Lupe Ontiveros (September 17, 1942 – July 26, 2012) was an American film and television actress. Ontiveros acted in numerous films and television shows, most often playing a maid or, more recently, an all-knowing grandmother; she once estimated that she had played a maid at least 150 times on stage and screen. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on Desperate Housewives and received critical acclaim for her role in Chuck and Buck, for which she won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress, and was also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Ontiveros was born Guadalupe Moreno in El Paso, Texas, the daughter of Luz “Lucita” Castañón and Juan Moreno, middle-class Mexican immigrants who overcame a lack of formal education and were owners of a tortilla factory and two restaurants in El Paso.She graduated from El Paso High School and went on to study at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, where she received a bachelor’s degree in social work. She was raised Roman Catholic.
After her marriage, she and her husband moved to California to realize his dream of starting an automotive business. During a period of professional dissatisfaction with her social service career, Ontiveros was trying to decide whether to go back to school for a nursing degree when she saw an article about a need for local film “extras”. With her husband’s encouragement, she began with that simple job and parlayed it into a long stage and screen career. Prior to acting, Ontiveros worked for 18 years as a social worker, and she continued as an activist with many of the same causes with which she worked in that profession, such as domestic violence prevention and AIDS awareness and prevention, among other health issues.
Ontiveros stated that she wanted to see more diverse roles available to Latina actors, but that she was proud of the work she did: “I’m proud to represent those hands that labor in this country. I’ve given every maid I’ve ever portrayed soul and heart.” In part because of her history in this role, she was chosen as the narrator for the documentary Maid in America.
One of Ontiveros’ most prominent early movie roles was in the 1983 Gregory Nava film El Norte, in which she played a seamstress and maid who acts as mentor to a newly arrived immigrant girl from Guatemala. In a 2004 interview with the Dominican newspaper Listin Diario, she called El Norte “the film that always will remain in me… [it] tells the immigrants’ story” when asked to name her favorite film from her long career. She played the housekeeper Rosalita, a Hispanic maid hired to assist in the packing and moving of the Walsh family in the hit adventure film The Goonies (1985) and a housekeeper in Dolly Dearest (1992).
Ontiveros worked with Nava in subsequent films, including My Family/Mi Familia (1995) and Selena (1997). In the film, she portrayed Yolanda Saldívar, the convicted murderer of Tejano singer Selena. She also appeared in the Academy Award winning film As Good as It Gets.
In 2000, she was featured in the film Chuck & Buck, in which she played Beverly, a tough theater director who puts on a play written by one of the film’s main characters. She has said in multiple interviews she accepted the role even before seeing the script, solely on the basis of being asked to play a character who was not defined by Hispanic ethnicity. For that role, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture at the 2000 Independent Spirit Awards.
She co-starred with America Ferrera in the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves as the overbearing mother of Ferrera’s character. Her performance received excellent reviews and earned her and her co-star a Special Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. She and Ferrera appeared together again in the family comedy Our Family Wedding. She continued to work in the studio and independent films, such as This Christmas in 2007 and My Uncle Rafael in 2012.