Alba Guzmán in "Fighting," the movie about a young counterfeiter who is introduced to the world of underground street fighting in New York.
'A Journey to Homeland' is a short film about immigration and relationships between different generations. Yenque plays the character of Yuliana.
Miriam Colon on the set of "How To Make It In America" where she played a guest-role.
Colon has had an active acting career since 1951. She's been part of big grossing movies such as "Goal!" where she played the grandma, and the HBO show "How To Make It In America," where she also played -- what else? -- the grandma.
Miriam Colon played a guest role as Nick Renata's (Marc Anthony) mother in the drama "Hawthorne." The show was cancelled after three seasons.