There are plenty of character actors who possess a recognizable face but whose name may not be well-known. So far, that fate has seemingly befallen the terrific Lupe Ontiveros, but gradually she is becoming known to a more mainstream audience. A native of Texas, the seemingly ageless actress did not originally set out to be a performer. After graduating from Texas Women's University, she relocated to Los Angeles and found employment as a social worker. By the late 1970s, though, she had begun her career, first as a founding member of the Latino Theater Company and then in film and TV roles.
Unfortunately, early in her career she was annoyingly typecast as thickly-accented maids or ladies of the evening in mainstream Hollywood fare (e.g., "California Suite" 1978; "The Border" 1981). Still, Ontiveros managed to wring something out of what could have been degrading parts. She found greater success and a wider range of roles working in theater (e.g., "Zoot Suit" 1978-79) and in independent films (notably, Gregory Nava's "El Norte" 1983). Continuing to divide her time between the stage and film and TV, Ontiveros amassed a nice resume and was a recognizable face. With Nava's "My Family, Mi Familia" (1995) she began to assume meaty roles and the director offered her a real plum -- the part of the troubled assassin Yolanda Saldivar in the biopic of the Tejano singer "Selena" (1997). That same year, she was the sweet-faced maid on the receiving end of one of Jack Nicholson's character's tirades in "As Good As It Gets".
But it took "Chuck & Buck" (2000), the oddly touching tale of a warped childlike man who hasn't completely matured to solidify her indie credibility. As Beverly, the tough theater director who agrees to stage Buck's poorly conceived play, Ontiveros delivered an expert, scene-stealing supporting turn that made audiences and critics take note. The actress continued to work steadily in a wide-ranging array of features, including the oddball comedy "Picking Up the Pieces" (2000) and the "Non-fiction" sequence of writer-director Todd Solonz's "Storytelling" (2001), before landing her best role to date: in Patricia Cardoso's "Real Women Have Curves" (2002), she played Carmen, the imperious, overbearing, hypercritical mother of a full-figured Mexican-American teen (America Ferrera) who insists her daughter forego college and follow tradition by taking a job in the sweatshop where Carmen works. Ontiveros delivered a fully former performance that was both comic and cruel, earning critical raves. That same year she appeared to strong effect in "Passionada," as the strightforward mother-in-law of a faithful widow (Sofia Milos).
On television, Ontiveros had recurring roles on "Veronica's Closet" and the well-reviewed but ratings-impaired primtetime soap "Pasadena" and was a regular on the short-lived sit-com "Greetings From Tucson" (Fox. 2002) before her bravura turn on the first season of ABC's hit drama "Desperate Housewives," playing Juanita Solis, the strong-willed, suspicious mother-in-law of the adulterous Gabrielle (Eva Longoria).