Positive Portrayals

Tonantzin Esparza stays true to her roots in school and on stage and screen

By Sean Halloran
Published on LatinoLA: April 2, 2003

Positive Portrayals

Over the past few years some Latina actresses, such as Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek, have risen to prominence in Hollywood. Soon the UCLA film program may lay claim to having developed a Latina leading lady, Tonantzin Esparza.

Fifth-year theater and Chicana/o studies student Esparza has now done five episodes of ABC's "The George Lopez Show" as the character Marisol. Originally only featured in brief supporting roles as Lopez's secretary, Marisol's character has recently been expanded, giving Esparza more exposure.

"For this next episode that hasn't aired yet, I get the script, and I'm like 'Oh my God, I'm in every scene!'" Esparza said. "It's been a very intense week."

Esparza's professional career has developed quickly. It wasn't until her senior year in high school, after a summer job working as a make-up assistant on the movie "Selena," that Esparza decided to try acting.

"I just loved the experience hanging out with all the Latino actors on the film. I got inspired," Esparza said. "I liked the really positive portrayal of Latinos."

After graduating from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Esparza was admitted to the UCLA theater program. Soon after, she helped form the theater group Latinos United through Culture, History and Art. LUCHA's first play, "Tonantzin: A Savage Tragic Comedy of Visions of Virgins," appropriately starred Esparza in her first leading role.

"Tonantzin is the name of the mother goddess of the Aztec Indians," Esparza said.

The play's basis is that the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a legendary vision of the Virgin Mary that lead the Aztecs to convert to Catholicism, was in fact a misunderstanding. In the play, Juan Diego, the peasant who witnessed the miraculous vision, did not actually see the Virgin Mary but rather the Aztec goddess Tonantzin.

"With the colonization and the conquest of the Aztecs, Christianity joined the Tonantzin deity with the Virgin of Guadalupe," Esparza said. "After she first appeared, it was said that she was a brown indigenous woman, Tonantzin, but because of Christianity she became the Virgin Mary."

Being the daughter of a first generation Chicano father and a Native American Yaki Indian mother, both UCLA alumni, Esparza took it upon herself to become a leader in the UCLA minority community. She currently serves as a coordinating member for the student group Conciencia Libre, which addresses Latino cultural, labor and immigration issues on and off campus.

Esparza's big break as an actress came last fall when she auditioned for the play "Dementia," produced by UCLA Professor Jose Luis Valenzuela's Latin Theater Company. She won the role of Tamara, a tough Latino teenager who finds herself pregnant at 16-years-old and caring for an uncle who is dying of AIDS.

Comedian and actor George Lopez became one of the play's biggest fans, buying-out the entire theater one night and contributing $10,000 to the production. That same night, Lopez approached Esparza and asked her to be on his show.

"I was like, 'What? Are you serious?' And he said 'I'm dead serious. I love this character, you did an amazing job, and I want you on my show. We'll be calling you,'" Esparza said.

Esparza attends classes despite her busy schedule, and is looking forward to graduating in June. She has a new agent and plans to try out for roles in the upcoming season of television pilots. Esparza's real dream, however, is to do things behind the camera.

"I want to get into producing and writing, because you don't have that much control over what's out there when you're just an actor," Esparza said. "I want to be able to create work I want to see out there, stories I want to see told, and to have control over that."

Copyright 2003 ASUCLA Student Media

About Sean Halloran:
Originally published in the UCLA Daily Bruin

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