Moreno Acts with Grace; Latina Actrees Takes Pride in Heritage

Article excerpt

Byline: Jenny Mayo, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There's a scene in the 2004 film "Maria Full of Grace" in which the titular character asks another young woman what America is like. The pregnant, teenaged Maria has just accepted an offer to become a drug mule after being forced into a financial corner, and she's about to leave her Colombian homeland for her first working trip to the United States.

She's scared, anxious, a little shaky and maybe just a tad excited about catching her first glimpse of the land of Uncle Sam and apple pie.

"Over there, it's like too perfect," the young woman replies. "Everything's straight."

From the moment Maria hits the ground in the U.S., things are far from perfect. But for Catalina Sandino Moreno, the Colombian-born twentysomething who plays her, it's been a very different story.

After she wrapped filming of what would be her cinematic debut, the actress moved to New York City to further her craft and await "Maria's" release. When that happened in 2004, the Spanish-language film (by American director Joshua Marston) sent shock waves through the festival circuit and beyond with its searing portrayals and delicate examination of what happens at the intersection of money and morals.

The film not only introduced the then-unknown Miss Moreno to American audiences, but made her the talk of Tinseltown. In 2005, she was named ShoWest's international star of the year and was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress.

She didn't take home the Oscar, but the actress has since won her way into films by such acclaimed directors as Richard Linklater ("Fast Food Nation"), Walter Salles (the "Loin de 16eme" segment of "Paris, Je T'aime") and most recently, Mike Newell ("Love in the Time of Cholera").

America, says Miss Moreno, is her "second home."

"America has given me work, has given me shelter, has given me food, has given me friends. I can't complain about anything that America has given me," she says.

However, when quizzed a bit more, the petite actress does eventually lodge a complaint.

She didn't work for two years following "Maria," and it's not because she wasn't getting offers. What came her way were a lot of roles that either felt too fluffy compared to her profoundly moving previous work, or ones that pegged the dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty as a stereotypical Latina: lusty and brainless.

"After seeing people react to the movie 'Maria,' I couldn't do any of these," Miss Moreno says. "I have a personal responsibility not just for the people, but for me, being Colombian and being a Latina."

Does she recall any of the distasteful roles she was offered?

"I don't remember specific scripts, but I do remember that they were appalling," she says. "I wasn't just offended, but really sad, thinking my career was over because I will never get another job."

Unwilling to compromise her morals, she waited for the right script and distracted herself with the thrills of the Big Apple and rigors of acting classes.

Eventually, several of the right scripts came her way. …