Sunday, August 5, 2012

Remembering Lupe Ontiveros

You could say that I am probably Lupe Ontiveros' biggest fan. Now, granted, I haven't seen every single performance that she has done on the television and movie screen. But I know enough of her work, both on-screen and off, to understand what great contributions she has put forth in the entertainment industry and in the Latino/a community.

I woke up on Friday, July 27 and like most twentysomethings, I started by scrolling my news feed on Facebook. I was shocked to see that one of my friends posted a status update saying that Lupe passed away. I immediately went searching to make sure this was true and not some joke or misunderstanding. It didn't take long to find out that the news was indeed correct. I was pretty miserable the rest of the day, though, I did find time to cheer myself up with clips on YouTube of past interviews Lupe gave to the press. I kept refreshing Twitter to see if the world would care, knowing that the Olympics were just hours from kicking off. I was pleased to see that Lupe Ontiveros was trending and that, not just her fans, but many of her peers took time to say what they thought of Lupe and what she meant to them.

Earlier this week, as I was checking to see what other articles would come out to discuss her contributions and her death, I found something I did not expect to find in this search. The Ontiveros family was going to have a public funeral mass. All this time, one of my goals in life was to get a chance to meet Lupe. She had been a consistent attendee of the San Diego Latino Film Festival and every time I shrugged that I didn't want to spend the money to go and every time, I would later read that Lupe was there, cheering on her peers, directors and screenwriters. How odd that the first time I would get to meet her would be at her funeral.

I should mention, of course, what is it that made me gush so much over a character actress that was rarely at the forefront of any movie or television series. Maybe it was the combination of her appearance and attitude that reminded me of a combination of my mother, a deceased aunt and my favorite teacher from junior high. Maybe it was her determination to see the industry become a place for Latinos and Latinas to thrive in their craft. Or maybe it was because she scared the beejesus out of me when I first watched Selena on the big screen.

While the film was a big splash for Jennifer Lopez, I was completely transfixed by Lupe's performance and later, I would find out that I had seen her prior work in The Goonies, Born in East L.A. and My Family. These four performances shared nothing in common, except the woman who portrayed them. That same year, As Good As It Gets was released, showing yet another side to Lupe's versatility.

From there I tried to watch stuff she did in the past (El Norte) and looked forward to seeing her in new material. Her award-winning role in Chuck and Buck was a highlight, as she was able to play a character that just as easily could have been played by an actress of any ethnicity. Many say that's her career peak, but I would argue it would happen two years later with the back-to-back performances of Storytelling and Real Women Have Curves. In the former, she played another of her trademarks maids, but one who gets revenge for the way she is treated. In the latter, she blazed on screen in what should have been an Oscar-winning role. Not only was this the feature debut of America Ferrera, but both Lupe and America won a special jury prize from the Sundance Film Festival in the beginning of the year and were highlighted in Entertainment Weekly's "Greatest Performances" section of their end of the year issue.

Lupe would, of course, go back to doing guest spots on television and filming small parts in films that might not have been widely seen. Her Emmy-nominated work in Desperate Housewives was a delight and the fact that she publicly made a big deal about campaigning for the nomination (and getting it), shows how much support she actually had in the industry. Which brings me back to the funeral.

I hate going to funerals. I always get hot in all that black and eventually my mind wanders and thinks of my own father's funeral, some 18 years ago. But, for Lupe, I had to go; there was no questioning this statement. I arrived at St. Hilary's in Pico Rivera, California. I was early to make sure I would get a seat, in fact, I was so early, I was able to drive to where the cemetery was, so I wouldn't get lost after the funeral. Around 9:30am, the church was opened and everyone was allowed in. While family, invited friends and guests were all sitting in the front, there were two sides of 10 pews left for other friends of the family, acquaintances and fans. I'm pretty sure I was the only fan there, as I started to hear people talk about her past work as a social worker, the dinners they had together and one particularly amusing story about how Lupe was showing a pageant winner "how to act the part." Obviously, Lupe touched a lot of lives as all the pews were filled, and the balcony area reserved for the choir had to be opened up to accommodate all of her loved ones.

The funeral began with mariachis playing, followed by the casket. I was in the aisle of the pew, and I soon realized that one man, literally two inches away from me, helping bring the casket down the aisle, was Edward James Olmos, a man who has also been a beacon for the Latino/a community.

The funeral mass was like all funeral masses I have attended in the past, although Eva Longoria (Lupe's scene partner on Housewives) and Dolores Huerta (co-founder of the UFW and a close friend of Lupe) both had a reading to do during the mass. Finally, we got to the eulogies. The program mentioned that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Supervisor Gloria Molina would be the first two speakers, followed by Mr. Olmos and then Lupe's family. Mayor Villaraigosa did a very good job, while Supervisor Molina told of her last time she spoke with Lupe in the hospital. She also read to us the letter from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to the Ontiveros family, sending their condolences. But Mr. Olmos' eulogy was one for the record books. I can't recall everything he said, but it was perfect. He spoke of the Lupe that the public knew and didn't know. Of how she kept her illness secret from not only her friends and peers, but also her family. He spoke of her irreverence and how she easily was able to lift up those who needed it (like all the younger Latino/a actors in the congregation) and how she was able to bring some of the others down on a notch when they got too cocky (Jimmy Smits and George Lopez, as well as Mr. Olmos himself were called out). Mr. Olmos would then point to the casket and said that Lupe was the mother of the Chicano culture (to thunderous applause). He closed the eulogy with a call for us to give Lupe the longest standing ovation that she so deserved and we gladly gave it to her. After the family thanked everyone for coming and instructed us to the cemetery.

The burial was a little more somber, but when flowers were passed out to place on the casket, that's when I knew I was going to lose it. I placed the flower on the top of the casket, touched the side and whispered, "rest easy Lupe" and prepared myself to walk back to my car. Before I could go, I saw Tony Plana, Lupe's co-star in Born in East L.A. and another Latino acting veteran. I went up to him, to tell him how much I was a fan of Lupe and him, but what we have planned isn't always what actually happens. I got both statements out and then spoke of his television movie Sweet 15 and then I remarked how it reminded me of my dad and I lost it. Mr. Plana was very gracious and gave me a hug when the tears started coming. He thanked me for coming and I left knowing that someone there knew that Lupe's #1 fan was there to pay respects to the woman who will never leave my memory or my heart. Rest easy Lupe, you've earned it.