30 Iconic Latinx Roles in American Film and Television

There hasn’t been a ton of roles for Latinxs in either television or film

30 Iconic Latinx Roles in American Film and Television

Photo: Unsplash/@jakehills

There hasn’t been a ton of roles for Latinxs in either television or film. It’s been challenging getting our stories out there and giving the world a better glimpse into who we are and what we stand for, especially from a cinematic standpoint. The establishment has even gone so far as to give parts portraying real-life Latinx people, such as Salvadorean physicist Alicia Nash — in the Oscar-winning film, A Beautiful Mind — to Anglo actors (in this case Jennifer Connelly). So when a Latino actor or actress actually gets to play a Latino part, it’s worthy of celebration.  Some of those roles have even become iconic and become significant in our pop culture, history, and identity.

We wanted to highlight 30 such Latinx TV or movie roles that were actually portrayed by Latinx actors. Many of these parts you will know and love, and hopefully, the others will encourage and inspire you to watch new shows and movies ASAP. As with all things Latinx — check it out, learn about it, and feel free to share with others!


Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy

Probably one of the most iconic Latinx roles in television — if not the most iconic — is that of Ricky Ricardo on the classic sitcom, I Love Lucy. The role was played by Cuban actor Desi Arnaz, who starred alongside his wife Lucille Ball, and was also an executive producer of the show. I Love Lucy had a total of 180 episodes, running from 1951 to 1957.


Luna Lauren Velez as Detective Nina Moreno-Torres on New York Undercover

From its second season to its final one (fourth), Luna Lauren Velez repped for Afro-Latinxs everywhere when the Afro-Puerto Rican actress played the role of Detective Nina Moreno (later Nina Moreno-Torres) on New York Undercover. The show was a must-watch and part of Fox’s Thursday night lineup during the ’90s (along with Martin and Living Single).


Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla-Perez in Selena

Another unforgettable, legendary performance is Jennifer Lopez’s portrayal of Selena Quintanilla-Perez in the 1997 movie Selena. She did such a good job that whenever there is a word of another actress wanting to portray the Tejana icon, chaos and a flood of critical comments come with it.


Rita Moreno as Maria in West Side Story

In 1962, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno became the first Latina and/or Hispanic female to win an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress. It was for her role as Maria, in the musical West Side Story, a Romeo and Juliet story set in the Upper West Side of New York City during the 1950s. Although the role required that actors, including Moreno, wear brownface to portray Puerto Ricans, and the film portrayed stereotypes, the role, and the accolades that followed it helped to kick down the door for other Latinx actors to follow Rita Moreno into Hollywood.


Sonia Manzano as Maria on Sesame Street

If you watched Sesame Street anytime between 1971 to 2015, chances are that you saw Sonia Manzano’s face. The Puerto Rican actress, raised in the South Bronx, allowed us to look at ourselves on television when she played the role of Maria. Manzano also joined the writing team for the show before her departure.


Emilio Delgado as Luis on Sesame Street

Another Latinx on the children’s show Sesame Street that you saw was Luis, played by Chicano Emilio Delgado. Luis owned and ran the Fix-It Shop, and later fell in love and married Maria. They represented a wholesome, loving, and positive Latinx family that we could watch day after day on TV. Delgado joined Sesame Street in 1971, and stayed until contract changes caused him and other long-time cast members to be let go in 2017.


Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver

In 1988, Chicano actor Edward James Olmos played real-life L.A. high school math teacher Jaime Escalante in the film Stand and Deliver. Escalante believed in his students and proceeded to teach them AP Calculus. The role earned Olmos an Academy Award nomination (for Best Actor, the only Latino actor to receive the nod), a Golden Globes nod, and an Independent Spirit Awards win for Best Actor/Best Male Lead.


Gilbert Roland as Victor “Gaucho” Ribera in The Bad and the Beautiful

Mexicano Gilbert Roland was one of the first Latinx actors to become a big star in Hollywood and one of its legendary “Latin lovers”. A role he is known for is that of Victor “Gaucho” Ribera in the 1952 film, The Bad and the Beautiful. It wasn’t that far of a stretch — Gilbert plays a Latino Hollywood actor, the “Latin lover” type.


Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in Frida


It takes a strong Mexican actress to play a strong Mexican artist. Salma Hayek transformed herself into iconic artist Frida Kahlo for the 2002 film, Frida. For the role, Hayek was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, making her the second Latinx (after Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro) and the first Mexican to receive the nod.


Erik Estrada as Frank Llewelyn “Ponch” Poncherello on Chips


Latinxs have learned that in Hollywood, we often have to create our own opportunities and advancement. This is exactly what Erik Estrada did when he took on the role of Officer Frank Llewelyn Poncherelli on the classic TV cop show, Chips. Having played Latino bad guys before, and wanting to portray Latinxs in a positive light, he asked execs if he could make the part that of a Latino-American instead of an Italian-American. And thus, Poncherelli became Poncherello.


Cesar Romero as The Joker on Batman

Before super creepy versions of the Joker were played by the late Heath Ledger, and Joaquin Phoenix, a more mild version was portrayed by Cuban-American actor Cesar Romero. He played the role of villain on the television show Batman, from 1965 to 1968, and in the 1966 Batman film.


Eva Longoria as Gabrielle Solis on Desperate Housewives

Another Latinx role portrayed by a Latinx actor worth noting is Gabrielle “Gaby” Solis, portrayed by Eva Longoria on the television show, Desperate Housewives. Gaby, a successful Chicana model-turned unhappy housewife, is one of the starring roles of the show, set on Wisteria Lane, in a suburban neighborhood. It earned Longoria a Golden Globe, ALMA Awards, and several other nominations.


Lupe Velez as Carmelita in the Mexican Spitfire Films

From 1939 to 1943, in eight films, Mexican actress Lupe Velez played Carmelita in the Mexican Spitfire series of films. Some found the role to be stereotypical of Latinas and a caricature, but the fact is that she was a groundbreaker. Through these films you were able to hear her pronounced Mexican accent, speak in Spanish, and connect with her Latinx audience. She was also practicing slapstick comedy in sound films, something not seen other than by Lucille Ball (who really showcased it later in television).


Anthony Quinn as Eufemio Zapata in Viva Zapata!


Anthony Quinn is one of the most iconic Latinx actors of all time, known for roles such as Alexis Zorba in Zorba the Greek, and painter Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life (both roles nabbed him Academy Award nominations and a Best Supporting Actor win for playing Gauguin). But his role in Viva Zapata! allowed the Mexicano to play another Mexicano — Eufemio Zapata. It also garnered Quinn an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1952.


Dolores del Río as Belinha De Rezende in Flying Down to Rio

Dolores del Río was Hollywood’s first Latina movie star. Her starring role as Belinha De Rezende in Flying Down to Rio (where she had top billing over icon Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) had the Mexican actress playing a Brazilian character, Belinha. In the 1933 classic film, an American composer falls in love and follows Belinha to Brazil to win her over. An interesting note is that this movie marks the first time a major Hollywood actress (del Rio) wears a two-piece bathing suit on screen.


Freddie Prinze as Chico Rodriguez on Chico and the Man

There aren’t that many shows that feature a Latinx in a starring role, and there were even fewer during the 1970s. That is part of the reason why the show Chico and the Man was such a big deal. The show, which aired from 1974 to 1977) co-starred Nuyorican comedian and actor Freddie Prinze, as Chico, and was about a Chicano and “a seventh-generation WASP.’ Added bonus? Another Puerto Rican icon, Jose Feliciano sings the show’s theme song.


Esai Morales as Roberto “Bob” Morales in La Bamba

The 1987 film La Bamba has become legendary. The film follows the life of Chicano rock ‘n’ roll star Ritchie Valens (played by Filipino actor Lou Diamond Phillips). One of the most memorable roles in the film is that of Roberto “Bob” Morales, Ritchie’s troubled brother, played by Nuyorican Esai Morales.


Benicio del Toro as Javier Rodriguez in Traffic

Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro made history when he became the fourth Latinx, and the third Puerto Rican to win an Oscar for his role in the 2000 film Traffic. Even more legendary is that his character, good cop Javier Rodriguez, spoke mostly in Spanish, making del Toro the first actor to win an Academy Award for a Spanish-speaking role.


Edward James Olmos as Lieutenant Martin Castillo on Miami Vice


Edward James Olmos is such a talented, legendary actor that it is no surprise that several of his roles are also considered legendary. Another character of his worth noting is that of Lieutenant Martin Castillo on the classic ’80s cop drama Miami Vice. When so many Latinxs in police shows are playing criminals, Olmos represented an honest and accomplished Latinx who was in a position of power and authority. The role won Edward both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.


Isabella Moner as Dora in Dora and the Lost City of Gold

The interactive cartoon Dora the Explorer is a Latinx fave because it shows an intelligent, curious Latinx girl who goes on adventures and is always learning (with helpful assistance from the TV audience). For the 2019 live-action Dora film, Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Peruvian actress Isabela Moner played the title role.


Mario Lopez as A.C. Slater on Saved by the Bell

Mario Lopez was a Latinx face we all saw growing up, playing A.C. Slater on the popular T.V. show, Saved by the Bell. The Chicano portrayed the role of the cool jock for four seasons of Saved by the Bell, and the only season of Saved by the Bell: The College Years. In the latter, there is an episode where he embraces his Mexican roots and discovers his last name is really Sanchez.


Ana Margarita Martinez-Casado as Juana Peña on ¿Qué Pasa, USA? 


The show ¿Qué Pasa, USA? was way ahead of its time, when it premiered in 1977. It was the first bilingual sitcom ever, and centered around the Peña family, Cuban exiles living in Miami during the ’70s. Ana Margarita Martínez Casado played Juana Peña, the wife and mother of the family, and won a regional Emmy for Best Individual Talent of South Florida for the role. 


America Ferrera as Ana Garcia in Real Women Have Curves

Honduran America Ferrera is one of the Latina actresses who are currently repping for our people and pushing to tell our narratives. In 2002, she starred in the film Real Women Have Curves, a great story about a girl who wants to go to college and form her own life, but who has to balance that against her family’s expectations.


Cristela Alonzo as Cristela Hernandez on Cristela

Hilarious Chicana Cristela Alonzo is an innovator, who created a space for herself and her work on network television. When the comedian created the sitcom, Cristela, she was the “first Latina to create, produce, write, and star in her own primetime comedy.” Cristela ran on ABC, from 2014 to 2015.


America Ferrera as Betty Suarez on Ugly Betty


Another iconic role played by America Ferrera, is Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty. The show is an English, American remake of the immensely successful Colombian telenovela Yo soy, Betty la fea, and Ferrera delivered as an awkward yet smart New York Chicana who works at a high-fashion magazine called Mode.


Jimmy Smits as Victor Sifuentes on L.A. Law

Puerto Rican icon Jimmy Smits has had several roles, but one notable one in which he played a Latinx character, is as Victor Sifuentes on the T.V. show L.A. Law. Instead of playing a criminal who needs defense (a role often given to Latino actors), Smits played an associate attorney at the McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, and Kuzak law firm. He was on the award-winning legal drama from 1986 to 1992.


Sofia Vergara as Gloria Pritchett in Modern Family


The role of Gloria, hot Colombian wife to Jay Pritchett, on the comedy Modern Family, made Sofia Vergara a household name in the United States (and beyond). It also made her the second highest-paid actress in 2019 (the Forbes list includes both TV and movie actresses) and the top-paid actress on television for the last eight years ($44.1 million this year).


Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez in High Noon


Katy Jurado is another Latinx actress who was a big star, both in Hollywood and during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. The Mexicana was the first Latinx and Hispanic woman to be nominated for an Academy Award (for Broken Lance), and the first to win a Golden Globe (for High Noon). The 1952 Western High Noon stars Jurado as badass Helen Ramirez, a role Katy learned English for.


Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanueva in Jane the Virgin

From 2014 to July of this year, Puerto Rican actress Gina Rodriguez starred as Jane Villanueva on the television show Jane the Virgin. The show follows Jane, a religious, Catholic, Venezuelan, 23-year-old who accidentally gets pregnant via artificial insemination, and has to rearrange her life after this huge and unexpected mix-up. The role won Rodriguez a Golden Globe (as well as several other awards).


Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa in The Walking Dead


It is refreshing to know — and have it be portrayed — that Latinxs survive the zombie apocalypse. Chicana actress Christian Serratos, who is slated to play Selena Quintanilla-Perez in the Netflix show, Selena: The Series, not only survives, but thrives as kick-ass Rosita Espinosa on the popular show The Walking Dead.

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