For a seemingly progressive town, Hollywood has its share of racial barriers. Just ask the Latino actors who work there. For Latina actresses the road to success is paved with even more obstacles, which only a select few have overcome. Salma Hayek is one of those standout talents. Achieving fame in her native Mexico when she was in her early twenties, Hayek was adamant about crossing over into an English-language career. Although American films and television seemed to offer limited opportunities at first, Hayek persevered, ultimately becoming one of the few steadily employed Latinas in the business. “I have to persuade people that my accent won’t be a problem, but an asset,” she explained, “Everyone’s afraid of doing something a bit risky.” Hayek decided to do something risky herself, creating her own production company, Ventanarosa. She served as executive producer on the television movie In the Time of the Butterflies and then produced her dream project, the feature film Frida, which brought her an Oscar nomination in the acting category. This Oscar clout helped her to take the leap into directing with The Maldonado Miracle, winning an Emmy for her efforts. Her next television foray was no less than helping to turn a Colombian telenovela into the award-winning, tremendously successful Ugly Betty. She has admitted, “Producing is not a passion,” but was quick to add, “It is something you have to do if you want to be proactive, instead of just passively waiting (for roles)—or complaining.”
The daughter of a Lebanese-Mexican businessman father and a Mexican-born opera singer, Salma Hayek-Jimenez was born and raised in well-to-do surroundings in the oil boomtown of Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. A brief stint at a New Orleans convent school and Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana only proved that she was not cut out to concentrate on studying, but instead wanted to act. In a very short time she secured a part on a telenovela, Un Nuevo amanecer, which led to the title role in another of its kind, Teresa, which made her one of Mexico’s best known television performers. Hayek then surprised everyone by walking away from this lucrative job, insisting that she was going to break through Hollywood’s racial barriers and find work there. What she discovered instead were very limited ideas of how to utilize a Latina actress and little interest in focusing on this particular core audience. “They hadn’t noticed there were 38 million Latinos in the US, an important market,” a frustrated Hayek pointed out. “They were quite stupid business-wise.” Expressing such views on comedian Paul Rodriguez’s Spanish-language talk show caught the attention of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who gave her the leading role in his tongue-in-cheek action thriller Desperado. Her casting did the trick, helping to open doors, bringing her additional assignments in such other films as The Faculty, Wild Wild West, Dogma, and Timecode.
Hayek knew, however, that if she wanted to have some say in how her career was going to unfold she needed to take charge, creating her own production company, Ventanarosa, with business partner José Tamez. Their first credit was on a Mexican film in which Hayek appeared, El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), and then a low-budget American independent, The Velocity of Gary. In 2001, Hayek’s name first showed up in the producing credits of a television movie, In the Time of the Butterflies, in which she also starred, winning an ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) Award for her acting. Because of her newfound status within the industry she was finally able to get her long-cherished pet project on the life of artist Frida Kahlo off the ground, serving as one of its producers as well as taking on the challenging leading role. Released in 2002, Frida brought Hayek her best reviews to date, earning her nominations from the Golden Globe Awards and the Screen Actors Guild, and, most importantly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This made Hayek only the second Latin American woman (following Fernanda Montenegro, for Central Station, in 1998) to receive this honor in the Best Actress category.
Soon afterwards, she ventured on her first project as director with the whimsical comedy The Maldonado Miracle, made for Showtime cable networks. Robert Lloyd in the Los Angeles Times called the film, “a small, unshowy and lovely comedy,” and praised Hayek as “an artist who can work humble ingredients into a subtle and satisfying repast.” She was awarded the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Children/Youth/Family Special. While continuing on her film acting career, Hayek accepted offers to be the spokeswoman for Revlon and later, Avon, though she made it clear that this was not expressly to concentrate on selling cosmetics. Through her position with Avon she campaigned to bring attention to the need to stop domestic violence, donating a large portion of her own earnings to battered women’s organizations as well as offering assistance through her own Salma Hayek Foundation. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, in Redbook, championed her efforts, writing that, “Salma’s genuine compassion for humanity makes her talent, wealth, fame, and beauty sort of fade into the background.” Hayek herself made it known how important this issue was to her. “The way that women have been devalued throughout history is very disturbing…I demand more respect for who we are.”
Still determined to raise the Latin American profile in the United States, Hayek helped to bring a long gestating project to life, adapting the Colombian telenovela Yo soy Betty, la fea into an American series, Ugly Betty. “The U.S....is so image-oriented,” Hayek, said, explaining her reasons for getting the program made, “I wanted to see a show like that on television. I wanted to have a character that was just normal-looking, or maybe even pretty, but to the standards only of this country, not of the fashion industry that thinks she’s ugly because she’s not skinny and tall.” The gamble paid off as Ugly Betty became one of the critically acclaimed hits of the 2006–07 TV season, bringing Hayek and her fellow producers an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series, as well as an additional mention for Hayek in the acting category, for her recurring role as magazine editor Sofia Reyes. The series earned additional awards as the season’s outstanding series from ALMA, GLAAD Media, the Image Awards, and the Golden Globes.
With this degree of mainstream success, Hayek was able to broker a deal with MGM to make a series of Latin-themed movies under her company’s banner. She also signed a two-year pact with ABC Studios to develop a new series. Both agreements were further steps towards fulfilling Hayek’s dream of bringing her heritage greater attention in the Hollywood spotlight. Looking toward the future, her goals behind the scenes and in front of the cameras seemed limitless. “I would like to impress and surprise myself constantly,” she said, “To find out things about me I didn’t know…to always try to do things that I have never done. Doing something that seems hard, that seems like it’s impossible. I will give it my best shot anyway.”