Guadalupe “Lupe” Moreno Ontiveros, film and television actress, was born on September 17, 1942, in El Paso to Luz Castañon and Juan Moreno, Mexican immigrants. Her parents were successful proprietors of a tortilla factory and two restaurants and enabled Guadalupe to grow up in a middle-class household. She graduated from El Paso High School, and received a bachelor of science degree in sociology from Texas Woman’s University in 1964.
Guadalupe Moreno married Elias Ontiveros about 1966. After settling with him in California, she pursued an eighteen-year-long career as a social worker and reared three sons. In the 1970s, while considering other career options, she answered an ad seeking movie extras. This opportunity led Ontiveros to enroll in acting classes and to pursue an acting career for the remainder of her life.
Over approximately thirty-six years, Ontiveros appeared in more than forty films and in more than fifty television roles. She originated the role of the mother in the Los Angeles theatrical production of Zoot Suit and also played this role on Broadway and in the 1981 film version. One of her important early film roles was as a seamstress and maid in the 1983 film El Norte. Ontiveros considered the movie her favorite.
Throughout her career, the actress struggled against being typecast as a maid. By her own count, she played this role more than 150 times both on screen and onstage. Ontiveros’s difficulty in overcoming “racial stereotypes” of Mexican Americans greatly limited her acting opportunities in Hollywood. In 2003 she told Latino Leaders magazine:
I speak good English; I’m an educated person. But whenever I interviewed—and I spoke English just like I’m speaking now—I wouldn’t get the role. They couldn’t see how a woman who looks like me—indigenous—could ever play somebody of stature, certainly not a professor or a judge. No! She has to be a maid; she had to clean my toilet.
At the same time, Ontiveros drew satisfaction from her capacity to portray a more complete version of the Latina maid. She declared in 2002 interviews with the New York Times and the LA Weekly that she had been “proud to represent those hands that labor in this country. I’ve given every maid I’ve ever portrayed soul and heart. No matter how much I resent the stupidity that is written into them … my humor survives in these maids. I’m very proud of them.”
Ontiveros achieved notable recognition playing Carmen Garcia in Real Women Have Curves (2002). At the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, she shared a Special Jury Prize for dramatic acting in the film with her co-star America Ferrera. She also won the National Board Review Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Beverly in Chuck & Buck, a 2000 film in which she was finally able to play a role not written for a Latina. In 2005 Ontiveros received an Emmy nomination for her work with the popular television series Desperate Housewives. She was especially known for her portrayal of Yolanda Saldívar in Selena (1997), the film depecting Tejana musical crossover legend Selena Quintanilla Perez. In 2010 she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.
Committed to the advancement of her community, Ontiveros served as a founder of the Latino Theater Company in Los Angeles. She also promoted higher education and health education initiatives aimed at the Latino community and supported HIV/AIDS prevention, the rights of the disabled, and the prevention of domestic violence.
Guadalupe Moreno Ontiveros died from liver cancer in Whittier, California, on July 26, 2012. At her death, Edward James Olmos, who appeared with her in Zoot Suit, recalled the lasting contributions Ontiveros achieved. He stated, “She was part of the evolutionary process of the art form of Latino storytelling in the last 30-plus years. She was one of the true pioneers of the Latin artistic movement in theater, film, and television.” She was buried in Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.