When director Robert Rodriguez’s older sister when to New York to pursue an acting career, she sent back saddening news. As a Hispanic, she was having trouble finding work. To fit in, she changed her name.
“I remember being really upset by that,” Rodriguez said in a speech before the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists this month, fighting back tears. “Not upset with my sister, but upset about an industry where you would be denied work because of your name. And I was very determined from that day forward to change that. I’m not going to change my name.”
In an emotional acceptance speech for the SAAHJ’s Corazón de Oro award delivered on Aug. 8, Rodriguez looked back on his efforts to make Hollywood more representative of Hispanics, who make up 16 percent of the U.S. population, but rarely appear in prominent roles in television and film. The SAAHJ uploaded a video of the speech to YouTube this week.
After the initial success of “El Mariachi,” the director said he wanted to follow it up with a similar film, which would become “Desperado.” But though he is now an established director, he couldn’t find the actors he wanted.
“I was shocked to find there were just no Latinos working in Hollywood,” Rodriguez said. “I mean there were just none. So I realized I had to create my own star system. Because anything I was going to write was going to have a Hispanic in it, because you write in your own image.”
The strategy worked. The 1995 film helped propel the careers of several prominent actors, some of whom had yet to crossover into the American market.
“I found Salma [Hayek] in Mexico,” Rodriguez said. “I brought Antonio [Banderas] from Spain. Danny Trejo -- I just put him in every movie until he became a star. I brought back Cheech Marin, he hadn’t done anything in a while.”
Latinos remain underrepresented in Hollywood. Only 4.9 percent of characters in top-grossing films from 2007 to 2013 were Hispanic, according to a study published this month by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.
But Rodriguez says he’s seen progress. There are far more prominent Latino actors than when he started his career, he says. At El Rey, the television network he now owns, some 60 percent of the crew -- both in front of and behind the camera -- are Hispanic.
And recently, when offering a role to an actor who asked if he should change his name from Hernandez, Rodriguez gave him a major incentive not to.
“I’m actually not going to hire you if you change your name,” Rodriguez says he told him. “It’s reversed now. You will not get work now if you change your name, because we need you. I mean, how many Hernandezes are there in this world? Think about it. Now, how many can you name, off the top of your head, give me two that are in the popular culture, that you can name that are actors or filmmakers? … But if you go and you become famous, it’s going to tell all the other Hernandezes that they can be there too.”
Watch the speech, which starts around 9:10, in the video above.
H/T: News Taco.