Alex Espinoza talks about Latino actors in old Hollywood and The Five Acts of Diego León

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  • Random House
By some weird coincidence, the same week I wrote about the Goodman's new production of Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which is about the compromises an African-American actress has to make to have a career in 1930s Hollywood, a new book about the movies landed on my desk, this one about the compromises a Latino actor has to make to have a career in 1930s Hollywood. (It was also the second book I read this week that mentioned the P'urhépecha, a native Mexican tribe that lives in the state of Michoacán, but I digress.)

Which was a sign from somewhere that I had to read The Five Acts of Diego León, the second novel by Alex Espinoza.

Diego León goes into greater detail than Vera Stark, mainly because the form of a novel, especially one in five acts, allows more room than a play that has only two. Diego changes his identity in every "act," and sometimes his name, too, as he transforms from a village boy in Michoacán to the grandson of a wealthy notary in the city of Morelia to a starving aspiring actor in Hollywood to a studio exec's boy toy to a minor movie star.

"Diego's impulse is to follow his dream," says Espinoza. "He's morally ambiguous. He's willing to do anything."

Diego was based, in part, on the actors Ramon Novarro and Anthony Quinn. Like Diego, both were Mexican (Novarro a wealthy immigrant, Quinn the son of poor immigrants) at a time when Los Angeles police officers were rounding up Mexicans and sending them back across the border. Novarro never hid his ethnic identity and was quite successful playing Latin lovers, but he spent his entire life in the closet, until he was murdered by a pair of male hustlers in 1968.

"He was very Catholic," Espinoza explains. "There was a lot of guilt."

For Diego, identity is a much more fluid thing. As a young child, his great-aunt tells him stories of his great P'urhépecha heritage. His snobbish grandparents in Morelia tell him to pretend he grew up in the south of France instead of a poor, rural village. His first acting role is a rabbi (which he steals from a Jewish friend), but when he gets his big break, it's the lead in a Spanish-language version of a vampire movie. His ridiculous—and hilarious—studio bio claims he's descended from ancient Mexican royalty.

Alex Espinoza
  • Kyle Behen
  • Alex Espinoza
This, Espinoza discovered through his research, was very common in the early days of Hollywood. Latinos had always been involved in the film industry, ever since the first Hollywood movie, D.W. Griffith's In Old California, was shot in 1910. It was set in the early 19th century, when California was still part of Mexico. (You can draw your own conclusions about the nationality and ethnicity of many of the characters.) Despite prejudice against Mexicans in daily life, Hollywood embraced "Latin" actors and characters, as long as they were beautiful. One actor, Jacob Krantz, a New Yorker of Austrian descent, improved his career by changing his name to Ricardo Cortez.

"That wouldn't happen today," Espinoza notes. "But back then, they were enamored of Latin lovers."

Although Espinoza had a pretty good idea about Diego's ethnic identity, the character didn't come into complete focus until one night over dinner with his friend Lillian Faderman, who had cowritten Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. "Lillian asked me, 'He's gay, right?'" Espinoza remembers. "That was the missing ingredient. It completely altered the course of the book."

Despite Diego's Catholic upbringing, he never experiences Novarro-level feelings of guilt. He's willing to cut himself off from his family in Mexico and to sleep with either men or women if it will help his career. He wears a mask, just like he did as a boy in the village doing a traditional P'urhépecha dance.

To Espinoza, Diego's ruthlessness is justifiable. Many young Latinos aren't encouraged to pursue careers in the arts, and many are unwilling to defy their families to do it. "It seems so frivolous," he says. "To be an actor? That sounds silly. A writer? Why? Your parents sacrifice so much to come to this country, you ought to be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant! I teach at a university"—California State University in Fresno—"and I have many talented Latino students who tell me, 'My mom wants me to study law.' I ask them, 'What do you want to do?' But the arts are never pursued. They aren't going to give you a reliable paycheck."

Espinoza will be reading from The Five Acts of Diego León on 5/5 at 2 PM at Anderson's Bookshop (123 W. Jefferson, Naperville).

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.

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