The Filmmakers Behind ‘Real Women Have Curves’ Share the Struggles of Getting Their Body-Positive Film Made

The Academy presented a screening of "Real Women Have Curves" as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, on Monday, October 16, 2017. Pictured (left to right): Ivette Rodriguez, Josefina López, Marilyn Atlas, Effie Brown, America Ferrera, Patricia Cardoso, Soledad St. Hilaire and Ingrid Oliu.

Looking back at the release of Real Women Have Curves is bittersweet. The film, which was released 15 years ago, is a landmark in US Latino storytelling, especially because women of color were in front and behind the camera. But remembering its impact also forces us to realize that in all these years there hasn’t been another project like it. That instead of being the beginning of a slew of Latina-driven stories it was an isolated incident.

Written by Josefina López and directed by Patricia Cardoso, this crowd pleaser premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. It gave America Ferrera her first and most-defining movie role and was the vehicle for one of Lupe Ontiveros‘ most memorable parts. The veteran actress and fresh-faced Ferrera won a Special Jury Prize for Acting award at the Park City festival for their turns as mother and daughter. Ferrera plays a Ana García, a Mexican-American girl who wants to go to college but is conflicted. Her family’s financial situation forces her to work at her sister sewing factory with her mother Carmen (Ontiveros), who is very traditional and critical of Ana’s body and aspirations. Its humor and endearing, relatable moments made Real Women Have Curves an utter success with audiences.

Cardoso explained that industry people wanted her to make the Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles look gritty, just as the mainstream imagination sees places like Boyle Heights. Instead, the director and cinematographer, Jim Denault, decided to make it a sun-drenched story that highlights the beauty of everyday Latinos living meaningful lives. Every scene in the film sports bright colors and brims with light. The director refuses to make their workplace look like a sketchy sweatshop, because in the characters eyes, what they do is dignified and hopeful. The murals and street art of the area where the film takes place was also an important focus.

During a highly memorable Q&A following the Academy’s anniversary screening of the film as part of the “PST: From Latin America to Hollywood” series, the writer Josefina López, actress America Ferrera, director Patricia Cardoso, producer Effie Brown, and other women involved shared their thoughts on its significance, legacy, and how little things have change since its production. Here some highlights.

Josefina López on Facing Body Issues in her High School Drama Class

This story really started when I was in High School. I went to Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and I had a wonderful theater teacher who pulled me aside. It started with me being embarrassed to wear leotards. We were supposed to do chorus lines, and I couldn’t wear them, so I was wearing shorts, and she said, “Why aren’t you wearing leotards?” And I told her that I was embarrassed of my body. And she said, “Well, I’ve been wanting to have this conversation with you. If you’re really serious about being an actress, you have to lose weight, because no one will ever cast you as the ingénue if you don’t lose weight.” And I started to cry because I was always afraid to even think that I could be an actor, because I thought you had to be white, and I equated being white with being beautiful. When she told me that I cried, and then she started crying with me, and she said, “I feel so bad telling you this, because I was told the same thing. I’m not telling you this because I think you should change, but this is the way the business works. Men want to play the heroes in all the stories, so I guess women have to be thin enough to be lifted up into their arms to walk into the sunset, because men get to be the heroes of all of the stories.”

Josefina López on Writing Stories About Chunky Girls Getting Laid

[Back then] I tried to lose weight for two weeks, and then I got really angry. I did, I took her advice, I was 18 years old, and then at some point I got really angry. I said, “First they’ll tell me that I have to lose weight. Then they’ll tell me to change my name, because my name, Maria Josefina López, is so Mexican. It doesn’t get more Mexican than that. And then they’re going to tell me, ‘Why don’t you change your hair color?’ And then they’re going to tell me, ‘Why don’t you change your story?’ And then, ‘Why don’t you talk about the fact that you were undocumented?’” And then at some point I said, “God, if I have to give up everything of who I am to be an actor, then there’s nothing left of me.” Instead of saying, “I should change,” I said, “No! Fuck you society, you should change. That’s where the coraje came. I think we’re all sitting here because there was that 18-year-old girl, who said there’s something wrong with society, not me. Because I was born Mexican, I was born this way, I was born to parents who didn’t have an education, so they were working class people who were dignified, so why should I be ashamed? Everything that I was told to be ashamed of, I was like, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I’m told to hide, to be quiet, to apologize for who I am when I did nothing wrong.” There was something inside of me that said, “No, if there are no stories about chunky girls getting laid, or being heroes, then I’m going to write those stories. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get to be an actor, because somebody else will, someone else will get to live this dream.”

Photo by Michael Yada. Courtesy of A.M.P.A.S.
Read more

Josefina López on Being Undocumented for 13 Years 

I set out to start writing, and I wrote Real Women Have Curves because I worked in a sewing shop, and I was undocumented for 13 years. When I got my Green Card, I decided that I was never going to hide anymore, because I was tired of being a shadow, of being ashamed that I was undocumented. Because a paper determines that you’re a human being? And you believe it, right? I’m so proud of the Dreamers, because now they don’t take that shit, they’re like, “No, we’re human beings, it was not our fault.” For me, writing this play was an affirmation of my humanity, of saying, “No, I’m a human being, and I don’t know what I did wrong, and I refuse to apologize.” Damn it! My life has value, women’s lives have value, and women’s stories have value.

Josefina López on Being Sick and Tired of Hollywood

I’m sick of Hollywood telling us constantly that women’s lives don’t have value, or that our stories don’t matter. I’ve been in this business 30 years, and this is a beautiful movie, right? But I could’ve gotten 10 more done by now! We’ve been waiting for so long. I really hope this explodes, and I really hope [the uncovering] eventually gets to racism. I can’t say that I’ve been harassed, because I have the talent, and when you have the talent, nobody can tempt you with anything, but the racism that I’ve experienced for 30 years, I’m sick of it. I think this story is unfortunately so relevant because it’s about women’s lives mattering, about the fact that they matter. That’s such an audacious statement.

Patricia Cardoso on Seeing Josefina’s First Play Simply Maria

[Josefina’s work] came to me a few times before the film got made. The first time was when I was going to film school at UCLA, and I went to see a play called Simply Maria, in Downtown at LA Theatre Works. I remember that I loved it. I was sitting in the front row with my friends, and I was just laughing so much because I could identify so much with that character from the play.

Effie Brown, Ingrid Oliu, Patricia Cardoso, America Ferrera, Josefina Lopez and Soledad St. Hilaire. Photo by Paul Hebert. Courtesy of A.M.P.A.S.
Read more

Patricia Cardoso on Auditioning to Direct the Film

I had to go on the whole interview process. When you’re a director, you’re also like an actor, you have to audition, and meet the producers, and the president of the studio, and I went through the whole thing. I just loved the story so much. Even though Josefina and I come from different backgrounds, I come from Colombia and I came here as a grown up, I just identified so much with the story, the mother and the daughter, and I loved all the Mexican culture — my husband is Mexican. That’s how it happened, and they hired me, fortunately.

America Ferrera on the First Time She Saw Herself on the Big Screen

A month before I got cast in this, I had wrapped a Disney Channel movie called Gotta Kick It Up, but in fact, Real Women Have Curves came out before Gotta Kick It Up aired on the Disney Channel, so the first time my name was on a screen, and certainly in the theaters, was Real Women Have Curves. The first time I saw myself on screen was at the Sundance Film Festival in the Library to a packed house and a standing ovation for this film.

America Ferrera on How Real Women Have Curves Changed Her Life

[It changed my life] in all the ways. I could have never known that at 17, being one of six children to a single Honduran immigrant mother, growing up in the Valley, where months went by where we didn’t have warm running water, or running water at all, or electricity, having this dream of being an actress, coming from where I came from. My own family, my friends, my teachers, people would say to me, “That’s very unlikely.” But I, with the naïveof a young person, had been told there was nothing I couldn’t do and I believed it. Even then, knowing in the moment that it was so special and my dream was coming true, I could have never understood then the way I do now what an anomaly this film was, and the fact that, I had been in the right place, at the right time, at the right age, to get to take on this role in this film. It set the bar for me. I remember traveling the world with this film, and seeing people of all ages, all ethnicities, male, female, you name it, coming up to me and saying, “That’s me. I’m that girl.” And for that to be my first experience with acting, with film, to realize that it wasn’t just about being an actress and getting to make movies, but telling stories that reflected people’s lives back at them, it changed everything for me. It made me realize that I could have a career that meant something bigger than just myself and my own dreams and aspirations.

America Ferrera On What Keeps Her Going as a Woman of Color

It is so painful sometimes to think about how little has happened for Latina women in film, or just people of color, since this film, and the way that it was received. But I think what keeps me going and a lot of women and people of color going is, if we don’t break down the doors that we can break down, then we’re not doing justice to the people coming behind us.

America Ferrera on Working with Lupe Ontiveros

Working on my first film role with Lupe Ontiveros changed my life, and it’s hard not to have her here with us today. Her family is here, which is a beautiful thing. Working with Lupe opened my eyes up from the very beginning about how people with enormous talent could go their whole careers and never get the real chance to express the entirety of their talent. When it gets hard, or when it feels like, “Are we moving in the right direction? Are we breaking those doors down?” I think about Lupe all the time.

Josefina López on Getting Lupe Ontiveros a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame

We’re going to get her a star on the Walk of Fame, right? We’re going to nominate her in May, and hopefully we’ll get the nomination, and then we’ll raise the funds to get her a star on the walk of fame.