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Mexican Firecracker

SALMA HAYEK, the fiery femme fatale in this summer's blockbuster Wild Wild West, is not just another shooting star rocketing to th etop of the Hollywood firmament. She's a Latina powerhouse, a Mexican mogul who still has to overcome Hollywood bigotry and show all those studio gringos that it's time to give Latinos the respect they deserve. Viva la Salma!

By Bob Morris.

Dolor de cabeza," Salma Hayek is muttering.

It's another fine day in Los Angeles, and the tiniest of starlets is stepping into the longest of black stretch limousines with the biggest of headaches. As the Lincoln lurches down the tortuous roads from her canyon-side suburban hacienda high up in the Hollywood Hills, her Brazilian stylist -- one of a vast maintenance staff of 20 she employs -- massages the shoulders of her five-foot-two frame.

Ahora está peor," she says -- now it's worse.

The Tonight Show has sent the limo. No big deal. She's done this before. "They're always calling me up to ask if I can come in and chat," says Hayek, who stars this month with Will Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kenneth Branagh in Wild Wild West, Barry Sonnenfeld's $100 million summer blockbuster about two federal agents trying to stop the assassination of Ulysses S. Grant.

But maybe it's not the best possible moment to go play the perky Latina bombshell and Revlon spokesbabe on national television. After all, she has just returned from her grandmother Adela's funeral in her hometown of Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, where, after staying up all night for a velorio mourning ritual, she walked in the hot sun from house to church to cemetery. "I still don't feel I'm quite back," says Hayek, who returns to Mexico for film roles whenever she can steal the time. "And even though my grandmother was very sick for seven sears, it's still so sad to think that I'll never be able to hold her hand, run my fingers through her hair, or smell her ever again."

So along with the headache, which is getting worse as her limo nears NBC Studios in Burbank, the gravitas of family loss weighs on her mind. On top of that, there's me. "I hope you don't write an article about my grandmother's funeral," Hayek says. "It could be very depressing." I promise I won't do that. What I can't promise, however, is that I won't dwell on her status as the first Mexican star in Hollywood since Dolores Del Rio broke the color barrier for Latinos by playing exotics in the 1920s and '30s. After all, Hayek is the one who has said that Mexicans are the least welcome of anyone in this country.

She is also the one who had to watch the career of a Welsh actress, Catherine Zeta-Jones, take off when she played Elena Montero in The Mask of Zorro. Hayek had to slug it out with Madonna for the role of Frida Kahlo, the legendary Mexican surrealist artist, before it became hers. And she had to keep quiet -- "I'm a lot prettier with my mouth closed" -- when a producer told her she couldn't play an astronaut in a sci-fi flick because audiences wouldn't accept the idea of a Mexican in space. "People in this town know Mexicans only as maids," says Hayek, who comes from a well-to-do family. "And they don't hesitate to tell you that when they're casting a movie."

Hayek's frustrations are not uncommon. Despite the industry's increased awareness of Latino audiences' purchasing and voting power (Governors Jeb and George W. Bush, of Florida and Texas, both speak Spanish, and are thriving with solid Latino support), Hollywood remains remiss to cast Latino actors in leading roles. Although Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas, Rosie Perez, Edward James Olmos, and Hayek are all doing well enough, the situation is far worse than it is for African-American actors. In May, the Screen Actors Guild published a harshly worded 22-page report stating that Latinos are still the most underrepresented ethnic group in the entertainment industry and that their appearance in film and on TV is less than one-third of their proportion of the U.S. population. "Producers tell you what they think audiences want," Hayek says, wryly noting a recent Variety poll naming her as one of the country's hottest new actresses. "But if audiences didn't want me, why would I be where I am today?"

So where is she today, exactly? Far ahead of Del Rio, Lupe Velez, Carmen Miranda, Chita Rivera, and other well-known actresses of previous generations, who were blatantly typecast as luscious Latinas and smoldering spitfires. And fortunately, she has not had to dye her hair red to make herself more castable, the way Rita Hayworth (who was half Spanish) did after she became known as the señorita singing "La Cucaracha" in Hit the Saddle. Nor has Hayek ever been reduced to spouting off comically in rapid-fire Spanish in the style of Desi Arnaz or Charo. On the other hand, after her first major role here, four years ago, as the bookish accomplice to Antonio Banderas's gun-toting mariachi in Desperado, her phone wasn't ringing with offers.

She knows that without a major hit to her credit (last summer's 54 was the most recent disappointment), much of her remarkable success as a celebrity cover girl and Hollywood player is due to her remarkable beauty. She also knows that I have good reason to quiz her about being a symbol of Mexican success I a town with major Mexican hang-ups. But that doesn't mean she has to like it.

"Americans don't see me as a Mexican symbol," she argues as the limo pulls up to The Tonight Show studio. "That's not what I am. If anything, I'm just a sexual fantasy to them."

Once upon a time, before the Huntington and Mulholland families came to represent L.A.'s industrialist Wasp power, and before Jewish moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn turned Hollywood into a purveyor of white-picket-fence Americana, Mexican cattle ranchers dominated California. U.S. forces captured California from Mexican rule in 1848, leaving little behind but the name of the territory and an inclination toward adobe facades.

Historically, the relationship of the city to its Mexican roots and to the labor force Mexico supplies (with or without the legal paperwork) has been a barbed tangle, at best, In fact, of all the minority groups in California, Chicanos (Latinos of Mexican extraction) remain the most disadvantaged. Lately, Proposition 187 -- passed by 59 percent of Californians in 1994 under former governor Pete Wilson -- has been yet another cultural dividing wedge. Prop 187 denies illegal immigrants the right to public school education and eliminates non-emergency health and welfare services. (California is known for its conservative initiatives such as last year's decision to reduce affirmative-action admissions in the University of California system.) Although Prop 187 was declared unconstitutional last year in federal court, Democratic governor Gray Davis was indecisive on the ruling, and it is now in mediation in court of appeals.

Illegal-immigrant issues have clearly colored L.A.'s perception of all Latinos, who make up more than 40 percent of the county's population. Nowhere is this perception more evident than in the white-dominated entertainment business. "As a Latina from the East Coast," says Nely Galán, the powerhouse president of entertainment for Telemundo, the country's second-largest Spanish-language TV network, "coming to L.A. was a shock. Latinos are not treated as first-class citizens here. And in the entertainment industry, they're perceived as the help." This is why Galán admires Hayek's breakout success as a coveted Revlon cover girl. "For Salma to come here and be a role model for Latinas is important," says Galán, who is Cuban and views the increased presence of Latin pop icons as a phenomenon that could not have happened 10 years ago: "It tells you a lot about the time we're in, when a very Mexican woman has become a pop culture icon. But then, everything in life is timing, right?"

Indeed, in the entertainment business -- music especially -- Latinos are having a moment that is more like a groundswell than an anomaly. Ricky Martin won a Grammy, Jennifer Lopez (whose first movie role was that of the Mexican-American martyr singer Selena) has an album rotating on VH1. Gloria Estefan, Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony, Luis Miguel, and Buena Vista Social Club are all contributing to a crossover boom. Considering that L.A.'s two largest radio stations are Spanish-speaking, it's little wonder that high-end backers such as Sony's Tommy Mottola think that Latin music could be the next big reservoir of talent for mainstream superstars.

Spanish television is mining the market as well. While most networks are facing audience declines, Los Angeles-based Univision, the nation's fifth-largest broadcast network (after Fox and before the WB) has seen its audience grow 25 percent in the past year to 4 million daily viewers. Meanwhile, the nation's other Spanish-speaking network, Telemundo, was purchased last summer by Sony Pictures Entertainment, which plans to revolutionize Spanish-language TV with programs reflecting the bicultural experience of second-generation Latin American audiences. Determined to be part of it, Hayek's company, Ventanarosa, recently inked a two-year, first-look deal with Telemundo and Columbia TriStar Television to produce programs in Spanish and English. One, a documentary series about Catholic saints, is already in preproduction.

"She pitched five concepts in meticulous detail like a real pro," says Peter Tortorici, president and CEO of the Telemundo Network. "Salma has the determination to get things done. This is one smart woman."

After a royal welcome, Hayek is escorted to her Tonight Show dressing room. There are flowers, food, a big gift basket. "Presents! I love presents!" says the actress, who was a soap opera star in Mexico before she moved here in 1991. There's so much to do -- makeup to sit for, willful hair to have reironed, Jewel to greet. "I love your hair like that," says the wan folksinger with the nice and easy blond hair.

The honking of publicists, stylists, and assistants in the dressing room diminishes substantially when the alpha guy himself, Jay Leno, walks in, flops down in a chair, and briefly summarizes the conversation they will have on the air about a Revlon Run/Walk event (benefiting women's cancer research) and other, less serious things. When he leaves, Hayek's headache is worse still. "I want to crawl into a hole," she says. Instead, she crawls into a clingy, lacy evening gown and emerges as the luscious Latina.

The show comes up on her dressing room monitor. It's The Tonight Show's first high-definition television broadcast ever, and Leno is making lots of jokes about it. "I should go out there and tell him that the HDTV makes his chin look sharper," Hayek jokes. I laugh and tell her to do it. "No way," she says. "A man could make a joke like that, but not me. I'm not supposed to be funny. I'm just supposed to sit there and be pretty and laugh at all his jokes. Don't you know that?"

After asking all of us to pray for her, she walks out and appears on camera. Although she doesn't actually play the hot tamale, she becomes one under Leno's gaze. She says she should exercise more. He replies (while glancing at the ample breasts that grace her tiny body), "Yes, you really need to get in shape." She says she hates sweating at the gym and being exhausted afterward. He says, "So, you've never had sex?" She describes a hang-gliding incident. He leans in seductively and tells her he likes to hang glide, too.

She's oblivious to his shticky innuendos. But her amusing English (instead of saying "I hurt my back," she says "I did my back"), and her inability to defend herself from his playful irony, make her the perfect foil. The only thing that doesn't go well is that he announces the wrong dates for the Revlon event. So what does she doe? She makes the producers fix it, that's what.

Out of the slinky gown and the dressing room, Hayek is leaving the studio when she's stopped by some Spanish-speaking, low-level NBC employees who want her autograph. (Executives make her fight for auditions, yet in public, she's mobbed by fans.) She patiently poses for snapshots, gets names, and signs every picture of herself "Con cariño" -- with affection. More fans outside the studio gate hold up love greetings, in Spanish, and posters of her face. One man has a large canvas. She can't get out of the limousine to sign it -- she's late for her next appointment, at Warner Bros. -- and tells the driver to move on.

"I usually sign a lot of pictures," she says. "And that's okay. I mean, I'd rather see people selling my autographs than robbing houses." It's an indelicate thing to say. But I don't point it out. After all, she already has a headache.

The willful 30-year-old daughter of a successful Lebanese businessman and a retired Mexican opera singer, Hayek grew up coddled and comfortable in the unlovely Gulf of Mexico oil port of Coatzacoalcos, in Veracruz. As a teen, she bullied her father into sending her to a Catholic boarding school in Louisiana, where she was quickly expelled for pulling pranks on nuns. Back in Mexico, she attended Universidad Iberoamericana, then acting classes, and by 1990 she was an award-winning TV star. But tired of the poor quality of government-subsidized television, Hayek shocked the nation: In 1991, at the height of her popularity, she headed north for L.A.

Her bold move broadcasted her disenchantment with Mexico's elitist government, and after making an appearance in a TV ad for one of Mexico's first private long-distance telephone carriers, she ended up on the cover of the Latin American edition of Time as a symbol of the NAFTA Generation -- restless and outspoken young Mexicans frustrated with an inattentive bureaucracy. "Mexicans have had enough," Hayek says. "President Zedillo is going to be out by the next election, and already there's competition between parties for the first time in years. When she moved here, Hayek lost her star status. She also got lost while driving around Los Angeles. "When I asked for directions and pronounced the Spanish names of streets properly," she says, "people looked at me as if I was crazy." She studied hard to learn English, took classes in Shakespearean acting, got little parts here and there, but did not get her first major role, in Desperado, until 1995. When nothing big came of that, she took a cameo role as a bikini-clad performer wrapped in an albino python, in the Quentin Tarantino script From Dusk Till Dawn. In 1997, she was cast in two more forgettable films, most notably Fools Rush In, in which she played the artistic, family-oriented Mexican-American to Matthew Perry's stiff, dysfunctional Wasp.

By then she was enough of a cultural presence to join such pop icons as Cindy Crawford and be given a Revlon contract worth a couple million dollars. "Our spokespeople are women who other women can relate to," says a Revlon spokesperson who has been impressed with how Hayek speaks to Spanish-speaking women about breast cancer awareness on behalf of the company. Yet despite her obvious appeal to both women and men, she still isn't invited to audition for very many parts. "When I asked a producer to consider casting a Latina as a fashion editor, he told me a Latina might be alright in the role but definitely not a Mexican," Hayek says. "People around here think that Mexicans are lazy and have no style."

So what does the stylish, workaholic Hayek (who remains cheerful and appreciative in a city where racism is as common as rats in palm trees) do with this situation? Instead of kvetching, she gets busy.

Ventanarosa, her production company, has already completed filming this summer's The Velocity of Gary, in which Hayek plays the lover of a porn star with AIDS, and a Spanish adaptation of No One Writes to the Colonel, by Gabriel Garc’a Marquez. When she speaks of her role as Frida Kahlo in a movie that Ventanarosa will co-produce next year, her eyes begin to spark. Here's a substantive part worthy of an actress who studied international relations at college, who can give you a detailed analysis of the Zapatista revolution in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, and held her own at a White House state dinner, discussing education with Hillary Clinton and diligently quizzing President Carlos Menem of Argentina about former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

"Frida lived at a revolutionary time in Mexico, when the artists spoke for the people," Hayek says of the crippled cult figure, who was married to Diego Rivera and was a friend of Leon Trotsky's. "In a way, she represents what Mexico is -- she had a broken body but an indestructible soul. It's good to see that Mexicans are finally beginning to confront their government and starting to speak out to fix things instead of just complaining. This seems to be her personal policy, too.

"Salma's a realist," Kenneth Branagh says of working with Hayek in Wild Wild West, in which she was cast as the Latina lead only after a now apologetic Barry Sonnenfeld deliberated for months about her ability to do rapid-fire dialogue in English. "She doesn't have a chip on her shoulder." That can't be easy in a city that associates Mexico with gangs and Taco Bell ads. Actually, Hayek, who this fall plays a muse named Serendipity in Kevin Smith's controversial religious satire Dogma, doesn't mind those Taco Bell ads at all.

"You have to be a little politically incorrect to be funny," she tells me. Still, she doesn't find a joke by Paul Rodriguez, a Mexican-American comedian, amusing: "What's a Mexican Barbie?" I ask. She has no idea. "She comes with her own papers."

Hayek regards me with the stone-cold face of an Aztec goddess. We're having dinner at La Serenata Gourmet, an upscale Mexican restaurant in West Los Angeles. Although she would have preferred Matsuhisa, the most expensive Japanese restaurant in Beverly Hills, she consented to eating here for the obvious story value. Well, at least the food is authentic Mexican and the owner, a dignified, middle-aged Mexican woman, is thrilled to see her.

They have a detailed conversation, in Spanish, about plastic surgery and spider veins. Hayek gives out a doctor's number for the latter but discourages the plastic surgery.

While we eat, she and I talk about Kosovo, Littleton, and, of course, Mexico. She does not want to be quoted as a political authority (nor does she want me to relate how she quietly supports hunger-related charities, and even made phone calls to friends Will Smith and George Clooney to raise substantial money to send to Chiapas after the floods of 1998), but she sure knows her politics. She has a theory, for instance, about why there are Mexican gangs in America, but fewer in Mexico: "Here Mexican-American kids are not treated like Americans, even if they were born here, so they band together. It's an identity problem they're trying to resolve.

Of course, she's never had it that rough: When she came here to start over, she was driving a BMW. "Harvey Weinstein calls me a Mexican JAP," she says of the Miramax boss, "because I like nice things, and I'm not easy to manipulate." Still, there is something about the conviction and tenacity of this tiny, beautiful woman that makes me understand why she doesn't want to talk about being a symbol of Mexican or Latino anything, yet is able to speak so eloquently about it: She is living as honestly as any incredibly ambitious immigrant can in Hollywood, mindful of who she is and where she's from, even with her foot pressed firmly on the accelerator to a fabulous future. "I don't have that many choices," she says, "But I've been lucky."

On the way home, I ask her if she still has a headache. She does not. Then I ask her (because I've heard envious whispers about those breasts) if she would really never consider plastic surgery. "Never say never," she responds. I ask her if her A-list Hollywood lifestyle, of entourage and swank invitations, was a shock when it first happened to her a few years ago. "No, no," she answers. "I told you, I've always been spoiled, so when all this happened I just thought, Okay, now we're back to normal."

She walks into the not-so-normal mountaintop house she painted Mexican-blue, decorated with heavy carved-wood furniture, religious icons, and an antique map of Mexico. Here boyfriend, Edward Atterton, a handsome English actor she met three years ago on the set of TNT's The Hunchback, is waiting up for her. Between taping The Tonight Show and visiting the president of Warner Bros.' Licensing division (they talked about doing a Wild Wild West Salma doll), it's been a typically high-powered afternoon. But when she tells Atterton about it (in the kitchen, where a chili-pepper apron with a Cesar Chavez button hangs near a Frida Kahlo statuette), she seems more the cuddly Salma doll than the crafty Hollywood player with a first-look deal with Sony. It's time to get ready for bed so they can get under the covers and watch The Tonight Show.

Later, I'm channel surfing past the local news when a report comes on about the invasive tactics of the LAPD in shutting down Fiesta Broadway, a massive outdoor celebration of Latino culture that had gone past its ending time. On Politically Incorrect, meanwhile, Edward James Olmos is complaining about Proposition 187. And then there's The Tonight Show, featuring a bubbly Hayek telling her story about making an emergency water-landing in a hang glider many years ago, then picking herself up, drying herself off, saying adi—s to her pilot, and going home to do her make-up for later. "I had to get ready for our town's fiesta that night," she says. "I was going to be the queen of the carnival." For Hayek, the carnival has just begun.