"I grew up without seeing people that look like me on the screen," director Patricia Cardoso recalled in a conversation last year with the Academy. This experience pushed her to foster representation on-screen, in films like Real Women Have Curves.

The 2002 comedy-drama became a landmark film, lauded for its authentic depiction of the family dynamics present in Latino households in Los Angeles. Based on the play of the same name by Josefina López – who co-wrote the screenplay with George LaVoo – Real Women Have Curves stars America Ferrera as Ana García, a first generation Mexican-American girl trying to find her path and identity through conflicting views with her immigrant parents.

It wasn't easy to find the right actress to play Ana, Cardoso remembered. "There were not many actors [who were] Latinas, and then, that have curves," she explained. Over six months, Cardoso enlisted casting directors in Los Angeles, New York, Texas and Mexico City – only to find Ferrera doing a summer theater program at Northwestern University in Chicago.

"We had her come to our offices in Downtown L.A., and she was such a strong actor, and she was also so smart and so independent… she is our character," Cardoso recalled of Ferrera, who was born in Los Angeles to Honduran parents. "I wanted someone under 18. She was 17, [and] could carry a movie, and had this strength to survive weeks and months of production of 12 hours a day. I knew she could do it."

Photo credit: Nicola Goode, HBO

George Lopez, Jorge Cervera Jr., Ingrid Oliu and Lupe Ontiveros made up the rest of the principal cast, with the performers all bringing a different perspective to their characters. Lopez’s Mr. Guzman went beyond his job as Ana's teacher to encourage her to pursue an education at Columbia University in New York. Oliu, who played Ana’s older sister Estela, represented in her work at their family sewing factory the reality of many first-generation immigrant children. In his role as Ana's father, Raúl, Cervera supported his daughter's ambitions for a different life, while Ontiveros, in her role as Ana’s mother, Carmen, represented the opposite – a stubborn, critical parent scared of letting her daughter go. 

Carmen came across as a "mean mother," Cardoso conceded - though the director tried her best to depict the nuances at play.

"To me, the most important thing is to portray each character with dignity and respect, even if it's a bad person that does bad things. I like to have the characters to be complex, to not be just one-dimensional," she said. So, she worked out complex moments for Ferrera's Ana to create tension, to create balance, and to "make it more real." 

Those moments were felt in iconic scenes in Real Women Have Curves, like when Ana, Estela and the other women at the factory strip down to their underwear and "let it all hang out," much to the horror of Carmen. 

"It was the most difficult scene in the movie," Cardoso confessed at a Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA screening of the movie in 2017, "because I really wanted to show the women to be beautiful." 

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To me, the most important thing is to portray each character with dignity and respect.

As a filmmaker, Cardoso did her best to convey a new representation of beauty, whether through women’s curves or the movie's setting in Boyle Heights. 

"I had a very intentional choice to make," she shared with the Academy, pointing out her efforts to combat the preconceived notions that the audience could possibly have of the dangers of the East Los Angeles community. "We came up with the concept that the Latinx world was in warm colors, like all in our warm palette. And the Anglo world was only a cold palette… it's subtle, but it's very effective."

(L to R) America Ferrera, Patricia Cardoso and Josefina López. Photo credit: Nicola Goode, HBO
(L to R) America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros. Photo credit: Nicola Goode, HBO

The film earned Cardoso the Audience Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, while Ferrera and Ontiveros won the Special Jury Prize for their acting. The film went on to earn awards at the National Board of Review (winning Special Recognition for excellence in filmmaking), at the Imagen Awards (Ontiveros won Best Supporting Actress) and at the Independent Spirit Awards (winning the Producers Award), while receiving critical acclaim as both a coming-of-age story and as a film depicting the Mexican-American experience.

In 2019, Real Women Have Curves was one of the 25 films added that year to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Cardoso became the first Latina director to have a film included in the registry. The film also has a gallery exhibit at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. 

Real Women Have Curves continues to have an impact on audiences today, inspiring a new era of inclusivity and representation in filmmaking. 

As Cardoso shared, it's opened doors in her career, allowed her to continue her purpose of telling Latinx stories, and create opportunities for others in the space. "That movie changed my life."


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