Hayek tells of struggle against Hollywood's Latino slurs

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THE MEXICAN actress, Salma Hayek, has become the latest in a long list of Hollywood celebrities to hit out at an undercurrent of racism in the movie industry.

The star of Friday and Desperado claims she was nearly forced to quit her acting career because of the constant racism she encountered as a struggling young Mexican actress.

Hayek tells February’s edition of Vanity Fair that a studio boss once told her: "It doesn’t matter how good you are. You can never be a leading lady, because we can’t take the risk of you opening your mouth and people thinking of their maids - because that’s what you sound like."

At another casting day, for a science fiction movie, she was told: "Whoever heard of a Mexican in space?"

Struggling to get work in the famously competitive city, Hayek claims she was thinking of returning to Mexico, where she was already an established soap-opera actress. She says she was only saved when director Robert Rodriguez’s wife, Elizabeth Avellon, rescued her from financial ruin.

Ms Avellon sent her a cheque, with an accompanying note that read: "I know you are going to want to give it back, but it is a present for myself. I would hate to deprive myself of watching your wonderful work on screen."

With around 40 movies now under her belt, Hayek claims her early problems arose because studio bosses are constantly worried a Mexican accent could prevent a movie from becoming a massive hit.

"The fact is that there just aren’t any parts for Latin actresses," Hayek has previously said. "I have to persuade people that my accent won’t be a problem, but an asset. Everyone’s afraid of doing something a bit risky.

"Everyone wants a $200 (125) million hit and anything they think might get in the way of that kind of success is considered a liability."

Hitting out at her fellow Latino star Jennifer Lopez, Hayek added: "I don’t believe in the so-called Latino explosion when it comes to movies. Jennifer Lopez doesn’t have an accent. She grew up in New York speaking English, not Spanish.

"Her success is very important because she represents a different culture, but it doesn’t help me. I grew up in Mexico, not the US."

Many ethnic groups have complained of racial stereotyping in movies. But recently some big Hollywood names have complained of ingrained racism in the industry.

During its 74-year history, the Motion Picture Academy has handed out only nine Oscar statues to African-American actors - five for supporting roles.

Halle Berry, the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award for best actress for her role in Monster’s Ball, accepted her Oscar with the words: "This moment is so much bigger than me, This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.

"It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox ... and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance, because the door tonight has been opened."

Filmmaker Spike Lee recently attacked racism in Hollywood, which he appears to blame for not getting a break early on in his career.

After winning a film-making prize in graduate school at New York University, he said he had thought studios would knock on his door, inviting him to make a feature film. But it didn’t happen.

He made the independent She’s Gotta Have It on a very tight budget before making the critically acclaimed Do the Right Thing. That film was nominated for an Oscar but Driving Miss Daisy a film about a black chauffeur working for a Jewish widow in Atlanta, won the award.

"It was obvious which black male these voters were comfortable with," he told an audience of film students.

Despite the racism, over recent years more and more black actors have been making it in Hollywood.

Sidney Poitier was once the lone black face, starring in films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? But he has now been joined by Morgan Freeman, Samuel L Jackson, James Earl Jones, Will Smith and many other first-rate talents. The Oscar winner Denzel Washington is one of America’s favourite actors and one of its most highly paid.

Following Washington’s and Berry’s Oscar wins, black actors working in Britain have complained that their opportunity for similar success is bleak, and that institutional racism is rampant in their industry.

They noted that not only has no black British actor ever received a BAFTA award for a leading role, but blacks are never even cast in a romantic lead role, and are generally relegated to gangster parts.

Actor Lennie James said : "Hopefully, [Berry’s and Washington’s] Oscars will mark a sea-change in the British attitude that a black lead will not "sell" a film abroad. The US has huge race problems, but at least in the US culture everyone gets a chance. Here, we are sidelined and insulted."