The very first time that Rosie Perez traveled abroad, she experienced racial profiling. Authorities at London’s Heathrow Airport subjected her to a full-body search because they assumed she was a “drug mule,” the actress told Uproxx. Sadly, things weren’t much better back home in the United States. Perez found that, as a woman of color, respectable roles were exceedingly hard to come by.
“When I first started in this industry, they didn’t want [diversity],” she told People. “They wanted me to be completely white-washed, [but] I’ve never shied away from portraying my Puerto Rican-ness.” In her memoir, Perez revealed that she almost didn’t get to play what’s arguably her most iconic role in the film, White Men Can’t Jump, because producers were nervous about her ethnicity. “The studio, as I was told, had a problem that I was Puerto Rican,” she wrote, adding that “they were worried about the interracial aspect” of her relationship with Woody Harrelson’s character. Harrelson wasn’t having any of it — he clicked with Perez during her audition, and the Cheers star stood his ground against the big wigs.
The rest is history, but that kind of discrimination is still rampant in Hollywood, according to Perez. “I think it’s really, really important for Latin actors and actresses to go out for roles that are not specifically designed for a Latino character,” she told People. “Let them know that we’re not just one thing … we’re human beings first and Latinos second.”