12 Trailblazing Latin Actors and the Breakout Roles That Made Them Stars

For Hispanic Heritage Month, we look back at the seminal roles that helped some of our most celebrated Latin stars achieve mainstream success.

by | September 15, 2023 | Comments


Growing up in Puerto Rico, we would hear “De aquí pa’ Hollywood” every time we excelled at anything remotely artistic — in my case, producing, choreographing, and performing a Menudo show in our backyard. And even though my dad made me reimburse all the neighbors who attended, thanks to all the Latin trailblazers gracing the screen (such as his Cuban compatriot Andy García), we believed it was possible for people like us to succeed in Hollywood.

We know it’s hard for anyone to “make it” — like really make it — in the industry, but to put it in perspective, according to UCLA’s 2023 Diversity report, Latines accounted for only 6.1% of leading roles in streaming movies and only 2.3% in theatrical releases despite continually topping Nielsen charts for being media gluttons. The sad part is that this is actually an improvement.

Just 25 years ago, Cuban American Elizabeth Peña was asked during a press interview what the catering was like for Rush Hour. The interviewer quipped, “Jackie [Chan] would’ve had some Chinese food, and probably Chris [Tucker] would like some soul food, and maybe you [to Miss Peña] would like some salsa.” Cringe. We’re grateful perceptions have evolved somewhat since then — and proud that Peña batted that question like Roberto Clemente — but we’re still hammering at the glass ceiling.

The ones holding that hammer are the tenacious actors of our generation, responsible for correcting and amplifying cultural perceptions in mainstream media by portraying diverse backgrounds within our Latin umbrella. Beyond their contributions to representation — no small feat, to be clear — the 12 individuals profiled here deserve to be recognized for their impressive work itself. With the threat of AI looming over our creative potential, it’s more important than ever to celebrate the irreplaceable humans that elevate the scripted word while revisiting the important roles that instilled hope in little kids like me.

María Conchita Alonso

Maria Conchita Alonso in Moscow on the Hudson (1984)

(Photo by ©Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Cuban born and Venezuelan raised, María Conchita Alonso was a household name long before JLo took her first booty-shaking steps. A beauty queen with musical ability and a rockstar persona, Alonso has been nominated for three Grammys in her career. Like most OGs, she got her start in telenovelas and appeared in TV productions like Fantasy Island and Knight Rider after moving to the US in 1982. Two years later, she starred opposite Robin Williams as the lovely and free-spirited Italian immigrant Lucia Lombardo in Moscow in the Hudson, a film about the melting pot that is New York. Alonso went on to star in movies like Touch and Go, Extreme Prejudice, The Running Man, Colors, the Nic Cage cult classic Vampire’s Kiss, and Predator 2. She became the first Latin-born female actor to star in a Broadway musical, playing Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She remains a favorite for older Latin generations, and for all the younger ones seeking a living legend to look up to, the work of María Conchita Alonso awaits. You’re welcome.

“[Maria Conchita Alonso] is simply enchanting. The movie, which has its dull patches due to the lack of any sort of dramatic conflict, automatically bursts into life the minute this delightfully vivacious, dark-haired beauty appears on camera.”
Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News, April 6, 1984 on Moscow on the Hudson

Wilson Cruz

Wilson Cruz in My So-Called Life (1994-1995)

(Photo by ©ABC courtesy Everett Collection)

Born in Brooklyn on December 27, 1973 to Puerto Rican parents, Wilson Echevarría changed TV history by being the first openly gay actor to play an out gay leading character – and a Latin one at that. Cruz’s role as Rickie Vazquez in My So-Called Life gave visibility to an underrepresented community and hope to adolescents who were discovering their identities. Instead of whitewashing his heritage or hiding his sexuality, Cruz embraced his true self and, in turn, rewarded us with representation, but he didn’t earn his success because of his sexual orientation. A saxophone player and double theater major, Cruz – aka Dr. Hugh Culber of Star Trek: Discovery – is a skilled actor who has enjoyed a rewarding career on stage and in film and television. An “actorvist,” this Vito Russo Award winner devotes his off-screen time to marginalized communities and causes such as HIV/Aids awareness and prevention, transgender rights, and LGTBQ+ wellness. His work has been transformative.

“All the featured players in this ensemble cast are Emmy-caliber, especially Wilson Cruz.”
Kinney Littlefield, Orange County Register, Sept. 8, 1994 on My So-Called Life

Benicio del Toro

Benicio del Toro in Traffic (2000)

(Photo by ©USA Films courtesy Everett Collection)

Dubbed a troublemaker in his youth, this son of a lawyer ended up in a boarding school in Pennsylvania and was more interested in basketball than the law. Despite also loving movies, Benicio Monserrate Rafael del Toro Sánchez didn’t discover acting until college, and his natural ability for the craft sent him on a scholarship to the Stella Adler Conservatory. Like Andy García, del Toro had to pay his dues before he caught his big break. Few may recognize him as smoking hunk No. 1 sitting on the hood of a car in Madonna’s music video for “La Isla Bonita” from 1987, but everyone knows who he is today.

An accomplished character actor, del Toro is a chameleonic performer. If it weren’t for his unmistakable squint and resounding mumble, he would be unrecognizable in every role he incarnates. He’s been Fenster (The Usual Suspects), Dr. Gonzo (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Franky Four Fingers (Snatch), Che, and the role that earned him an Academy Award in 2000, Javier Rodríguez Rodríguez (Traffic). Del Toro is the third Puerto Rican to win an Oscar (José Ferrer and Rita Moreno beat him to it), but he was the first to win one for a Spanish-speaking role. We’re so proud of our hometown boy, there’s a wall with his face on it in Puerto Rico where he was born and raised.

“As the hangdog Javier, a man trying to lift himself out of a torpor of self-disgust, Benicio Del Toro, haunting in his understatement, becomes the film’s quietly awakening moral center.”
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, Dec. 22, 2000 on Traffic

América Ferrera

America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves (2002)

(Photo by ©Newmarket courtesy Everett Collection)

The youngest of six children, América Georgina Ferrera is an American of Honduran descent. And no, her name is not derived from the U.S. of A. Like many Latinas, América was named after her mother, who in turn was named after Día de las Américas, which celebrates all the land. Ferrera began acting in school productions at an early age, and her talent for the art fueled her passion and gave way to opportunities that led to her breakthrough role as Ana García in the coming-of-age drama Real Women Have Curves when she was 17 years old — 21 years before Barbie consumed the zeitgeist and her monologue in the movie became iconic.

Portraying a Mexican American teenager, Ferrera delivered a critically acclaimed performance that resonated as a universal adolescent experience while allowing for cultural specificity. This was a keystone moment for her career and for little brown girls who saw themselves reflected onscreen. As she mentioned in her TED talk, Ferrera embraced her identity as her superpower, and it paid off. As an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor (who doesn’t have an Ugly hair on her body), producer, and director, she works toward building a more inclusive Hollywood and strives to make the world a better place. This elegant subversionary is an advocate for Voto Latino, a founding member of the Time’s Up legal defense fund, and a mother.

“The stars [are] played with unbeatable chemistry by [Lupe] Ontiveros and [America] Ferrera. In each scene they share, Ferrera matches the more experienced Ontiveros in emotion, nuance and strength.”
Regina Medina, Philadelphia Daily News, Nov. 8, 2002 on Real Women Have Curves

Andy García

Andy Garcia in When a Man Loves a Woman (1994)

(Photo by ©Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Havana-born Andrés Arturo García Menéndez moved to Miami in 1961 during the first wave of Cuban exiles after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. García struggled with English and his peers at school until he focused all his energy into sports. A promising career in basketball was cut short by a bout of mononucleosis that took him off the courts and onto the stage, where he found his true calling. In 1978, García moved to Los Angeles and cut his teeth doing improv at The Comedy Store. They were sharp canines by the time he was done — it took him eight years to land a gateway role.

García’s Ray Martinez in 1985’s The Mean Season kickstarted his prolific career, which includes The Untouchables and The Godfather Part III, where he got to bite Joe Mantegna’s ear off. His role as Vincent Mancini in the latter also earned him Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. This eventually led to something of a miracle when he appeared in 1994’s When a Man Loves a Woman, co-starring alongside Meg Ryan, one of the most sought-after female actors of the decade. García suddenly found himself in the company of leading men like Tom Hanks and Nic Cage — where he rightfully belonged — reminding us that we too could be headliners. It was just a year later when he got his name on a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A musician who moves to the beat of his own conga, García has also won a Grammy and earned accolades for his directing work in The Lost City, his love letter to pre-communist Cuba.

“Garcia has warmth and intelligence as this beleaguered pilot who finds his world falling apart through no fault of his own. He does a solid job of capturing the confusion of a man whose brand of love for his wife no longer seems to be enough.”
Marshall Fine, Gannett News Service, April 28, 1994 on When a Man Loves a Woman

John Leguizamo

John Leguizamo in Romeo and Juliet (1996)

(Photo by ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection)

Born in Colombia, John Alberto Leguizamo Peláez may be the biggest spokesperson for our community, and his indignation against marginalization is contagious. However, it’s his multi-hyphenated artistic legacy that has earned Leguizamo real estate in our corazones. John is an actor/writer/comedian/director/producer and, as we say in Puerto Rico, un caballo. An amateur historian, John has written critically acclaimed Broadway shows such as Freaks, Latin History for Morons, and Spic-O-Rama — works that have earned him a special Tony Award for his contributions to Broadway. He also directed the very Fresh Critical Thinking, a movie based on real inner-city kids from Miami who became the first to win the National Chess Championship.

Leguizamo’s affinity for presenting truth in an entertaining manner makes his accomplishments even more impressive. From playing the earnest Sid the Sloth (Ice Age) to the original big-screen Luigi (Super Mario Bros.) to the unpredictable Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet) to the maggot-eating Violator (Spawn) to the gun-happy Benny Blanco (Carlito’s Way) to the mad, mad man Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (a role that José Ferrer also incarnated in 1952), this Emmy winner (Freak) and Golden Globe nominee (To Wong Foo) manages to go big without losing his footing. No matter how outrageous the role, you can always count on him to deliver his heart on a plate, and his effusive youthful energy refuses to be tempered by time.

“John Leguizamo is a wondrously perverse, pint-sized presence as Toulouse-Lautrec. ”
Hap Erstein, Palm Beach Post, June 1, 2001 on Moulin Rouge

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez in Selena (1997)

(Photo by ©Warner Bros. Pictures)

Though she recently hyphenated her name, Jennifer Lynn Lopez-Affleck will go down in history as JLo. A self-realized Fly Girl revered by her limitless (see what I did there?) talents, JLo’s glowing beauty and proclivity for rom-coms sometimes overshadows her acting range. Yet, as the first Latina actor to land a million-dollar paycheck, we believe that it was her do-or-die attitude that carved her path to stardom and landed her roles like Ramona (Hustlers), Karen Sisco (Out of Sight) and, of course, Selena.

Lopez beat over 20,000 other young actresses for that role, and her stellar performance crowned her a triple amenaza. And though we’d be remiss to ignore the community’s reservations about a Nuyorican playing a Tejana, we must note that this was still a time when Latinos played Italian Americans and Italian Americans played Latinos (see Al Pacino’s credits). As Selena, Lopez tapped into the beauty and vulnerability of a charismatic performer whose life was truncated, and the focus rightfully remained on how she honored that life and went on to fulfill those dreams. JLo is not only known for her acting, of course; her accomplished music career speaks — or sings — for itself. Despite what the lyrics to “Jenny from the Block” may say, this “street” queen was born with a lot.

“As Selena, Lopez glows with eagerness and joy. She does resemble the person she portrays, but she amplifies the characterization with impeccable body language.”
Bob Ross, Tampa Tribune, March 1, 1997 on Selena

Diego Luna

Diego Luna in Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

(Photo by ©IFC Films courtesy Everett Collection)

Born to a Mexican set designer and a British costumer in Toluca, Mexico, Diego Dionisio Luna Alexander grew up stage-adjacent. After his mother died in a car accident, Luna sought refuge behind the lights and acted in his first play when he was only 7 years old. He soon graduated to telenovelas and began making a living off acting by the time he was 17. Today, he’s Cassian Andor – the first Mexican lead in a Star Wars film — but most of us became enamored with Luna’s mischievous smile and puka necklace as Tenoch Iturbide in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. Together with his childhood friend Gael García Bernal, they became the advent of Nuevo Cine Mexicano and Mexican heartthrobs in Hollywood. Luna has nurtured a steadily successful career, recently appearing in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and the indie drama Wander Darkly. He’s also an Ariel-winning filmmaker (Abel) with a promising future as a director. He remains committed to his Mexican roots and is a political activist.

“As rich boy Tenoch, Diego Luna’s pubescent softness suits his character’s pampered existence.”
Carla Meyer, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 25, 2002 on Y Tu Mamá También

Esai Morales

Esai Morales in La Bamba (1987)

(Photo by ©Columbia Pictures)

Esai Manuel Morales was born in Brooklyn, and though officially a Nuyorican, he’s called himself an honorary Chicano for the love he has towards that culture and all the Mexican roles he’s had the honor of playing. Morales is proficient with dialects, and it’s a treat to hear him switch Spanish accents. As there were very few roles for Latinos in the ‘80s, Morales considered changing his name so it would widen acting opportunities. Luckily for us, he felt strongly about his heritage and decided against camouflaging his Latinidad.

Morales debuted on stage along the great Raul Juliá in a production of The Tempest and would later reunite with him in The Burning Season. Four years after his breakout movie role in Bad Boys alongside Sean Penn, Morales starred as Ritchie Valens’ brother Bob Morales in La Bamba. Both roles had him play the rebellious macho outlaw, but Morales always managed to raise those parts above stereotype. More recently, Morales joined Tom Cruise as the baddie in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One and Joel Edgerton in Master Gardener. We look forward to seeing Morales play a leading man, his disarming smile revealing the most perfect teeth in the world. He is also a founding member of NHFA (National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts).

“[Esai Morales] gives Bob the range and believability that provides this film with its edge.”
Juan Carlos Coto, South Florida Sun Sentinel, July 24, 1987 on La Bamba

Elizabeth Peña

Elizabeth Peña in Lone Star (1996)

(Photo by ©Sony Pictures Classics)

With a voice that goes down like a hot toddy, Elizabeth Peña is one of those striking faces you can’t — and mustn’t — forget. Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey to Cuban artist parents, Peña inherited the town’s name. As a child, she temporarily lived in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, where her father Mario was jailed for writing an anti-revolutionary poem. Fortunately, Peña and her family moved back to the East Coast when she was 8 years old, and she eventually graduated from New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts.

Peña’s first big role on the big screen was Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which opened the doors for her to star in major motion pictures. Like Andy García, Peña was one of the first Latin actors who — without changing her name — was able to play characters that weren’t centered on her ethnicity, such as Tim Robbins’ love interest in Jacob’s Ladder. With a resume boasting over 45 movies, we could play “6 Degrees of Elizabeth Peña.” From this list alone, she shared the screen with America Ferrera (How the Garcia Girls Spent their Summer), Andy García (The Lost City), Benicio del Toro (The Camerena Story), Esai Morales (La Bamba), John Leguizamo (Nothing Like the Holidays), and María Conchita Alonso (Resurrection Boulevard). All the roles she played were memorable, but perhaps the most indelible was her turn as Pilar alongside Chris Cooper in John Sayles’ 1996 masterpiece Lone Star, for which she earned an Independent Spirit Award. Peña flourished both in front of the camera and behind it; she was the fourth Latina ever to join the Directors Guild of America. Unfortunately, we can only imagine what more she might have accomplished; Peña died of cardiac arrest at 55 due to underlying health conditions, but the work she left behind will forever live on.

“Pena delivers an extraordinarily rich performance as a woman trying to juggle family, love life and social responsibility.”
Robert W. Butler, Kansas City Star, July 12, 1996 on Lone Star

Rosie Pérez

Rosie Perez in White Men Can't Jump (1992)

(Photo by ©20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Initially an aspiring marine biologist, Brooklyn-born Boricua Rosa María Pérez got her start as a dancer on Soul Train, which paved the way for her to become a choreographer on the Fox sketch comedy series In Living Color — the same show that featured JLo’s Fly Girls. One fateful night at a club, Pérez got into an argument with a man she didn’t know — it turned out that man was Spike Lee, and the altercation led him to cast her as Tina in Do the Right Thing. Spike saw in Pérez something no one else did: the inextinguishable fire running through her veins. She is living proof that nature trumps nurture.

Pérez openly writes about the abuse she endured in her autobiography, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair). Her experiences have helped inform her performances, and she’s become one of the best actors of our generation. Though Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes are on the cover of White Men Can’t Jump, it’s Pérez’s Gloria – skating on her rollerblades, talking about dry mouth, or all decked out as a contestant on Jeopardy! – who is the heart and soul of the movie. After that quintessential role, Pérez co-starred in Peter Weir’s Fearless, which earned her an Academy Award nomination, and most recently, she got an Emmy nod for her work on the Max series The Flight Attendant. No matter the role, Pérez is always compelling to watch. The whales and marine life surely missed out.

“Pérez gives a sizzling performance… Her philosophical speeches about the relative merits of winning and losing, and her conviction that her encyclopedic knowledge has predestined her to become a winner on the game show Jeopardy, carry an extra poignancy when Pérez delivers them.”
John Hartl, Seattle Times, March 27, 1992 on White Men Can’t Jump

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez in Pose (2019)

(Photo by Macall Polay/©FX)

The youngest of this bouquet of Latin talent, Michaela Antonia Jaé Rodriguez is quite the accomplished actor and singer to watch. Hailing from New Jersey, Rodriguez was always drawn to the theater and enrolled in a performing arts school at the age of 11. While in college, she starred as Angel in Rent, a role she famously reprised on an off-Broadway production and which earned her a Clive Barnes Award. Rodriguez made her feature film debut as Ebony in the 2017 musical fantasy drama Saturday Church, but not long after, her leading role as the strong yet vulnerable Blanca Evangelista in the history-making TV series Pose earned her an Emmy Award nomination and a Golden Globe Award, making her the first transgender actor to receive both distinctions. Between seasons of Pose, this overachieving trailblazer starred as Audrey in a Pasadena Playhouse revival of Little Shop of Horrors, becoming the first trans woman of color to play the role. A well-rounded actor, Rodriguez is also adept at comedy and co-stars in the Apple TV+ sitcom Loot with Maya Rudolph. As roles for transgender people become rightfully more mainstream, we begin to see how talented performers like Rodriguez can also thrive in playing whoever they want.

“[Blanca Rodriguez, who is played so endearingly by MJ Rodriguez, is the viewers’ gateway into the underground world of the ball.”
Abbey White, TV Fanatic, June 3, 2018 on Pose

Archival curation and research for this feature was led by Tim Ryan. Additional review curation by Rob Fowler, Dom, and Ivette Garcia Davila.

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