Why Is Oscar-Nominated Actor Demian Bichir Always Playing Gardeners, Drug Dealers, or Crooked Cops?

Are even Academy Award nominees affected by the Oscar curse? That’s what I’m left to wonder about Demián Bichir, the Mexican actor who received an Oscar nomination for his performance as a struggling father and undocumented immigrant in 2011’s A Better Life. It was recently announced that Bichir is set to star in an untitled “Low Riders” project as yet another father with an errant son, which raises the question of just how many doors are opened by strong dramatic performances when you’re still considered an “other.”

It’s not as if Bichir arrived in Hollywood as a young unknown; he’s the eldest son of a Lebanese-Mexican acting dynasty not unlike the Barrymores or Hustons. Now 50, Bichir has been acting for decades and has over 70 credits to his name, including portraying Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che movies. He and Salma Hayek were star-crossed lovers in Showtime’s In the Time of Butterflies (based on the Julia Alvarez novel of the same name), and he was more formally introduced to American audiences with a regular role on Weeds. While not exactly groundbreaking work — he played a corrupt Tijuana mayor who was also the head of a drug cartel — Bichir managed to be smarmy and charming, sinister yet seductive.

He followed that up with a critically acclaimed turn in the Chris Weitz-directed A Better Life. Bichir played Carlos Galindo, an undocumented immigrant gardener who struggles to provide for his American soil-born son, Luis. But for Luis, who is ashamed of his father and background, a better life means assimilating into American culture, and disappointingly enough, that assimilation means joining a gang in East LA. It’s both heartbreaking and frustrating to watch, mostly because it’s so familiar. And although the movie touches on international politics and intergenerational tension, the father-son relationship ultimately just feels like a trope.

After chewing scenery in 2013’s Machete Kills, Bichir landed the (male) lead in FX’s The Bridge, an American adaptation of the Danish-Swedish original series, Broen. As Detective Marco Ruiz, Bichir was one of the few honest cops in Chihuahua (we’ll have to deal with the stereotypes in another post), but also a less than faithful husband. Still, Bichir shone in the role, playing Marco as someone who sidesteps the rules more than he bends them, and was a great foil for Diane Kruger’s Sonya Cross, a detective who redefined “by the book.” The Bridge earned a Peabody award and some raves in its first season, though it was recently canceled after season two (we have some thoughts on why.)

And that brings us to today and the news that Bichir will star in the East L.A.-set lowrider drama that we know little about other than that he will play a father to a pair of competitive brothers whose sibling rivalry takes them all the way to the “Super Show.” Some outlets are calling this a “return to form” for Bichir, but it’s only been four years since A Better Life; should he really be back at the “stern father” well already? If someone with the clout that Bichir arrived with is having trouble landing roles outside of the gardener/gangbanger spectrum, then truly, roles for Latinos are slim pickings.

Even Bichir does seem aware of this bind; at a September press conference in Havana, he talked about his reluctance to portray “stereotypical Latino characters” in American cinema, and said that there are few opportunities for Latino actors in Hollywood, even those who have garnered international recognition. Which is perhaps why he’s forging ahead with his own features; he’s currently working on his directorial debut, Refugio. I guess the moral of the story is that as Latinos, we need to take control of telling our stories, in addition to appearing in them.