“For his tremendous talents but most importantly for serving as a role model and advocate for the Latin community,” Gael García Bernal will receive the Vision Award at the 30th Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards. The Mexican actor, whose voice talent is on full display in the upcoming PIXAR animated film “Coco,” will be the headliner in a ceremony that highlights the contributions of Latin Americans to many aspects of American life. “The awards,” according to the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, “are unique in that celebrities take the stage alongside physicians, scientists, educators, innovators, public officials, community and business leaders, and even young leaders.” Past winners include Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, boxer Oscar de la Hoya, and music legends Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.
In these days of white nationalism, racism and xenophobia, such an event, created 30 years ago by the White House, makes a statement merely by taking place. The selection of García Bernal, a committed political activist and vocal Donald Trump critic, for the feature award makes it all the more clear: the Hispanic community in the United States is proud to stand up and show what it’s got, but it’s watchword in the current political climate is “resistance.”
There’s something substantial about García Bernal. There’s a serious and well-informed concern about the world, and a righteous belief that his privileged position requires him to try to help make it better. Notably, from the early days of his career, García Bernal has engaged with the difficult political history of Latin America, and with the difficult challenges the region faces today. This is evident in his acting roles, in the projects he has collaborated with behind the camera, and in his very public pronouncements. The Hispanic Heritage Awards will no doubt piggyback on his resume and wide range of interests to raise awareness of the many ways in which Hispanics and Latinos feel threatened and persecuted in America today.
In 2010, he collaborated with the human rights organization Amnesty International on a series of short films about Central American migrants titled “Los Invisibles.” More recently, he played a starring role in the film “Desierto,” directed by Jonás Cuarón, about a group of migrants trying to survive in the desert on their long trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. And this is only one of the many aspects of Latin American history and politics that he has explored as an actor. It would belittle his body of work to reduce him to a Trump hater.
As a relative unknown (both his parents worked in the Mexican film industry, and he had gotten some recognition as an performer in Mexican soap operas) he caught the attention of two of Mexico’s most promising young film directors. First, Alejandro González Iñárritu cast him in his debut feature, “Amores Perros”(“Dog Loves”), as a poor young ne’er-do-well in Mexico City who’s involved in a brutal dog fighting ring.
Then he was chosen to co-star, along with his lifelong friend, Diego Luna, in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También” (“And Your Mama Too”), one of the great Latin American films of the past 30 years. (Amazingly, both Iñárritu and Cuarón would later win Best Director Oscars, the former for “Birdman”, the latter for “Gravity”). Though neither of the two films is expressly political, they touch on subjects such as poverty and income inequality, violence, and sex, and established the young García Bernal as a fearless and supremely talented dramatic actor.
It hasn’t all been politics, of course. García Bernal has shown enormous range, delving just as easily into comedy or drama. He memorably played a drag queen/transgender woman in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education,” a romantic dreamer in “The Science of Sleep,” and is currently poised to become Zorro, the most famous Latin hero of them all. Interestingly, he isn’t a chameleon. He doesn’t disappear into the roles he plays. García Bernal, is always unmistakably there. Somehow, he has convinced a worldwide audience that he can be a stand-in for any Spanish speaking nationality. He has played Mexicans, Chileans, Argentines, Spaniards. In portraying characters of different nationalities, he has been hero and villain, criminal and policeman, winner and loser. No doubt this is in large part due to the power of his presence, which radiates passion, commitment, and integrity.
The 30th Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards ceremony will take place at the Historic Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. Sept. 14 and broadcast on PBS Oct. 6.