On Thursday, January 24th, Ugly Betty star Tony Plana visited UCSB for a conversation with the campus community and Isla Vista. The event was put together by the Multicultural Center and was part of the “MCC in I.V.” series.
The conversation was facilitated by Dr. Dolores Casillas from the Chicano Studies department and focused on Latino popular culture and media representations. The presenter gave praise to the audience in attendance, saying they must be hardcore Tony Plana fans to have shown up despite the bad weather conditions.
Short clips of movies and TV shows from Plana’s acting repertoire, such as Three Amigos, Havana and Resurrection Boulevard, made me realize how unfamiliar I was with his work and fame. Though I’m aware of who he is and I have seen many of the movies he starred in, I don’t necessarily recognize him as a leading actor, much less as a leading Latino actor. I couldn’t pinpoint his ethnicity by looking at him in his movies, but it was obvious that his roles were mostly stereotypical of ethnic minorities from a mainstream perspective.
It was interesting that he referred to half of his career in Hollywood as “being the usual suspect.” Casillas pointed out that Latinos make up only 4% of mainstream entertainment, but are actually 14% of the population in the U.S. Plana drove home the fact that of that 4%, most of them play stereotypical roles, such as gangsters, and are unemployed for long periods of time. He considers himself lucky to be making a living in the entertainment industry.
Besides talking about representation in the media, Plana talked about his own background. He moved from Cuba to Miami with his family at 9 years of age. The turning point of his life was during college, when he discovered his passion for acting while trying out for the role of Snoopy in a Peanuts musical. He originally attended college to become a lawyer.
Despite his mainstream acting career, Plana has a second passion in life for teaching and giving back to his Latino community through art. “East L.A. Classic is an oxymoron,” he said in reference to his theater company that trains Latino youth in acting. The company uses and transforms the works of Shakespeare into an interpretation of Latino culture. In addition to learning performance skills and becoming well rounded people, members of the company have a free pass into the National Actors Union. It is hard and competitive to get into the union, according to Plana. He explains, “we open the back door and say come in, pasale, pasale.”
Tony Plana’s conversation was a lot more interesting and holistic than I thought it would be. I was expecting to hear about the major phenomenon that “Ugly Betty” has become; the biggest ratings in history and Emmy nominations for a Latino based show. However, Plana talked more about his personal career and of his love of the Latino culture. Plana said, “We are the future of the world,” referring to the Latino community and its great diversity.
I’ve seen Betty la Fea, the original Columbian version that all of the Ugly Betty spin offs have sprung from. I wasn’t a big fan, mainly because of the mixed feelings I had about its stereotypical depictions of the gay community and strong intelligent women, who always seem to be mistreated for the sake of love. It’s true the original Colombian show talks about class struggle, but it lacks the diversity that the Ugly Betty shows point out. The U.S. show pinpoints the nation’s cultural diversity while connecting racial, sexual, and class issues currently faced by many Americans.
What convinced me to give the show a shot was the fact that Betty’s father had been revealed to be an undocumented immigrant. Plana initially responded to this by saying, “It was like suicide, why would you want to go there with this guy?” But upon rethinking the show’s decision, he remarked that “it was a good decision to put a human face to four million undocumented immigrants in this country.”
With the presidential candidates running for office and immigration issues being of crucial importance in their debates, the mainstream show helped start a more human dialogue about immigration.