Actor speaks out for racial equality

Sara Goo

In order to understand racial conflict and inequality in society, we first need to understand our own roots, Edward James Olmos told a crowd Saturday evening at Ted Mann Concert Hall.
Olmos is an advocate for Chicanos and Latinos, but he is perhaps better known for his role as high school teacher Jaime Escalante in the movie “Stand and Deliver.” The film, which is about a teacher who helps a group of inner-city Chicano and Latino students succeed on an achievement test, touches on many themes of Olmos’ life.
“Look at my face,” Olmos said to the audience of about 250 professors, administrators and high school students, most of whom were Latino or Chicano. “I don’t look like Tom Cruise. This face does not belong on the big screen.”
Latinos are people of Latin American heritage; whereas, Chicanos are generally referred to as Mexican-Americans.
Olmos grew up in the barrio of East Los Angeles. He attended East Los Angeles College and California State University at Los Angeles and later appeared on the television show “Miami Vice” and a theater production of “Zoot Suit.”
Olmos’ appearance on campus was part of the World Conference on Remedies to Racial and Ethnic Economic Inequality, a four-day conference sponsored by the Roy Wilkins Center on Human Relations and Social Justice. The conference brought scholars and activists from around the world to discuss problems and solutions relating to comparative racial inequality.
Olmos said he has had to work hard to gain respect as a Chicano actor and director. He called his appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1988 a rare positive portrayal of a Mexican-American, and an emotional experience for him.
“It made me cry,” he said of the photograph.
Olmos, encouraged people to be proud of their ancestry, including their whiteness: He defined a Mexican-American as someone who is half white and half Mexican — a mix of Native American and Spanish ancestry.
Olmos asked audience members if they were proud of being Latino. Many raised their hands. When he asked if they were proud of being white, two hands went up.
It was not until he was 40 years old that he was able to acknowledge he was proud of both sides of his ancestry, Olmos said.
“This was not an easy position to get to,” he said.
Olmos said education is the key to appreciating one’s heritage. He encouraged adults to serve as role models and for families to teach their children about the cultural history often neglected in school.
“The only thing that makes us the same is that we’re all different,” Olmos said.
At the end of his speech, Olmos suggested that high school and elementary teachers should be paid as much as college professors because the most influential education is at the beginning. He received a standing ovation.