Abel FL Berriz
There’s a joyful feeling when we watch a blockbuster movie featuring an actor or actress whose bloodline goes back to the island. Then we’re able to say, with a smile, “Oh yes, that guy is Cuban” or “Oh yes, that girl is Cuban.” What a great feeling.
The list of Cuban actors is not short. Some of the most iconic faces on the big screen are of Cuban origin. Most people know names like Andy Garcia, Eva Mendes, or even Cameron Diaz; but there are more Cuban actors that have made their way to Hollywood.
Perhaps our grandparents recall the iconic character of Ricky Ricardo, from the television sitcom I love Lucy. The role was played by Desi Arnaz which was the first time a Cuban-born actor starred in an American television show. Born in Cuba, in 1917, as Desiderio Arnaz; he was also father to Desi Arnaz Jr. and Lucie Arnaz. Desi Arnaz Sr. can be remembered for 1940s movies like Bataan, Cuban Pete, Jitterumba, and Holiday in Havana. Desi Jr. has starred in several TV series and a few movies -remarkably 1992’s The Mambo Kings, portraying his own father. And Lucie has starred in 1980’s The Jazz Singer and the 2011 American version of the acclaimed Alain Resnais 1992 movie Smoking/ No Smoking, as well as in TV shows and Broadway plays.
But the first Cuban star to shine in Hollywood was no other than Cesar Romero, one of the 60 nastiest villains of all times, according to TV Guide’s 2013 list. Romero, born in New York City, in 1907, to Cuban parents (his mother, Maria Mantilla, was allegedly the biological daughter of Cuban national hero Jose Marti) – started starring in light comedies in the 1930s, like Week-end in Havana and Springtime in the Rockies. He also starred as Cisco Kid in six movies. But he’s most remembered as the Joker of the 1960’s TV show Batman, as well as the treacherous Duke Santos, from the 1960’s Rat Pack version of Ocean’s 11.
Another actor from that Ocean’s 11 cast; Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr., also had Cuban blood. Though he’s always stated his mother was Puerto Rican, it was revealed in his 2003 biography, In Black and White, that Davis’ mother, Elvera Sanchez, was actually born in New York City to parents of Cuban and African-American descent. Davis was a remarkable entertainer, dancer and singer, and actor of both stage and screen, and starred in a long list of movies. He’s also notorious for having converted to Judaism, prompted by the similarities between Jewish and African cultures.
For Cubans have been equiparated to Jewish people, as well as to Italians. And the proof is Al Pacino, an Italian-American actor who has played Italian, Jewish, and Cuban roles. After him, Cuban-born Andy Garcia also played Italian roles, once in The Godfather 3 -as Pacino’s nephew- and in Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11 -which, apparently, always includes Cuban actors in its cast, and sequels. Garcia, born in Havana in 1956, is perhaps the most iconic of Cuban-American actors, and is also father to The Lost City’s actress Dominik Garcia-Lorido.
Another Cuban-Italian link, Bobby Cannavale’s mother was born in Cuba, and migrated to the States in 1960. In fact, not too many people would remember the actor of The Bone Collector, Fast Food Nation, and Blue Jasmine; and a dark Indie film called The Station Agent, with Peter Dinklage, where Cannavale played Joe Oramas, a Cuban-American who sold Café con Leche in a food truck. He’s most remembered, though, for his role of Roberto Caffey in television series’ Third Watch, alongside another Cuban-American, Eddie Cibrian.
Cibrian, born in California to Cuban parents, has starred in many TV series, including Third Watch, The Young and the Restless, Invasion, and CSI: Miami. He has also played in movies like But I’m a Cheerleader, Not Easily Broken, and The Best Man Holiday.
And Cubans have also shined in galaxies far away. Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac’s father is Cuban, so there’s Cuban blood in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He has played major roles in other, more serious, critically acclaimed productions, such as Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, and Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.
And, if we speak of comics who turned into blockbuster movie stars, we can’t forget to mention Gotham City’s Mayor Anthony Garcia, from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, played by Nestor Carbonell. Born in New York to Cuban parents, Carbonell has starred in movies and in television. He’s probably most remembered for his roles as Luis Rivera, from Suddenly Susan; and Richard Alpert, from Lost. He has been nominated to the ALMA Awards for both roles, and his role on Suddenly Susan granted him the Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series Award for two consecutive years.
But, in the field of nominations, no one beats Hollywood sweetheart Cameron Diaz. The Californian actress, born to a Cuban father, has been nominated for ALMA, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and a long list of other awards, some of which she has rightfully won. Diaz’s unforgettable face and versatile performance has made her shine in romantic comedies, epic movies, and dramas. The list of her successes includes her debut in The Mask and her starring roles in My Best Friend’s Wedding, There’s Something About Mary, Charlie’s Angels, Being John Malkovich, Any Given Sunday, and Gangs of New York.
Another Hollywood beauty and Cuban actress, Rosario Dawson embodies the archetype of the strong, independent yet sensual woman, coherent with her Cuban, Puerto Rican, and African American descent. Her debut in the 1995 controversial drama Kids is an example of her success. She has impeccably moved from drama to comedy, from epic movies to noir, and her performances always leave us wanting more. Men in Black II, Rent, Trance, Sin City, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For are but a small sample of her versatility and her outstanding acting.
In a similar way, Cuban-American actress Gina Torres has played a constellation of strong women, from comic heroines and pseudo-mythological warriors, to law enforcers and genius investigators. She shows off in minor roles as in Wachowskis’ The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, alongside Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves. And she stands by her own right in TV series’ Angel, Hannibal, and Suits.
The Latin sensuality of Eva Mendes is another feature that characterizes Cuban-American stars and starlets. As an example, in 2005 she was cast for the lead female role in Hitch, alongside actor Will Smith, which became one of the first hit romantic comedies with minority actors in lead roles. Mendes, born in Miami, Florida, to Cuban parents, started her career as a model and later jumped to the screen in B movies like Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror and Urban Legends: Final Cut. In 2001, she switched to more serious productions, appearing in the acclaimed thriller Training Day. Ever since, she has appeared in action movies like 2 Fast 2 Furious and Fast Five, superhero movies like Ghost Rider and The Spirit, dramas like Guilty Heart and Girl in Progress, and comedies like All About the Benjamins and The Other Guys.
More Cuban-Italians include two Cubans playing Italian roles in the cast of The Sopranos: Saundra Santiago and Jamie-Lynn Sigler. Santiago, born in New York to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, is renowned mostly for her roles of Gina Calabrese in the TV series Miami Vice and Jeannie Cusamano in The Sopranos. Sigler was born in Jericho, New York, to a Jewish-American father and a Cuban mother. In 1997 she was cast as Meadow Soprano, the daughter of the New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, from the television series. She has also appeared in films like A Brooklyn State of Mind, New York City Serenade, and Jewtopia.
A new face to the red carpet, Ana de Armas is an example where a young actress born in Cuba jumps meteorically to the Hollywood big screen. At the age of 16, De Armas was cast for the Cuban-Spanish production Una rosa de Francia (A rose from France), and two years later she moved to Spain, where she starred in the successful Spanish television series El Internado (The Black Lagoon Boarding School). In 2014, she moved to Los Angeles, and has been starring in major Hollywood blockbusters since, such as Knock Knock, Exposed, and Overdrive. She has also been cast for 2017’s Blade Runner 2049.
In all, Cuban actors and actresses have left their footprint in American cinematography. Our stars have a rightful constellation on Hollywood Boulevard, which keeps growing every year and one we expect will never die out.