News Column

Lupe Ontiveros Dead at 69

July 28, 2012

Aaron Bracamontes

El Paso-born actress Lupe Ontiveros, who became famous for playing the role of the woman who killed Tejano singer Selena and who was described as a "trailblazer," died on Thursday.

The 69-year-old actress started as an extra in the movie business long before she was stealing scenes from Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria and America Ferrera.

She even hung around with "The Goonies" and shared the screen with Jack Nicholson -- twice.

TMZ reported that she was suffering from liver cancer. She leaves behind three sons and a husband.

"She was a role model for anyone who dreams of doing more with the cards they are dealt," said Sandra Braham, CEO of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region. "She was a trailblazer in many ways. She wasn't a 20-something actress. They weren't opening doors for her. She had to break down some walls."

Ontiveros spoke at a YWCA event five years ago and had kept in touch with Braham since then.

"I didn't even realize she was suffering (from cancer)," Braham said. "She looked good the last time I saw her on her birthday."

Ontiveros was born in El Paso and attended Morehead Middle School and El Paso High School, according to El Paso Times archives.

After graduating from high school at the age of 16, Ontiveros earned a degree from Texas Woman's University in Denton.

She moved to Pico Rivera, Calif., with her husband, and they had three sons.

Pete Gomez, a National Hispanic Media Coalition board member, said he met Ontiveros in

Los Angeles when she was working as a social worker.

Gomez, 78, was also born in El Paso, and he had many conversations with Ontiveros about El Paso.

"She defines a true El Pasoan," Gomez said. "We belong to the earth and people of El Paso. When you meet someone from El Paso, you don't even have to ask, you know they're from here."

At the time, Ontiveros had dreams of acting. Gomez never imagined how successful she would become.

"Every other person in Los Angeles says they are an actress, so I kind of thought 'yeah right,' " he said. "But she was a pro. She had all the tools to become a big name."

Ontiveros started as an extra, usually featured as a housekeeper.

"She played so many housekeepers early in her career," Braham said. "It's a common stereotype people of color have to overcome when trying to break through into show business."

Ontiveros told her friends she was proud of every acting job she got because she brought a little bit a pride to any role, but it wasn't always easy.

"She told me how embarrassing and hard it was to break through as a Latina performer," Gomez said. "But she had all the things she needed. Her comedic timing was impeccable. And all it took was a remark or two. She was great."

Slowly, Ontiveros began to have larger roles in films.

She had roles in "The Border," "El Norte," "Goonies" and "Born in East L.A."

With each role, she grew as an actress.

But it was her role as Yolanda Saldivar, the convicted killer of Selena Quintanilla Perez, in the 1997 film "Selena" that made Ontiveros famous.

"There's a crossing guard across the street (from my home) named Ernie who likes to point over here and tell people that I'm the one who killed Selena," Ontiveros said in a 2001 interview with the Times.

She worked with then-budding actress Jennifer Lopez in "Selena."

"She was so shy then -- that was before she exploded," Ontiveros said about Lopez in 2001.

Ontiveros has also shared the screen with "A" list actors. She worked her second film with as Jack Nicholson in the Oscar-nominated "As Good As It Gets."

"I had worked with him before in 'The Border,' which was filmed in El Paso," Ontiveros said in 2001.

"I was not intimidated by him, and he treated me with great respect. When I had my scene with him, he kept making faces at me, trying to make me laugh. I just looked at his ear the whole time."

Ontiveros showed some sassiness when she was nominated for an Emmy for her part-time role in "Desperate Housewives," as Juanita "Mama" Solis, the mother-in-law of Eva Longoria's character.

Half a decade after working with Jennifer Lopez, Ontiveros helped launch the career of America Ferrera in "Real Women Have Curves." She played the mother of Ferrea's character.

Her most recent film was "Our Family Wedding" in 2010.

Even though she lived in California, Ontiveros said she always loved El Paso. In a 2008 interview with the Times, she reminisced about her childhood.

"I miss the sunset and the sunrise," she said. "I miss the sound of the train. I used to live by the railroad tracks on Missouri Street. So even when I'm here in California and I hear the train whistle, it reminds me of home."

Her family used to own the Ideal Tortilla Factory but sold it when the freeway was built through El Paso.

"I also miss the smell of the wet earth from the cotton fields," she said.

"My parents used to have a little truck and we used to go and sell merchandise to the braceros (guest farmworkers) of that time. I remember the smell of the irrigated land. That was a beautiful time in my life."

Aaron Bracamontes may be reached at; 546-6156. Follow him on Twitter @AaronBrac.

Lupe Ontiveros Sept. 17, 1942 -- July 26, 2012 -- Born in El Paso. -- Residence: Pico Rivera, Calif. -- Education: Morehead Elementary School, El Paso High School and Texas Woman's University. -- Movies: "Zoot Suit," "The Border," "El Norte," "Goonies," "Born in East L.A.," "Bound by Honor," "Mi Familia," "Selena," "As Good as it Gets," and "Our Family Wedding." -- TV: "Desperate Housewives," "Rob!," "Veronica's Closet" and "Caroline in the City." -- Fact: Started working in Los Angeles as a social worker before becoming an actress.

Source: (c) 2012 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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