From José Ferrer to Benicio del Toro, over the years Puerto Rican actors have helped carve out an important space for Latino stars in Hollywood, with Ferrer holding the distinction of being the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award for 1950’s Cyrano de Bergerac. But few may know that one of the most influential and critically acclaimed Puerto Rican actors in the history of Hollywood was actually a black man, Juano Hernández, whose career in the pictures predated that of Ferrer by over twenty years.
Largely forgotten even in his native Puerto Rico, Hernández is considered by film historians to be a trailblazing actor who revolutionized the representation of black characters on the big screen. With a prolific career spanning over 50 years, his breakout role in a filmed adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1949) earned him a Golden Globe nomination and glowing praise from international critics and even Faulkner himself. Here, we take a look back at the life of this humble artist who all but changed Hollywood with his unmistakable charisma and talent.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico (then still part of Spain) in 1896 to a Puerto Rican father and Brazilian mother, accounts of Hernández’s early childhood differ. According to a 2000 Puerto Rican made for TV documentary on his life, Hernández was left orphaned at an young age and sent to live with an aunt in Rio de Janeiro. Losing his aunt a few short years later, Hernández was left to fend for himself and took to performing on the streets of Brazil with a gang of friends. Thanks to his natural-born predilection for performing, Juano was soon picked up by a traveling circus and worked his way around the Americas before hopping over to New Orleans at the tender age of 16.
Once settled in the United States, Hernández set about perfecting his English and developed his multifaceted artistic talents by singing in a church choir, writing radio scripts for CBS, and eventually acting on Broadway, where he made an impressive career for himself in diverse roles. After a brief appearance as a Mexican soldier in the infamous 1914 feature The Life of General Villa, Hernández began his career on the big screen acting in producer-director Oscar Micheaux’ depression-era “race films” which featured black performers and were targeted towards black audiences.
Famed for his big, sympathetic eyes, commanding voice, and incomparable stage presence, Hernández’s eventual mainstream success with Intruder in the Dust opened the door for a series of groundbreaking roles under the guidance of illustrious directors like Michael Curtiz and Sydney Lumet. Later in life, Hernández returned to his native Puerto Rico where he taught English at the University of Puerto Rico and served as a mentor for young artists and filmmakers like Jacobo Morales. He continued acting in Hollywood productions until his death in 1970.
Here’s a look back at some of his more prominent roles.