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Puerto Rico Profile: Esai Morales

June 8, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Esai Morales describes himself as an "actor-vist."

The 38-year-old actor, best known for roles in the films La Bamba and Mi Familia, has also been busy for years working behind the scenes on a variety of causes, from protecting the environment to improving the position of Latinos in Hollywood.

This year, Morales scored a starring role on the TV drama "NYPD Blue." On that critically-acclaimed program, which just concluded its ninth season, Morales has taken the role of Lt. Tony Rodriguez, chief of the squad of detectives who comprise the show’s cast. His character has a celebrated past as an undercover narcotics officer, and he has already taken charge of the squad-room with cool, understated intensity.

"This guy is a real hero," Morales told The Washington Post. "It doesn’t get any better than this."

For Morales, who is of Puerto Rican descent but was born in Brooklyn, NY, playing such a positive character — and an authority figure — is a welcome departure from the Hispanic stereotypes that he sees as prevalent in American film and television.

"We are so often marginalized and thrown in to add flavor or ‘spice’ that you never get a chance to see who we really are beyond the stereotypes, and it’s a disservice to non-Latinos and Latinos," he has said.

"It’s frustrating being maligned by your ethnic heritage," Morales told Knight Ridder Newspapers. "If they have you as the lead in a movie or television show, it’s a Latino show or a black show. They change the genre."

Throughout Morales’ career, he has sought to break down the limitations placed on Hispanic actors. Onscreen and off, and regardless of the ethnicity of his characters, he has challenged what he sees as "a serious deficit of [Hispanic] representation in the general media."

He has taken on the status quo in Hollywood with a flair learned from his mother, a former labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Founded in 1900, the ILGWA originally represented immigrant laborers from Eastern Europe and was known for its radicalism. By the time Esai Morales was a child, in the mid- and late-1960s, the ILGWA was at the peak of its influence. New York area chapters represented large numbers of Puerto Rican women in the garment industry and Morales boasts that his mother was "the number one organizer in the tri-state (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) area from 1967-1970."

Esai Morales enrolled in New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, then located in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district, when he was fourteen years old. That same year, he made an auspicious stage debut at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, playing opposite the late, great Raul Julia in The Tempest.

Morales has performed in numerous other stage productions throughout his career. In New York, he appeared in El Hermano at the Ensemble Theatre Studio and in Oscar Wilde’s Salome at Circle in the Square. For his performance in a Los Angeles Theater Center production of Tamer of Horses, he received a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award.

It is for his work in films, however, that Esai Morales is best known. He made his movie debut in 1983 with Bad Boys, in which he starred with Sean Penn. Four years later, he shared the screen with Lou Diamond Phillips in La Bamba, the story of the rise to fame and tragic death of Mexican-American rock-and-roll star Richie Valens. Morales contributed a memorable performance as Valens’ half-brother Bob Morales, an alcoholic whose dissipation stands in sharp contrast to Valens’ success. The role could have easily been another example of the stereotypical Latino man, but Morales invests it with emotional depth that provides some of the film’s most resonant moments.

Over the next decade, Morales acted in a number of mostly forgettable films. He made several notable appearances, however, in the mid-1990s. In 1994, he was in the award-winning TV movie The Burning Season, about the activism and assassination of Brazilian rainforest advocate Chico Mendes. The Burning Season featured one of the final performances of Raul Julia, with whom Morales had acted onstage in New York some 20 years before.

In 1995, Morales starred in Mi Familia, Gregory Nava’s multigenerational saga of a Mexican-American family living in East L.A. Ironically, the film was a showcase for New York-born Puerto Rican actors. Morales played gang member Chucho, a role that one critic said he rescued from the level of a "simplistic pachuco stereotype." Also starring in Mi Familia were a young talent from the Bronx named Jennifer Lopez, as well as Jimmy Smits, who has Puerto Rican ancestry, and who, like Morales, hails from Brooklyn and later starred on "NYPD Blue."

Esai Morales’ acting career has had its moments of brilliance, but as he readily admits, it has also included a disproportionate number of roles which portray Hispanics in an unflattering light. His Lt. Rodriguez on "NYPD Blue" may change his own career for the better, but his most lasting contribution may turn out to be the work he has done to open doors for other Hispanic actors.

"Good material is so rare," Morales told The Washington Post. "Normally when you see [Latinos] we’re overly hormonal or overly humble. Yes, we do have some hot-blooded people. But that’s not all there is."

Morales considers the availability of more, better parts for Hispanic actors to be of central importance. "We don’t get to play the lead often enough," he said in 1999. "We’re not groomed to carry the movies. We don’t have the same machinery behind us."

To that end, Morales joined Jimmy Smits and Brazilian-born actress Sonia Braga to found the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, an organization based in Washington and devoted to raising the profile of Latinos in American mass media and performing arts.

Attaining that goal, according to Morales, could have far-reaching effects for the nation’s Latino population. "Inclusion in the media can only make our youth feel included in the general culture," he has said. "If you see yourself excelling or at least people that look like you, there’s a greater chance you can see yourself going the same way. But if you only see yourself as being whisked away in handcuffs or treated as a sub-culture — or sub-human — that must have a tremendous impact on our youth’s self esteem."

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