To Hollywood, it's a generic term for a whole class of actors, just "Hispanic" or "Latino." That's what the script says when a movie or a TV show calls for someone who speaks Spanish or looks as if he or she can. Producers, directors and casting agents lump Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Chileans and others under one label.
And that's a mistake, says veteran character actor Tony Plana.
"There's a palpable difference between a Caribbean or Central American or South American Latino," says Plana, a veteran of films from Zoot Suit and El Norte to Lone Star and JFK, and of TV shows such as The West Wing and Showtime's Resurrection Blvd., on which he stars. "They don't know how being from Peru is different from being from Mexico, or Cuba or Argentina. We're not this solid mass that Hollywood tends to see us as.
"Complexity," Plana says, "is harder to digest."
Plana, 48, is from Cuba. He grew up in Miami and Los Angeles, received a college degree and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Unlike many Hispanic actors, Plana has been able to play more than thugs, drug lords and pimps. One reason might be his careful consideration of each character's origins.
"Cubans are facile, on the surface, aggressive towards the world," Plana says. "When I play a Cuban, he's much different from the Mexican-American character I play on Resurrection Blvd. The rudder is different. The Mexican rudder runs deeper in the water. You're a little more reserved, a little more pensive, careful, tentative.
A variation on that theme is El Fuego, the streetwise warden of the New Alcatraz in the prison thriller Half Past Dead, starring Steven Seagal and rapper Ja Rule.
"This guy is larger than life, and is based on a real guy, a (Mexican-American) warden at San Quentin who was highly successful in running that prison," Plana says. "He uses a lot of street slang, a lot of Spanglish, which made him even more colorful."
Resurrection Blvd. allows Plana to show another side of himself and another side of Hispanic culture. For three years, he has played Roberto Santiago, a widowed mechanic and head of a family of striving, overachieving Angelinos, including a med student, a lawyer and a contending boxer. Critics have knocked the show, which airs at 10:30 p.m. EST Wednesday nights on Showtime, for its "overly earnest attempts to uplift."
"That's true, on the surface," Plana says. "But we humanize the stereotypes. Once you get into the show, it goes much deeper than these cardboard characters you might have thought we were playing."
Plana isn't the only member of his family working to change perceptions, one role at a time. His wife, Ada Maris, stars on the other long-running Hispanic TV series, Nickelodeon's The Brothers Garcia.
"These shows are little breakthroughs," Plana says. "Latinos are 13 percent of the population, and we're only 2 (percent) or 3 percent of the characters you see on TV and film. Very underrepresented. But I see new shows, 'Greetings from Tucson,' 'The George Lopez Show.' Doors are opening."
Plana keeps doing his part, directing episodes of both Resurrection and Garcia as well as staging Shakespeare and other classic works in Hispanic settings for the East L.A. Classic Theater.
"He's not just a talented actor, he's a role model," says Al Vasquez, publisher of the West Coast Hispanic newspaper, La Prensa, and co-founder of the Palm Springs Hispanic Film Festival, which honored Plana in October. "You can see what he represents on the screen, and he brings that home, giving back to the community."
"I tell the young actors coming up, 'Make your barrio background only part of your repertoire,'" Plana says. "'Don't let it define who you are. People keep perceiving us as poor, marginal migrants who never learned to speak English. Don't let them.'"
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