Born in East Los Angeles, Edward James Olmos has enjoyed a distinguished career as an artist and as an activist. Olmos initially gained notice as a rock musician in Los Angeles. He then transitioned to a career on the stage and on screen. He earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor for his portrayal of math teacher Jaime Escalante in the movie, “Stand and Deliver.”
Olmos also directed the movie, “Walkout,” about Latino students protesting poor conditions in public schools in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Throughout his illustrious career, Olmos has remained a dedicated activist for various educational causes and a vocal supporter of Latinos represented fairly off and on screen in the television and film arts, and as United States role models. Currently, Olmos co-produces the Latino Book and Family Festival held throughout the U.S. and Latino Literacy Now, and has advocated for the arts, and spoken widely on race and humanity among other projects. Two years ago Olmos founded the Latino Film Institute Youth Cinema Project, a statewide project-based educational program that develops creativity and promotes literacy in 4th-12th grade public schools through the art of filmmaking. He will speak about this initiative and other topics at CSBA’s Annual Education Conference and Trade Show in December 2016. Prior to AEC, he shared his thoughts with CSBA on a range of issues related to the arts, activism and achievement.
In addition to your career in the arts, you have a long history of social activism, what shaped this interest in social justice?
I had wonderful examples set by my parents. I was also fortunate enough to be raised by great grandparents.
I understand you initially began your career in a rock band and then transitioned to acting, directing and producing. What sort of arts education did you receive as a student growing up in southern California?
Believe it or not, I actually learned the art of discipline, determination, perseverance and patience through the fundamentals of baseball. It was introduced to me at the age of six, at the same time my father taught us to dance.
Can you tell us more about your work with the Latino Film Institute Youth Cinema Project?
For nearly a decade, we have developed a curriculum to bring about a strong understanding of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. Starting in the fourth grade and working our way through middle school and high school, students use the art form of cinema to develop self-esteem, self-respect and self-worth. The byproduct of this is that it has unleashed a desire to learn all subjects. LFIYCP has motivated students to become creativ Parts of their scholastic endeavors; it has amazed parents, teachers and administrators that collaborate with us.
From the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival to the Latino Book & Family Festival to encouraging Spanish speakers to vote, social advocacy plays an important role in your life. How do you see the role of an artist in advocating for social causes, particularly Latino causes?
Each person, in order to stay balanced has to give more than they receive. If you don’t, the imbalance will be understood by the intentions that you apply to your craft.
In films such as “Walkout” and “Stand and Deliver,” you have brought attention to socio-economic and educational issues. What speaks to you about these stories?
Plain and simple — the truth that permeates the situations that are being depicted.
70 years have passed since the landmark Mendez v. Westminster case that ended “Mexican schools” in California and set the stage for national school desegregation. In your view, what remains to be done to ensure that all Latino students have the opportunity for a quality education?
What is still needed is an honest understanding that there is only one race: the human race.
As part of your work on the television show “Battlestar Galactica,” you spoke at a United Nations’ forum. What message did you impart to that dialogue on humanity and race?
I imparted the same exact understanding which answered the preceding question: that there is only one race, the human race. There is no such thing as a Latino race, an African race, a Caucasian race, an indigenous race, or an Asian race. There is only one race, the human race. And inside that, there are extraordinary cultures and ethnicities — but there is only one race. We have to stop the usage of the word “race” as a divisive word, and use it as a unifying one.
This interview originally appeared in the 2016 winter issue of California Schools magazine.