Lupe Ontiveros cleaned toilets, terrorized her daughter-in-law and killed Tejana superstar Selena – all in the movies, of course. She poured her soul into every role, bringing respect and dignity to the poorest maid, humor and heart to the most despised character.
But what I loved about Lupe, who died July 26 of cancer at age 69, was her passion as a mother, a mentor and an advocate; how she turned stage and screen into bully pulpits for the causes she loved.
When we interviewed her for an AARP VIVA magazine cover story a few years back, I learned of a Lupe I’d never imagined: the actress who played a loving abuelita on Maya and Miguel was also a strong woman set on making this world a better, more just, place.
The lady with the big smile and quick wit labored tirelessly to bring awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention to the Latino community. She used her experience as the mom of a deaf son to advocate for the hearing impaired. And she stood up for defenseless victims of domestic violence.
Born to Mexican immigrants in El Paso, Texas, Lupe never planned on acting as a career; she did plan on studying psychology and becoming a social worker. And her zeal for helping the hopeless, those with disabilities, and school children who needed services came to fruition as a social worker in California.
Then one day she saw a newspaper ad for movie extras, was hired, was smitten and took acting lessons. The rest, as they say, is history.
For me, however, the heart of Lupe’s history will forever be in the aspiring Latino producers she mentored, the housekeepers who felt pride, not humiliation, when they saw her portrayals, and the disenfranchised to whom she gave a powerful voice.
Lupe gave, but she also felt honored to receive: “The most special thing that people do is give me a blessing. That’s what makes the battle worth it,” she said.
Que Dios te bendiga, Lupe. Y que en paz descanses.