Esai Morales has been a household name for over three decades. Yes, he is one of those artists that our parents and our kids love, just like Bon Jovi: timeless. I’m sure some of you had altars raised in his name, with posters all over the ceiling to admire his Puerto Rican genes. I digress.
From La Bamba to Gun Hill Road, from The Equalizer to Criminal Minds, we’ve enjoyed his award-winning performances. But more importantly, this self-proclaimed actorvist is one of the founders of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, taking inspiration from his mother, who was an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Not surprisingly he serves his union, the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, as an elected official.
With all this experience gathered as an activist and an actor, he’s inevitably the perfect fit for his new on-screen job: president of the United States of America. He’s an autodidact, he’s talented, he’s eloquent and now, he’s an advisory board member of the Latino Rebels Network. And you lucky Rebels are getting a nice treat, for he drove me home after a business meeting and ended up talking about his new role, unionism and his political inclinations.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: You have an enviable, incredible career, and now you’re in HBO’s The Brink. If anyone should play the president of the United States, it’s you. How did you get that role?
Esai Morales: I got the part like everyone else: scrapping it out, to be honest with you. I auditioned, read the script and thought it was very funny, and I realized this is the chance to do what I always wanted to do: lead the free world. Since I was young I used to have delusions of grandeur and saw myself speaking to large global audiences at night, for some reason, kind of employing the basis to unite different people to work in harmony.
MF: In real life you did run for president of your union SAG-AFTRA. Are you running again?
EM: Yes and no. I ran and won local vice-president, and it was easier for me to handle as opposed to running for the presidency again. You know, running the country on HBO is one thing, but also running a union is a bit much. So I went with the less taxing position where I’m still a national board member and a local union official, but do not have the massive responsibilities of representing all 163,000 performers.
MF: How many Latinos are serving in the union?
EM: Not a lot, I got to tell you. I’m one of the handfuls of people. Within the actual organization there’s amazing representation like Carlina Rodríguez and Ray Rodríguez. I mean there are members serving, but we need more.
MF: What is the state of Spanish-language media, actually being mostly non-union? Is that a correct assessment?
EM: It’s a very sad state of affairs, but unfortunately we had a chance years ago to organize these folks and the leadership at the time didn’t take Spanish-language media seriously and let it go. Now they’re taking it seriously.
MF: Let’s leave it at that. How long until we have a Latino president or vice-president of the United States? Is our generation going to see that happen?
EM: I’m jaded because unfortunately we live in a world where money runs just about everything, and it sickening to me. At one point people used to hide that, but now it’s coming out into the spotlight with people like Donald Trump, who campaigns as if money is a virtue: “I made money, so I know how to run a nation.” And that’s not ever proven to be true.
MF: Now let’s get into Rebeldes grounds. You know those fields very well. You’ve been very outspoken against GMOs, Monsanto and the food industry, and pro-legalization of marihuana. Can you explain your stance?
EM: I noticed in my life, there are two types of food: food that feeds your health and food that feed your disease. What I notice is that there’s two other ways to look at food: food designed for your body and food designed for the bottom line of the people who make it. So you have foods that are non-perishable; the longer the shelf life, the less life it gives you. Nature, after all is said and done, is better at providing our needs than anything a man and scientists mix in a lab. So in the lab you can patent it, but you can’t patent nature. If you alter nature, you can charge a premium and stop others from doing the same. Therefore we have a society that lives off people’s efforts to make money by keeping you sick. Modern living is a gauntlet of compromising factors: from the air we breathe to the water we drink. What is this one-size-fits-all vaccination policy? What is underneath all this? If you dig in, it’s mostly profit. We live in the era of information, and if you do not receive the right information, you succumb to the illusions.
EM: It’s a plant that’s been useful to our society for over 5,000 years and has over 10,000 uses and benefits. From rope, to canvas, to clothing, to gasoline — we have the capability to do things, but financial interests say, “No, I’m going to stop your ability to evolve.” That’s a big problem. We have industries that have become too powerful, too big and too rich. Too bad for the human race, because we’re now subject to their interests. Not the other way around.
MF: You’ve also been outspoken about the lack of education. You argue that we don’t have education, we have indoctrination. Please explain.
EM: Teaching someone how to think for themselves is more important than teaching them what to think.
MF: Let’s go back to media for a moment. I’m curious about something I’m personally passionate about. Is media at fault for permeating stereotypical portrayals of us Latinos and people of color in general?
EM: Yes, media is extremely influential, but it’s a very subconscious thing, almost unconscious. Media executives don’t go: “I’m going to make these people look bad.” They don’t have to do it.
MF: We do it to ourselves?
EM: Partially, yes, we play into it. The other part is that the people portraying us don’t know us. They portray their lack of understanding. Whenever they portray us they’re usually poor, they have more children than they need, and they engage in violence or strife or some sort of dysfunction associated with them. It’s a combination of all because we play into it. That being said, actors need to eat. We can’t blame them for taking the role, for working, although I wouldn’t play some parts for many years because I felt they were directly feeding the denigration of our people. Why would I want to be yet another coke dealer or abuser of women? It’s so easy to show us leadership roles like in Narcos. It’s so easy to show us in the light of a gangster of some sort, or Romeos, or hystericals. We’re not seen as people who save the day. We’re not seen as world leaders or simply people that have it together. We’re not seen as an integral part of the community. We’re seen as extras.
MF: Well, I’m incredibly happy you got that role of the president, and Jimmy Smits played it in The West Wing.
EM: My thing, I’m doing it in a comedy. The reason I also took this role is not only because it was an HBO show, but also the character is the voice of reason. I’m the Latino POTUS who’s not a joke in a comedy series. And going back, if the wrong people play us, it’s a disservice. And by wrong people I mean miscast people. I went to that audition room and I owned it, just like Martin Sheen owned his part too. Why? Because I’m a political animal, I like people, I like campaigning, and I like pressing the flesh. I took these attributes and ran with them.
MF: After all this Rebelde conversation, I must ask: what is your definition of a Latino Rebel?
EM: It’s a Latino who decides not to follow the stream, the masses. It’s a Latino who says, “I’m part of my flock, but I don’t give a flock.” A Latino who says, “I’m part of the group, but not defined or limited by it.”