Esai Morales: 'It would break my heart to reject my daughter for wanting to be a man'
For Esai Morales, a Hollywood actor who fervently advocates for Latino rights in this country, starring in the film Gun Hill Road has not only affected his career, but his life. Since childhood, he has faced ingrained taboos about differences in sexual orientation.
In the film, his character, Quique, is a Latino man from New York who, after paying his debt to society, is released from prison to reconnect with his family, only to find that nothing is the same, and that his son now imbues the spirit of a women trapped in a young man's body of a man Quique cannot accept.
In an entertaining, profound and enlightening interview, Esai discusses prejudices, Latinos facing difficult challenges of all types, what he would do if his daughter planned a sex change, and denounces a prejudiced judicial system against Latinos in the United States.
AOL Latino: Why has your character, Quique, in Gun Hill Road affected you so much?
Esai Morales: He is a person who resembles many people I grew up with in the Bronx; a man who wants to do good, but his environment holds him back. He was jailed, and after his release, he wants his family back, he wants to be a father, husband and head of his household. But he finds that his new life is not the same [as the one he left when he was locked up]. His wife is now involved with someone else, and his son doesn't want to be a son because he no longer wants to be a man. To survive in prison, if you're not a man, you're a victim. It's an insult to him [Quique], like denying his own manhood. And his son [and his dilemma] is the worst thing that could happen to him. He tries to fix his son, to change him and to adapt, but he has no idea what to do.
AOL Latino: Are sexual themes in movies a fad or a need to reflect on reality?
Esai Morales: Sexuality is an important issue for people, for parents. The community generally has no compassion for people who are different. That's the beauty of this film because it doesn't tell you what to do. It doesn't preach, but it does show you what happens when a family doesn't accept reality in terms of sexuality. One wants his son to be a son but what makes a person want to be different? Many people feel that it's them, a reflection of how they were raised, their genes. That is what grounds this film, and that's why it's affected me so much, because I feel this type of approach is necessary for us Latinos.
AOL Latino: Do you feel that sexual taboos are harder for Latinos to overcome than other ethnic communities?
Esai Morales: In the American community there is more discourse. In ours we [also] have tradition, something that is good, but once there's no acceptance or understanding in our own community, things get complicated. In our art we need to explore the human condition a bit more. There is lots of commercialism in our world; that you have to buy this or follow a certain trend, but not to say 'let's look at the spirit, the heart of our people who are different. Let's respect and understand decisions.' Our children, although they're imitations, almost their parents' clones, they're individuals who have their own world. When [parents] try to push their own desires, dreams and frustrations onto them, they do them [their kids] harm. This film explores that condition and, I think, amplifies the capacity of those who see it to love, because it shows such a beautiful, precious soul, like that of character Harmony Santana, who plays my son. His spirit is that of a woman, a lady; how can we expect anything else? It's like expecting [famous sexually ambivalent Latino astrologer] Walter Mercado to be a male chauvinist. Walter has been with us since I was a little boy but there's nothing [mentioned] about his sexuality and it's fine, because at least he is accepted. But it's not that easy with other people [who aren't famous]. If someone isn't famous or doesn't have a show on astrology, they don't have much luck [gaining acceptance] in our community.
AOL Latino: Did you always think this way, or were you among those with their own prejudices and taboos?
Esai Morales: When I was little, I remember certain adults telling me: 'Don't be like that. Look at those people who society disparages. They spit on them.' That's how parents try to tell you, in such a way for you to become disinterested. It's not a direct bias, but subtly they insult [the group]. While making this movie, I asked my wife, who was pregnant (we had no idea yet what our child's gender would be), 'My love, what would you do if our child was gay? How would you react?' She comes from a very conservative family, from the mountains, and she said, 'Well, I would take him to buy clothes.' Anyway, we had a girl and she's a treasure, and I'm very happy.
AOL Latino: Would you recommend that parents and children go see this film?
Esai Morales: Yes. It's a shame that many Latinos wouldn't go see it because they feel it's not for children or adolescents. Beyond theaters, I think this film should be used educationally in schools, so that [students] understand the importance of tolerance and that love, above all else, is what should guide our actions. If someone loves their son or daughter, they won't care if they turn out different and it wouldn't embarrass them. In India and among Native Americans, those who are different among the sexes are considered shamans, healers. Amid masculine and feminine there is a place for everyone in society. Here, we laugh if they're dressed as women. This film is one of the first that doesn't do that, that doesn't ridicule but humanizes the person who is transforming because they feel pressure within their own body.
AOL Latino: What would happen if one day your daughter tells you that she doesn't feel comfortable in her body and wants sexual reassignment surgery, like Cher's daughter?
Esai Morales: Cher's daughter is someone I respect a great deal because she's made herself an icon. I like Chaz a lot. I have an aunt who had a friend that always hung out with her. She was very masculine, but nobody said anything. They raised two heterosexual girls without any problems. It was never discussed, but it seemed that one [either my aunt and her friend] was in love with the other. And that's what happens in our community: reality happens but it's not talked about. However, when you don't speak, you invite abuse because the less enlightened are going to want to take advantage, even abuse, those people.
AOL Latino: So you would support and accept your daughter's decision to have a sex change?
Esai Morales: I'm heterosexual, and it would break my heart to reject my daughter for wanting to be a man. The only reason I fathom why a parent would reject a child is out of shame, and that's not right. That's how people have been from the beginning of time. There have always been homosexuals and transsexuals, but the technology hasn't been available to help them in their transition to a body that's more in line with their soul. Now, and I think it's a disgrace today with so much evolution behind us, a 15 year old would die at the hand of another because he dressed like a girl, went to school and another adolescent shot him in the back of the head and killed him for being different.
AOL Latino: Would people think that this film is more that of the jailed, typical Latino stereotype, but with a different message?
Esai Morales: We have a lot of people in jail. It could be a stereotype, but it's the truth. We're victims of a very abusive judicial system. And many of our people, rather than educating themselves, to find a way to rise above, land in this horrible system. We Latinos are raw material for this system. We're born and raised to go to jail, and that's not right. All these messages are shown in the film, that's why I invite all of you to see it and reflect together.
Would you take your child to see Gun Hill Road?
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