10 Celebrities With Puerto Rican Heritage

15 May 2014
by Ancestry Team

Latinos tend to be multicultural (South and Central Americans are usually descended from a mix of colonizing Europeans, indigenous populations, and African slaves), so it’s not always easy to determine who’s Latino unless they identify themselves as such, and even then it’s hard to know if they’re from a particular part of Latin America.

Puerto Rican sugar cane harvesters
Puerto Rican sugar cane harvesters, 1939, Source: Flickr

As Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro says, there used to only be a small circle of Latino actors who appeared in TV and movie roles, but nowadays there are more and more Latinos in Hollywood, and many of these performers are of Puerto Rican descent. Here are 10 celebrities proud to share their Boricua pride.

Celebrities with Puerto Rican Ancestry

1. Jennifer Lopez

The Bronx-born Nuyorican actress has never been shy about her Puerto Rican heritage, even when she was controversially cast as beloved late Tejano singer Selena back in 1997. But Lopez proved herself worthy of the role, and despite not playing a Latina in most of her movies, she personally embraces her culture, serving as grand marshal of New York’s Puerto Rican Parade, singing in Spanish, and generally being proud of her roots: “I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I’m Latina,” she told People en Espanol. “I think that’s why Hispanics are like, ‘She’s ours; she’s out there, but she belongs to us’ — and that’s true. With the Latino community, I am theirs. I do belong to them — that’s who I am.”

2. Bruno Mars

He’s got two Grammys and a Super Bowl halftime show to his name — but Bruno Mars isn’t the name he started with. Born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu, Mars began performing around age 5 in a band with his dad, a Brooklyn native of Puerto Rican descent, and his mom, a Filipino singer and dancer. Early success required Mars to overcome the music industry’s tendency to typecast musicians by race. ”I guess if I’m a product, either you’re chocolate, you’re vanilla or you’re butterscotch,” he said. “You can’t be all three.”

3. Michelle Rodriguez

Fans of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates” series may already know, but the “Fast & Furious” star’s family tree goes back several generations in Puerto Rico. The tough action specialist was born in Texas to a Dominican mother and Puerto Rican father and was raised in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and finally New Jersey. “My dad really wanted me to be able to speak Spanish so when I was eight, he sent me to live with my grandmother in Puerto Rico for two years,” she has explained. Rodriguez says she’s proud of her background, but she’d rather not be reduced to her ethnicity. “No matter what, people are so narrow-minded that it won’t ever be Michelle Rodriguez the actress, it will always be Michelle Rodriguez the Latin actress,” she told Interview magazine in 2000.

4. Benicio del Toro

The respected Method actor won an Academy Award for his heartbreaking portrayal of a Mexican police detective in “Traffic,” but in real life, del Toro was born and raised in Puerto Rico. When del Toro was 12, his widower father relocated the family to Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, where del Toro attended middle and high school. Del Toro remains committed to philanthropy in P.R. and in 2011 joined a coalition of Puerto Rican artists to object to the Academy’s failure to recognize Puerto Rican-produced films in the Foreign Language race. “When I came to Hollywood, there were three names really of Latin actors, three or four names, maybe five … Now there’s a lot,” he’s said. “I think there’s a whole generation of Latinos.”

5. Rosario Dawson

Raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Dawson is the daughter of a Puerto Rican/Cuban singer, Isabel Celeste, and an Irish/Native American biological father she’s never met. Discovered at age 15 while sitting on her building’s stoop, Dawson made her scene-stealing acting debut in Larry Clark’s controversial drama “Kids.” In the ensuing 19 years, she’s gone on to star in more than 60 films and television projects, including “Sin City,” “Men in Black II,” and “Rent.” Dawson says she knows most people don’t know her background: “When I’m in Brazil, they think I’m Brazilian. When I’m in India, they think I’m Indian,” she told Latina magazine.

6. Victoria Justice

The former Nickelodeon star’s mother was born in Puerto Rico, while her father is of English, German, and Irish descent. Raised in South Florida, Justice is known to tweens around the world as the star of Nick’s popular shows “Victorious” and “Zoey 101.” Justice also starred in the feature film comedy “Fun Size” and has upcoming starring roles in the adaptation of David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s young adult book “Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List” and MTV’s crime drama “Eye Candy.” Although she doesn’t always play Latina characters, Justice is proud of her Hispanic heritage, especially the food: “If you’re Latin, you love to eat. Everyone in my family loves eating!”

7. Freddie Prinze Jr.

As the Jr. after his name suggests, Prinze’s father is the late Freddie Prinze, a ’70s comedian who starred in the sitcom “Chico and the Man.” In his comedy routines, Prinze Sr. — who committed suicide at age 22, when his son was only a baby — would describe himself as “Hungarican,” since his father was German/Hungarian, and his mother was Puerto Rican. Despite being only a quarter Puerto Rican, Freddie Prinze Jr. takes his Hispanic background and his father’s legacy seriously. When he accepted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on his father’s behalf in 2004, Freddie Prinze Jr. said: “For all the comedians and Latinos in this business,” says Prinze Jr. of the award, “I don’t have the words to express how much it meant to me.”

8. Naya Rivera

Although she’s now famous as sultry Santana Lopez on “Glee,” Rivera has a lifetime of experience before the camera, beginning with a stint as a baby model for Kmart. In 1991, when she was just four, Eddie Murphy cast Rivera in his sitcom “The Royal Family.” Although she spent the next 18 years acting before joining the Glee cast, Rivera has said her unique mixed-race heritage sometimes made it hard to land gigs. “It used to hold me back when I was younger. Casting directors didn’t understand what I was. I wasn’t black enough, or Latina enough — I kind of fell through the cracks.”

9. Jimmy Smits

One of television’s most esteemed actors, Smits is known for his roles on primetime dramas such as “L.A. Law,” “N.Y.P.D. Blue,” “The West Wing,” and Dexter.” The Brooklyn-born actor is Puerto Rican on his mother’s side and Dutch (hence the “Smits”) on his father’s side. Smits, a former labor organizer when he was in college, is active in Hispanic causes like The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, an organization he founded that promotes Hispanic talent in the performing arts. A Master of Fine Arts from Cornell University, Smits is a big supporter of education:”I am a firm believer in education and have worked very hard to tell young Latinos that they must go to college and that, if possible, they should pursue an advanced degree. I am convinced that education is the great equalizer.”

10. Rita Moreno

A doyenne of Hollywood, and known as “la pionera” to Puerto Rican entertainers she’s inspired, Moreno is one of the few actors ever to win all four major American entertainment awards: an Oscar (the first for a Hispanic woman), Emmy, Grammy, and Tony — aka the EGOT. But prejudice meant that Moreno wasn’t always proud of who she was. “We moved from Puerto Rico when I was 5, and I grew up in a time when kids were constantly calling us names. It made me feel at a young age that I didn’t have much value. I believed something was wrong with me. So it took me many years and a lot of psychotherapy to believe not only that I had value, but also I was a good person.”

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