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Edward James Olmos

Immigrant Archive Project
Edward James Olmos, an award-winning actor/director and iconic community activist has endeared himself to millions of fans by vowing to never accept a role that demeans Latinos or the Latino community, even if it means walking away from a lucrative pay day. In this conversation, Mr. Olmos describes his childhood, his introduction to the arts and the stories behind his most memorable roles.
Show transcript
00:00
Latinos in the media are almost non existent.
00:03
It's uh it's hard to say because we're now more than 16% of the
00:07
population I think.
00:08
But we're less than 2% of the images that we see on film and television
00:12
and theater.
00:18
Let's begin with everyone if you would and let's start off
00:22
with your name and nationality.
00:25
OK.
00:25
My name is Carlos Santana.
00:27
But sometimes they mistake me for George Lopez.
00:32
But uh they used to think I was Geraldo Rivera but uh really
00:39
I'm Gilbert.
00:43
OK.
00:44
Pleasure to have you here with us.
00:46
Thank you so much.
00:50
Tell me, tell me a little bit about your childhood.
00:54
Yeah.
00:55
Interesting.
00:55
Um childhood was incredible because of my uh uh ability to
01:04
be with my great grandparents.
01:07
My grandparents, my parents, my siblings had a brother and
01:11
a sister and we all lived uh in one house and uh wasn't a very
01:19
big house.
01:21
It's really uh a wonderful time.
01:26
We had everything we needed.
01:29
We were in Boyle Heights on first in Indiana, right there in
01:32
Cheeses Lane.
01:33
And it became a really um probably the most extraordinary
01:38
understanding of my existence because of the fact that uh
01:43
the diversity was total.
01:45
We live right next door to a, um, an Apache family.
01:52
And then, uh that was to the right of us as you're looking at
01:55
my front door to the right then to the left of us was a, um, a Mexican
02:01
family and they had uh 14 kids and uh right across the street
02:09
was a Japanese American family.
02:12
They had uh three kids and then right up the street used to end
02:17
on first street, East Berlin.
02:19
And on top of First Street, it was a hill and on the hill there
02:23
was two homes, one of them was um orthodox Russian orthodox
02:30
uh people.
02:33
And they were really extraordinary because they dressed
02:36
always in white.
02:38
They always wore white cossacks, white pants, white shoes
02:41
They had, they were albino kind of people.
02:45
They had white hair with white, white skin and there was about
02:49
four of them in that family, plus the mother and the father
02:53
And then right next door to them in the same driveway to go up
02:57
to their house.
02:58
He uh a a drive, the same driveway would go up to the other house
03:03
too.
03:03
So one driveway for two houses and on the other house was uh
03:07
an african-american family and they were um extraordinary
03:13
They are actually so pristinely beautifully dark that they
03:20
were blue.
03:21
They were almost blue in, in their color.
03:23
It was so beautiful and they were African Americans and they
03:27
had about six kids.
03:30
And then uh right below their house was the, which was uh the
03:37
little store that was right in the front.
03:40
And then to the right of that store, a little market owned by
03:44
uh the Pacheco family was all the way to the corner of Lorena
03:49
and first street was a uh Chinese store.
03:54
They own the store in the Chinese, owned the store on the corner
03:57
And then if you were going to the left of the, on the corner was
04:02
a Korean store.
04:03
So in a matter of, you know, maybe 100 yards of, of everybody
04:09
that was, you know, six or seven nationalities, indigenous
04:16
Asians, Africans, Europeans and uh Latinos, there was um
04:27
every, every Wednesday or Tuesday morning, seven o'clock
04:31
that would be the uh Jehovah Witnesses selling the or giving
04:36
the Watch Tower away at the corner of cheese on first street
04:40
And um La Gloria, the uh was right on the corner and it's still
04:47
there.
04:48
It's still one of the finest tortilla makers in all the United
04:51
States.
04:52
If not in North America, it's called La Gloria.
04:55
And they, they producing.
04:57
So I've seen their tortillas in New York.
04:59
I've seen it all over the country and they're really good.
05:04
And um so it was a, it was an incredible, incredible what I call
05:09
a salad bowl.
05:11
It was a um where it was never a melting pot.
05:18
No one ever lost their identity.
05:21
You know, I always said that you know, and I, I couldn't understand
05:25
what was interesting about our place is that we were a salad
05:28
bowl where the onion stayed, the onion, the tomato stayed
05:31
the tomato, the olives stayed the olive, the, you know, lettuce
05:36
stayed lettuce and, you know, on top of it was a Russian dressing
05:42
or French dressing, you know, or Italian dressing and it was
05:46
all mixed up and delicious salad of culture.
05:51
Soon as I crossed over the first street bridge into downtown
05:56
Los Angeles and got into West L A, I found the salad was still
06:03
there, but the olives lived in South Central, the onion lived
06:10
in Palisades, you know, the Latinos lived in Pacoima and they
06:18
all lived in different parts of the plate, but nobody lived
06:22
together.
06:23
And uh we were the only place Boyle Heights right there where
06:29
we all mixed and molded from, you know, I was born in uh I'm a
06:36
you know, baby boomer.
06:37
So I was born in 47.
06:39
So it was a very, very beautiful existence and uh much different
06:43
than anybody and any stories that I've heard about what diversity
06:47
really is all about.
06:49
And uh so for us, I mean, there was Jews, there was Catholics
06:53
there was, we were raised first, we were American Baptists
06:57
the very first religion that I knew of was a Baptist.
07:00
My uh great grandparents were Baptists.
07:04
And uh so I went to Baptist church for a long time till about
07:08
the age of seven.
07:09
And then my father said, uh we should, we should go to the Catholic
07:14
church because I'm Catholic.
07:15
So we went to the Catholic church and we went in there and we
07:18
sat down and then we stood up and then we sat down, then we stood
07:24
up and then we kneeled down and uh the priest was talking in
07:30
Latin.
07:31
So I don't know how many people in that audience at San Alfonso
07:36
are, would know Latin.
07:39
But, you know, we sat there and, you know, I didn't know what
07:43
he was saying.
07:43
Nobody knew what he was saying.
07:44
Then we, you know, did the side of the cross and we left and um
07:51
in Baptist church, we used to go from oh seven o'clock in the
08:00
morning, we would arrive, my, my great grandfather was a custodial
08:04
keeper of the church.
08:05
He had the keys to the church and he would open and close it.
08:08
So we'd go in there and he'd open the church up and we'd walk
08:11
in with him and I was four or five years old and we make sure all
08:15
the seats were up and we'd clean the, the, the, you know, the
08:20
the carpet and then we'd make sure that all the books were
08:24
set in uh in the uh on the chairs and the seats, those hymn, hymn
08:31
books in the Bible.
08:33
And um then we'd get all the church all fixed up and open the
08:37
windows and, and get everything ready.
08:39
And then about nine o'clock people would, at 8 30 people started
08:42
to come by nine o'clock, the service started and, uh, it was
08:46
Spanish, uh, fire and brimstone.
08:49
I mean, it was real Baptist fire and brimstone.
08:53
But in Spanish and man, it was intense people speaking in tongues
08:58
and was really an experience and we'd go until about one o'clock
09:02
and then at one o'clock we'd break for lunch and then we'd all
09:05
go into the main dining hall, huge dining hall where everybody
09:11
in the church, 100 and 10 people, 100 and 50 people would go
09:15
in with kids.
09:16
A bunch of kids running around would go and eat and they would
09:20
make big vats huge, huge.
09:23
I mean, the, this big, easily they would make.