It won’t be a clean fight. As popular dark horse Esai Morales steps into the ring to battle for the top job at SAG-AFTRA, the recently merged biggest union of the entertainment industry, the old-school status quo is prepping their slings and arrows to defend their turf. What’s at stake? Only 165,000 livelihoods, pensions and futures of SAG-AFTRA members across the US and the globe. If elected, Esai plans to change the present elitist “top-down,” closed-door leadership into a transparent “bottom-up” movement that serves all members, not just the top 1%. He and fellow rebel-compadre Martin Sheen are at the head of a boisterous faction called “Members First.”
The fact that there are “factions” should tip you off—it’s not all sugar and spice… it is wildly political, this artists’ union, and Esai would be the first SAG president of color (any color!) in the 80-year history of the Screen Actors’ Guild, not to mention the 76-year history of AFTRA (the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). For such a liberal profession, there has been a troubling lack of diversity over eight decades. There are plenty of “diverse” members—just not enough jobs for a range of ethnicities.
This mysterious void applies to the current “Industry” hiring practices and THAT is something that Esai wants to put his back into. He has the fight gene in his blood. His mama, Iris Margarita Morales, who raised him solo in Brooklyn, was a Union warrior. Esai was raised to defend and protect. As a little boy in grade school, he helped weaker kids escape after-school pulverization by bullies, leading them to safety by the back exit through the boiler room. When the bullies finally caught on and came after little Esai, he fought back with the only thing available—a pencil.
His recent acclaimed role as the ex-con dad of a transsexual son in the Sundance favorite, “Gun Hill Road,” in “Magic City” as Cuban rebel Carlos “El Tiburón” Ruiz, and his new lead role as Matt Cruz, BAU section chief on “Criminal Minds” make for great Esai watching. It also underscores his value as a working actor in his prime, who cares about his fellow thespians. At a career point when most actors are focused solely on their personal livelihood, Esai’s willing to take on the cause for the less-successful, invest his time, and work to see the wealth spread more equitably.
A hypnotic storyteller, Esai recounts his Rebel-In-Training home life under the tutelage of feisty Iris Morales: “My mother, Iris, was a union organizer for the ILGWU from the 60s through the 70s. She barely spoke English but she spoke justice—and people understand justice. Basically my mother was in the middle of everything in the late 60’s in the most turbulent times, it was rough! People fought police officers, scabs, provocateurs, antagonists—they got out there and fought with their fists, their signs, they fought… for the rights to earn a decent living.”
“My mother was always on the phone helping, telling other women especially —whether it be abuse from their bosses or their boyfriends or their husbands— she would tell them if you don’t stand up now, you never will, things like that, you have to do something, otherwise you legitimize the abuse.”
Founding the successful National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts in 1997 with Jimmy Smits, Sonia Braga, Merel Julia and Felix Sanchez, Esai has proven his leadership skills. With over a million in scholarships for graduate degrees given, the NHFA is a justifiable source of pride for Esai.
He is no bystander. During Cesar Chavez’ heroic 36- day hunger strike in 1988 protesting deadly pesticides in the grape fields, Cesar nearly died. To keep the fast, his cross was symbolically passed between devoted friends and followers who fasted in his place. Martin Sheen fasted for three days, and then passed the cross on to Esai Morales, who fasted for three days before passing the cross to Rev. Jesse Jackson. Those days and commitment live on in Esai’s soul. He asserts with a wry smile: “I’m an actor-vist.”
“Look, there’s a defeatist way and there’s a champion’s way. I opt to be a champion for my fellow artists.”
Esai knows what it’s like at the top and the bottom. “I’ve had tremendous ups and down in my life and my career. And I’m ready to take this on because I want what’s fair for all members. This is not like being the leader of the Latino caucus of SAG. I have to be very sensitive to the needs of all our members. But I will be especially interested that the Latino community does not continue to get short shrift from its union.”
The blue envelopes have been sent to every member of SAG-AFTRA, for their vote, due August 16. With the traditionally low turnout hovering around 14% of membership, every vote counts.
Can the Hispanic swing-vote work its’ magic here as well? ¡Sí, se puede! Pass it on.