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Jimmy Smits reflects on his current role

Jimmy Smits reflects on his current role — The actor stars in ”My Family,” a film directed by a Latino and featuring an entirely Latino cast

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Recently I was in San Antonio, on location, and I went to church to light a candle for my mother on Mother’s Day. Suddenly a crowd started gathering around me. These weren’t the usual sort of autograph seekers or fans but ordinary Latino families, my people, saying things like ”I’m so proud. My Family says so much about my life!” Over and over again, I heard ”You told my story!”

From the beginning, My Family was a movie I knew I had to make — I had seen director and screenwriter Gregory Nava’s El Norte and greatly respected his work. Because the film was low budget — only $5.5 million — my business team was concerned about my taking a pay cut, so I had to tell them, ”We check our egos at the door. The only bottom line here is, I want to do My Family.”

My Family is one of the very few films with an entirely Latino cast and Latino director, and all of us working on it felt it would be a real breakthrough. Recently, a few other movies on Latino subjects have appeared, but the powers that be have put non-Latino actors in Latino roles, claiming that this is the only ”bankable” route. Actors should be able to jump into different skins and portray a wide range of characters. But the playing field is not level — the opportunities for Latino actors in non-Latino roles are basically nonexistent. The fact that I play a non-Latino role on NYPD Blue is one of the very rare exceptions. So I say we should at least be playing the few Latino roles available.

Eduardo Lopez Rojas, who is one of Mexico’s leading actors, Eddie Olmos, Elpidia Carrillo, Esai Morales — we all had a deep need to prove something to the industry as well as to the public. There were scenes in which I knew I had to reach down emotionally, and I was thankful to be working with Greg Nava. Sometimes, as in the scene where my character finally opens up to the woman he marries, Greg directed us in Spanish, which made the emotions more accessible.

It was the grassroots marketing effort-barrio screenings, help from community group — that put us among the top 10 releases our first three weeks. I’m constantly asked, ”Will this change the way Latino films are perceived?” I know this film alone is not going to do it, but I hope that industry people will now see there is a large market for movies that both are true to the Latino experience and use Latino actors. That way maybe an accomplished director like Greg Nava won’t have to wait six years before he gets his next picture made. After all, My Family is just the tip of the iceberg of Latino stories that we have to tell.