Stand and deliver
Edward James Olmos comes to Oxnard, speaking on issues of Latino youth
By Chris O'Neal 01/23/2014
After breaking out in both the stage and film version of the 1979 drama Zoot Suit, Edward James Olmos starred in a spate of films that would later become cult classics. As Detective Gaff in Blade Runner, Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver and, possibly his most recognized modern role as William Adama in the reboot of the sci-fi television series Battlestar Galactica, Olmos has used his success to give back to his community by traveling the world to engage youth in becoming more involved in their Latino heritage. Olmos will be speaking as part of the Latino Thought Maker Series at Oxnard Community College on Saturday, Jan. 25.
VC Reporter: You’ve recently said that Latinos have a long way to go in Hollywood. What do you mean by that?
Edward James Olmos: That no matter what our population size, no matter what our demographics, the storytelling process seen through the eye of diversity is nonexistent. We are getting into a point where now we have a black and white cultural dynamic, but that’s it. The Asian, the indigenous and the Hispanic do not get their stories told. Maybe once every 18 months to two years, one movie will come out told through the eyes of an Asian or Latino, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. The African stories are coming; they hold about 17 percent of the images on screen and they’re 12 percent of the population. We’re over 18 percent of the population and we have less than 4 percent.
What needs to happen for that to change?
We need to take stories like Argo and make sure that people know that Tony Mendez is a Mexican American and not Ben Affleck. It’s sad, it’s so sad. Nobody even knew that it was a Mexican American that did that, and they said it didn’t matter because Tony Mendez doesn’t really consider himself to be a Latino. But you know what? The guy is a Latino, it doesn’t matter how he feels. Show me a guy who is struggling not to be Latino in the world that he lives in and make that a part of the story. That would have made it a deeper, better story.
You’re involved with Latino Literacy Now and a multitude of advocacy programs. What makes them successful?
We’re working so hard on bringing a sense of self-esteem and self-worth to the Latino community and that’s it. With that, everybody can make their own choices because they have self-respect. When you lack those ingredients, that’s when things don’t work out right or feel right and people can’t aspire to dream. So we really try to infuse that into the populace and you do it by setting examples. The adults have to become as acquainted with the authorship that’s going on around them and therefore the kids will follow the parents to the book festivals, the Latino film festivals. Now, it’s just a forum to say thank you to all the people who are working and there is a tremendous amount of participation.
What do you think is the most important part of getting Latino youth to become involved in their community, themselves and academics?
I think the key right now is self-esteem, self-respect and self-worth. We have to infuse it by the second grade, so that if a child is reading up to a third grade level in second grade then they’ll be fine. It would be nice if the kid was reading about himself, not just about European-based cultures in this country. The disproportionate educational system just on the norm is quite interesting, because about 96 [percent] to 97 percent of history that we read is European-based. It’s disproportionate to the way our country is situated, especially today.
What can Latinos do to become better understood within their communities?
I don’t think that there’s anything that attacks the senses more than the art forms. Whether a book, poetry, dance, music, movie or theater, that really shows culture to the highest level. It’s the soul of the artist, the soul of the culture. I consider art to be the backbone of the human body. The messages come from the brain and they go to all the body through the backbone. Art needs to be stable and to be better understood. Once we do that, there’ll be a better balance and understanding. That’s why this whole thing that’s being done in Oxnard by the college is fantastic. That they’re bringing me in and that we’re going to sit around and laugh and talk and probably cry and they’ll ask me things and I’ll tell stories that’ll make people think and they’ll leave thinking, “Wow, that was an interesting two hours. I’m glad I came to see that.” That to me is art at its highest level.
I wanted to ask specifically about how you got involved with Battlestar Galactica – one of the things that you said before becoming involved was that you’d only be involved if the stories were more realistic.
I just wanted to be able to bring the storytelling and integrity of Blade Runner. Blade Runner was a very character-driven piece of work that dealt with the future. It took place in 2019, and now we’re five years away. We don’t have flying cars as the norm and we don’t have Replicants — yet — but we’re getting pretty close to it.
Do you think getting a message across through sci-fi might be easier for an audience to accept?
You can find stories that make people think about things that are relevant, it’s just a matter of being allowed to tell those stories, which usually come by way of how much money can they make by investing. It’s all about the dollar. It’s a business.
Edward James Olmos will speak as part of the Latino Thought Maker Series on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. at the Oxnard College Performing Arts Center Auditorium, 4000 S. Rose Ave., Oxnard. Free admission; $2 parking. For more information, visit www.vcccd.edu.