LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood has long stereotyped Hispanic women as spitfires, bombshells and maids.
It responded no differently to Salma Hayek, who packed two suitcases and moved to Los Angeles from Mexico City on a whim in 1991, leaving behind a budding career as a soap-opera star. The struggling actress got one of her first breaks as a scantily clad vampire who tackles an enormous python in Quentin Tarantino's "From Dusk Till Dawn," in 1996.
"I am not the kind of person that wants to sit down and whine about something," Hayek said of her determination to find strong roles for Hispanic actors. "Instead, I want to get up and make an effort and do it myself."
She took inspiration from one of her heroes, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who defied convention throughout her life. For eight years, Hayek nurtured a movie project based on Kahlo's life.
"Frida," which opens this month, is one of the most high-profile Hispanic-themed movies in years.
Hayek stars as Kahlo -- the most challenging role of her career -- and is one of the film's producers. She said she hopes it will help create more visibility for Hispanics in Hollywood.
'The door is ajar'
The movie about Mexico's most famous female artist comes at a time when America's 35 million Hispanics, roughly 12.5 percent of the population, are increasingly capturing the attention of advertisers and studio executives.
"It seems to me the door is ajar. It ain't really open yet," said Rita Moreno, who was the first Hispanic actress to win an Academy Award, for a supporting role in 1961's "West Side Story."
"My perception is that Latinos really have to fend for themselves. Salma Hayek really killed herself to have this film made. Perseverance is the order of the day still, and it probably will be for some time to come."
"Frida" eventually found a home at Miramax studios, which made it for $12 million.
Hayek beat out rival projects linked to Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. She persevered even when funding fell apart, the project switched studios, directors dropped out and the script was repeatedly rewritten. She convinced friends Alfredo Molina, Antonio Banderas and Ashley Judd to co-star for scale wages.
Early reviews were generally good. The Associated Press' Christy Lemire said the movie was "worth the wait," and Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert said Hayek's performance was worthy of an Oscar nomination.
The relative success of recent Latin American films such as "Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" of Mexico, and "Son of the Bride" of Argentina, have not escaped studio notice either.
Universal has entered into a joint venture with Arenas Entertainment, headed by Spaniard Santiago Pozo, to produce feature films in English and Spanish geared to the U.S. Hispanic market.