I never understood the hype around Rosie Perez or why the women of my family considered her such an icon. Then one day, I watched Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’Que Tu Lo Sepas!, a documentary featuring and directed by Perez and realized how much time I wasted doubting her status. In an interview with the New York Times, Perez reflects on her long and still-active career (she’s got two new films coming out this year) and what it was like to experience the #MeToo movement as a survivor of sexual abuse.
Perez told Times:
“I was surrounded by sexual violence. The patriarchy surrounded me. I thought that was one of the major reasons nuns were so angry. They have no power within the system. Like when I saw the movie “Doubt” — the scene when they have the priest eating the steak and drinking wine and smoking cigars, and the color is warm and vibrant, but when we see Meryl Streep’s nun character it’s washed-out colors, and they’re eating brown meat, and overcooked string beans and sitting in silence pissed off — that’s bang on. That has always been a part of my world, unfortunately. So for me, with #MeToo, it wasn’t, “Oh, my gosh!” No. It was: finally.”
Perez, who grew up in a Catholic group home, endured years of abuse by nuns, which has resulted in severe P.T.S.D and anxiety attacks as an adult. One such attack came while she was working with director Spike Lee on the set of his Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It:
“Spike doesn’t cry a lot, so when I saw him cry, I started crying. He saw me starting to have an anxiety attack, and he looked at me and said, ‘All right. Sit down. All right. We need to stop crying.’ Then he goes, ‘Need a minute? Everybody leave her alone’.”
Perez also had crucial information about another classic, White Men Can’t Jump. When asked which of the films two stars could actually play basketball, she said. “Woody [Harrelson] is better than Wesley [Snipes]. Way better. Woody can ball.” In the film, Perez played Harrelson’s girlfriend, a role that Perez discovered says was initially intended to be played by a white woman. “I still had to go up against executives who held a prejudice. They’d say, ‘The character is supposed to be white.’ I’d go, ‘Why?’ and they couldn’t answer,” she said when discussing the early stages of her career.
At 55, Rosie Perez is still as powerful as she was during her Soul Train days. Only her power isn’t in her hips or the force with which she can arch her spine; it’s in her voice. It’s in her impact on culture and her tireless work to pave new roads for Latinx workers in Hollywood. She is big gold hoop energy personified.
Update: White Men Can’t Jump is not a Spike Lee joint, as an earlier version of this post suggests. Jezebel regrets the error.