James Olmos talks about his work in Chiapas, the powers to come in the
next century and the difficult challenge of sainthood
by Julia Reynolds
I sometimes forget how
much people dislike us. Journalists, I mean. But I had an opportunity
to remember while chasing down Edward James Olmos at Universal Studios
in Los Angeles. I even had an appointment for this interview, but for
three days, the guy wouldnt stand still.
He almost wore me out, but by Sunday I had a fierce glare in my eye that
said I dont care what you think of us, I am getting this goddam
interview! I know you all hate us anyway, so I will live up to your worst
paparazzi nightmare and be in your face until you relent.
Though he was in the thick of presenting the second annual Los Angeles
Latino International Film Festival, Olmos graciously conceded, and what
follow are his thoughts on politics and the future the words and
admissions of an inspired man in need of coffee.
I gave him my half a cup, though I needed it as badly as he. Were
not all heartless.
The man who never sleeps now spends a great deal of time taking food and
medical supplies to the people of Chiapas. He recently managed to jam
on the congas with salsa star Marc Anthony at a White House reception
for Colombian President Andrés Pastrana. Olmos Productions, in
collaboration with the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education,
is now promoting It Aint Love, a documentary about violence
against women. Eddie presented the ten-day-long Los Angeles Latino Film
Festival and is currently working in Toronto on a film called Gossip.
In between, theres always dodging the threats on his life from Californias
Mexican Mafia gang (revenge for his movie American Me), sexual
scandals that seem to come up and are thrown out of court on a regular
basis, and alleged harassment from his wife Lorraine Braccos ex-husband,
Oh yes, and did I mention the Americanos project with the
Smithsonian? Theres the book, the traveling exhibition, the documentary
and the upcoming concert at the Kennedy Center that will highlight the
contributions of Latinos to American culture.
The convictions of a man who works and plays this hard must run deep,
and indeed, it turns out that Olmos aspires to nothing less than sainthood.
No wonder. Certain people devour life, and Olmos is one of those.
Not a lot of people know that Edward James Olmos once had a rock band.
The Pacific Ocean even cut an album, and eventually vanished
into history. But the interesting thing is that young Eddie named his
band after the biggest thing on the West Coast.
Your work in Chiapas
Ive read different pieces here and there about it, even in People
magazine. You said you dont support the Zapatistas because of their
Olmos: I dont support violence, period. I support the indigenous
people anywhere in the planet. I believe that Gandhi was correct. Non-violent
civil disobedience is the only way to bring about change that allows people
to enjoy the change and not get killed in the process. Its very
slow, very, very difficult. But everything in my life that takes time
and that is hard [has been] the way to do it.
And why are you concerned with Chiapas? Los Angeles is where you live
and where you grew up.
Olmos: Chiapas is probably the main concern I have right now for the
planet. Its about the diversity that makes this planet strong, that
is being neglected: we wont have to worry about overpopulation or
ecology diversitys going to shut us down.
Our inability to relate to one another is very, very, very important.
When we dont have it, we get situations like Bosnia. You get more
churches burned down in the United States in the last two years than in
the last hundred, because of the lack of understanding of culture and
diversity and the beauty of it.
What are you doing in Chiapas?
Olmos: Were bringing in food, and awareness and medical aid.
Right now, forget it thousands of people have died in the last three
weeks [after Septembers massive floods]. Tens of thousands. We dont
even know how many thousands and thousands have died. Nobody will ever
know because not only is the weather killing them, but now the government
is killing them. On top of the situation of [people] being disappeared
anyway, you hear Oh, they were washed away with the flood.
Right now theyre cleaning house.
Have you had problems with the Mexican government in your work there?
Olmos: Never. Never. I stay... away from them. I dont deal with
them, they dont deal with me. I just dont deal with any government.
I dont deal with the United States government. When it comes to
understanding humanity, theyre the worst.
How often do you go?
Olmos: Whenever I can. Sometimes two, three times a month.
What do you think is going
to happen next there? I mean, in the next year or two?
Olmos: Um. (Pause) The indigenous people will be decimated.
Decimated, meaning just plain
Olmos: Destroyed. They will be wiped out. Yeah. And those that arent
wiped out will be indentured servants to the powers that be in that part
of the world.
There is a long pause before the conversation continues. Olmos has
been going to Chiapas since 1994, the year the states campesino
uprising against the Mexican government began. He fundraises all over
the U.S. to buy the supplies he takes into villages like Pohlo, where
10,000 refugees squatted this summer to escape reprisals after last Decembers
massacre of 45 villagers in Acteal. Crops and villages all over Chiapas
were also devastated this year by military raids, catastrophic wild fires,
and finally, floods in the aftermath of tropical storms. Dysentery and
asthma are epidemic, and with the Mexican governments recent crackdowns
on access privileges for foreign human rights workers and journalists,
even humanitarian aid does not easily get through.
Olmoss entourages are among the few international groups that the
Mexican government currently leaves alone, no doubt due to his celebrity
and his strategic avoidance of political alliances.
Its a painful silence shared. But of course, there are more questions.
And the U.S. press
Olmos: Nonexistent. Reporters arent allowed in anyway. You cant
get in. You cant get a visa and you cant get in.
As a prominent person whos concerned about Chiapas, how successful
have you been in getting the U.S. press to pay any attention to it?
Olmos: Nationally, its very difficult. But locally, I do so
much traveling, Im very effective. Im probably the most effective
voice that they have right now in the United States.
Well, you did get covered
in People magazine...
Olmos: (Laughs) I had a choice, either taking the New York Times or
People magazine. I took People.
Olmos: Yeah, the New York Times is very intellectual and very,
very prestigious, but it doesnt reach the market that People magazine
In your opinion, as someone who works on this: whats the most
effective strategy for improving this world-wide problem of divisiveness?
Olmos: One is teaching. Education is the key. But its the kind
of education that we teach that is the key. We dont have it.
There is no way that we know what is going on between the African American
and the Asian American. We dont understand what an Indigenous American
is. We dont understand what a Latino American is.
We do understand very clearly what a European American is. We study that
95 to 96 percent of the time [from] our first grade through our twelfth
Let me just put it to you this way:
I bring you to school, and I give you a hamburger for free, for lunch.
First grade. Youre gonna love me to death. You come walking in,
I hand you that McDonalds burger. Second day, I hand you that McDonalds
burger for lunch, you look forward to getting your hamburger! Its
By the third or fourth year of having a hamburger every day, youd
turn to the teacher and say, Excuse me, but cant we have like
a pizza, or like, a burrito or something else? As much as you like
hamburger, if you eat it every day, youre gonna get tired of it.
By the tenth, eleventh or twelfth grade,
I dont know whether
you would hate the person who gave you the hamburger or not. But I do
know that you would hate hamburger, after eating it every day for twelve
Well, thats what happens when you feed European studies to non-European
children in a steady diet for twelve year of their lives every time they
go to school.
They may or may not hate the teacher, but they sure as hell are going
to hate white people.
At the rate were going, the 21st century looks pretty clear. Its
going to be pretty violent.
Youre confident that
more and more, people are going to need to be multicultural and multilingual.
Will this override the forces that are trying to keep out immigrants and
Olmos: Oh, itll destroy those people. Those people dont
have a chance. Why do you think theyre fighting so hard right now?
This is the last hurrah.
Its always darkest before the dawn, okay? Always darkest before
the dawn. Right now, the Anglo people are desperately trying to hold on
to the United States, like they tried to hold on to Africa. Not that their
homeland is going to be taken from them, but that theyre going to
have to share [the credit for] the contributions that make this country
great. You have to share the history here.
This not a white country, never has been, never will be.
At one point, it was an indigenous country that has been permeated by
races from all over the world.
And, granted, for a long time, the European has been dominant in certain
parts of this Western Hemisphere, but by the end of the 21st century,
The dawn is here.
What should people do, knowing that these changes are coming?
Olmos: Well, they have no choice, okay? None of us have any choice
What we have to do is prepare ourselves. See, theres no fighting
that has to be done, all that [is needed is] a peaceful understanding
of love, and a commitment to understanding what an Irish persons
like, what a Russian persons like.
What does the Lithuanian culture offer? What does the Ecuadorian culture
offer? What does the Guatemalan culture offer? What do people from Chile
really feel when they listen to people talk about Allende? What do people
of South Africa feel when they listen to words from Gandhi?
You said that the next century is going to be a hell of a century,
its going to be a difficult century
Olmos: And a very optimistic, upswinging century. Because people of
color will definitely, definitely become the power base in the Western
What kind of leadership do you think Latinos need to get them through
the next century?
Olmos: Diverse. Diverse. We have to be able to understand that we
come in black, white, brown, yellow and red.
[Right now] we have Martin Luther King, and if it wasnt for Martin
Luther King wed have no people of color placed in the heroic position
as great people in this world. We dont even have César Chávez
[in that position].
For me, César Chávez was a saint. Martin Luther King was
not a saint. He was a great man, he did great things, but he was not a
saint. César Chávez was a saint. Mother Theresa was a saint.
Theres a difference between Mother Theresa and Ethel Kennedy.
Both of them give of themselves, dont get me wrong. You know, Hillary
Clinton gives of herself. Princess Diana gave of herself. But they are
What makes a saint?
Olmos: A saint is a person who gives of themself without asking for
anything in return. Thats how simple it is to be a saint. Try it!
Try being a saint.
Have you tried?
Olmos: Shit, yeah. I try every day.
Hows it going?
Olmos: Dont make it. (Laughs) Sometimes I make it, sometimes
I dont. Some days, I get real saintly, man, some days like today,
I get real saintly. Today is a saintly day.
Why is that?
Olmos: Today [at the Latino Film Festival] Im giving myself
to all these people and to my community and bringing all this and Im
not asking for anything in return. Todays a saintly day!
And that ego, that feel-good thing?
Olmos: I love it, man, are you kidding? Of course, thats part
of the payback. You get to feel good. You get to feel some sense of self-worth,
self-esteem, self-respect. Thats worth more than a billion dollars!
And what keeps you from being a saint every day?
Olmos: God in heaven only knows. Whenever I turn around, Ill
find myself thinking about something I shouldnt be thinking about.
Like, God, you know, Id love to have one of those .
Like those red shoes! (I
turn and say this to Claudia, who is photographing.)
Claudia: Yeah, I had a little guilt trip earlier.
And Eddie, no saint yet, knows exactly what were talking about.
Olmos: Yeah. Did you want those red shoes or what?
contributed to this report.