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Stand and Deliver’s Olmos To Speak Today

By Sonali Mukherjee

You would think that interviewing a famous actor would be a grandiose extravaganza, especially speaking with one that probably every student at MIT has seen in the movie worshiped by all AP Calculus teachers, Stand and Deliver. Yet, lounging in a chair in the Bush Room, surrounded by excited students associated with Lucha, or La Union Chicana por Azttan, MIT’s Mexican American Student Association, Edward James Olmos coos to a little girl named Chastity, daughter of Noramay J. Cadena ’03. “You have to teach kindness and love to all,” he says to the students crowded around the table. This seems to be one of Olmos’ major themes, and his presence at MIT for two days as an artist in residence is being used to promote this feeling of melding and cultural harmony.

Olmos will be giving two lectures today as part of his visit here to MIT. The first lecture, the Alan Katzenstein Memorial Lecture, entitled “The Nature of Community: We’re All In the Same Gang”, will be presented from 12 to 1:30 p.m. in the Wong Auditorium. The lecture, which will focus primarily on how embracing cultural differences will make a better world community, will be subsequently followed by a book signing of Americanos, a book on the American Latino community, edited by Olmos.

The second lecture, entitled “Values, Ethics, and Leadership” will be given at 5 p.m. tonight in the Wong Auditorium. This lecture is intended to inform people about the importance of personal values and how they affect one’s decisions in life.

Many people will remember Olmos in his Academy Award nominated portrayal of the high school mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver. Escalante gave eighteen students at Garfield High School in Los Angelos the chance at better lives by guiding them though all the required preparatory math classes for the AP Calculus AB Exam. All eighteen of them passed, and all were promptly accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service after having missed the same question. The story of their travails and their ultimate triumph by retaking and passing an even harder exam led to a movie produced by Olmos that has now become a cult film in most calculus classes in the United States.

Surprisingly enough, the movie was never a success in theatres: it took $1.3 million to make, and one year for Olmos to study the character of Escalante, but it was pulled after one week. However, the video sales afterwards were enormous. “High school math teachers were so grateful,” said Olmos. “It inspires students and motivates teachers.” One of the main reasons that he got involved with the movie, which he also produced, was because in 1983 he received the NAACP’s Humanitarian of the Year Award at the same time that Escalante received the Educator of the Year Award. Then, near the end of the summer of that year, before the students were scheduled to go to college, the L.A. Times printed a story that they had cheated. Many people, including Olmos, rallied around Escalante and supported him in his efforts to prove that his students had passed the test with their own efforts. In fact, Escalante sold the story to Olmos for only one dollar.

This classic story about the triumph of the underdogs is just one of the many films that Olmos has been involved with in his life. In 1978, he starred in the musical drama Zoot Suit. He also acted in Wolfen, Blade Runner, and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. The last film was directed by his life long friend Robert M. Young who came to MIT when he was fourteen. Young later left the Institute at seventeen to fight in World War II, and then finished his college education at Harvard.

This is not Olmos’ only connection to MIT. He met Ms. Margaret Keller, the Associate Director of Resource Development at the Sloan School of Management, at the Miami Children’s Hospital in 1985, while he was taping the television show Miami Vice. She was working a fundraiser, and he, being on the board of the hospital, offered his services. “That’s just the way he is,” says Marilee Jones, dean of admissions. “He picks his causes very carefully. He’s very involved and interested in education.” While Jones invited him here as an artist, she also admits that he is also much more than that to the Institute and to the community. “Acting is his craft. [However], he is an activist in that he brings people together.”

Olmos met yesterday with various theater arts students and faculty for a casual one hour conversation about a melange of subjects. From the first second that he walked into the door, he held everyone’s complete and undivided attention. Not only is he a skilled speaker, but he had many interesting subjects on which to expostulate, peppered with many examples and experiences. One of his first topics of conversation was about how he had gotten into an argument with the Vice President of the Institute about the importance of science and how it moves forward the humanities. “When you are, say, a physicist, who cares about human nature? You don’t have to leave rooms, to interrelate”, he says. The humanities, according to Olmos, help one as a human being because one has to totally cross-examine every human emotion ever felt in order to recreate it through theatre arts.

Basically, his feelings came down to a question he asked to everyone in the room: “Should MIT students be caring about cultural dynamics in their environment?” Currently, there are 2,100 Music and Theatre Arts students in the curriculum, and approximately 450 of them are involved in Theatre Arts. It makes Olmos grateful that such people exist in an Institution “thriving on scientific advancement.” Still, he was cautioned by a faculty member not to make such a Hollywood analogy to the science occurring at MIT, as it was also proceeding forward in a combination of baby steps and big leaps.

Olmos spoke about everything from his time as the youngest professional baseball player in California, complete with a demonstration of a fastball pitch. “If you can’t see the ball, you can’t hit it. I could see it,” he said, comparing his experiences as a baseball player to the training of the Jedi Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He also spoke about many of the acting techniques he used in his movies, such as the importance of keeping a bible on one’s character in order to determine three very important topics: where the character is coming from, exactly where he is now, and where he is going to.

Both of the above topics were tied together with one of his main themes of the evening: discipline. “Discipline to do the things you love and you don’t feel like doing will make you the best that you can be,” he said. When he was a baseball player, he practiced for hours on end until he had his game down perfectly. As an actor, he worked on Zoot Suit for fourteen years, seven days a week without any break until the movie was to his standards. “I spend one year of total study to get that guy, and I can only mimic him about ten percent,” says Olmos, referring to the character of Escalante. Discipline and a dislike of material things are some of the main reasons that he has made movies like Stand and Deliver. To him, there are no rules as to what happens to someone after they are successful, no classes instructing how to live with it. People are taught to struggle for success and not how to deal with it once one has it. As a result, many of them disappear because they have overdone life at too young an age. “I’ve been acknowledged,” he concedes, and he is happy with it.

In the chicano community, Olmos is revered mainly because he understands the community’s situations and their lives. For one thing, he knows how important family is. When asked about what he does when he is not on the screen or on TV, he replied: “I share my life with others more than anything else.” He has five children: three are adopted, and two are biological, and he dares anyone to tell them apart. He adopted children because of his mother adopted as well.

Although he grew up in East L.A., which is often considered a mexican enclave, he called the place where he grew up a true gift because it was a place of great diversity. He did not think of it as a melting pot where everyone melded together and lost their identity. Despite the fact that everyone had different cultures, there was a sense of balance that people right now are either only starting to understand or have not comprehended yet. In a way, everyone there was part of his family.

Desiree Ramirez ’02, president of Lucha, supports Olmos’ emphasis on the unity of family. In the United States, Hispanics are the largest minority group, and at MIT they make up 5.8 percent of the student population. Ramirez feels that Lucha is one of the few families that many of these students have, and the fact that MIT currently has only three Chicano faculty members is a huge discrepancy. It is important to her that there be more people on campus who can understand the type of working class backgrounds that students come from. That is one of the main reasons students like her are grateful for speakers like Olmos who are older and carry more clout in the community. “He is the forerunner of Latino spokespeople ... we have hopes that MIT will listen to him; this is how important these talks are. He is an advocate for us.”

Olmos is currently involved in several projects: “We are storytellers. That is exactly why we are in the business -- to tell stories.” Although acting is his trade, bringing people together is one of his passions as well. “Race has been mixed up too often with culture. There is only one race -- and that is the human race. What makes us all the same is that we are all different.”