Danny Trejo talks Latinx representation, his journey to film

On Monday, actor Danny Trejo spoke at Annenberg, discussing Latinx representation in media and his own career. (Nadene Eissa | Daily Trojan)

Danny Trejo, widely known for his role in “Spy Kids” as Machete, joined an Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism class on Hollywood and entertainment as a guest speaker to talk about his life experiences and the importance of Latinx representation in the media. 

Trejo explained that he grew up around people who used drugs and said he was influenced by his uncle Gilbert at only eight years old. As a result of his drug use and involvement in crimes, Trejo said he served jail and prison time before discovering acting. 

After his release, Trejo decided to channel his efforts into helping others who were struggling with addiction, becoming a part of their recovery process. He also kept himself busy working as a court liaison, a drug counselor and a boxer. To Monday’s talk, Trejo brought along Clancy, the managing director at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row and Mario, a man he sponsors, to show the support system he’s helped built directly.

While working as a drug counselor, one of his clients reached out to him, explaining the urge he was having to do cocaine while working on a movie set. Trejo showed up for him and helped him resist the urge. While on the movie set, Trejo was approached by someone on set who asked if he would like to be an extra in the movie “Runaway Train,” leading to one of his first movie roles.

At the start of his Hollywood career, Trejo was cast to play roles that involved playing the tough guy and the criminal, due to his gruffy voice and rugged looks. He became one of the most recognizable Latino faces in the world as his career grew larger and larger.

Being a prominent Latino figure in the film industry has given other Latinx people a chance to see that it is possible to complete ones dreams, no matter where one may come from, the actor said. Minorities may not always get to see themselves being portrayed in comics, movies, or TV shows, but filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who Trejo has worked with, introduced the character Machete, which gave the Latinx community a character to identify with. 

“Robert Rodriguez’s idea when he made Machete, he made a Latin American hero out of a laborer,” Trejo said. “What surprised me is that on Halloween, kids were coming to the door and they were dressed like Machete; they weren’t dressed like Superman or Batman but as the hero they saw, [who] was Latino.”

Giving Latinx people more representation in film and media allows them to connect more by visually seeing themselves playing a role in society, Trejo explained. However, he said there are still many stereotypes about underrepresented groups in entertainment.

“I think we’ve broken down a lot of doors; we’ve got like Selma Hayek, a star, we have Jessica Alba … you know like slowly, it’s a process,” Trejo said. “Everybody has been stereotyped for a long time, and we’re starting to work out of it … there’s still room for improvement, but it’s getting better.”

The class listened carefully, taking in Trejo’s stories about his struggles, as well as his stories about success, and joined him in laughter as he shared his experiences. 

Marissa Fitzgerald, a senior majoring in music industry, said she felt motivated hearing what Trejo had to say and saw how it was possible to overcome adversity. 

“I thought the whole conversation today was really inspiring just to see how much somebody can turn their life around and how much success he’s had in so many different ventures,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s also inspiring just to see different ways you can become successful — there’s not just one path to success and it’s different for everybody.”

It was important to associate professor of professional practice Mary Murphy to bring someone with Trejo’s perspective to talk to a group of college students about the different ways a person can succeed. Murphy coordinated the conversation with the actor so that he could shed light on Latinx performers in Hollywood. 

“I also wanted to show students that you can start out in jail and in prison and you could end up having a good life and I knew that’s what had happened to him, you know, that he had turned his life around,” Murphy said. “He’s been in over 350 movies and TV shows and yet he also uses his fame and works with the homeless, he carries thermal underwear and socks in his car and so all the guys around him do that and they give it out to the homeless, so I felt that he wouldn’t just be another Hollywood actor, but one who actually really had a message.”

Trejo is a testament for so many people who have struggled and have been knocked down over and over again, that it is still possible to succeed, as well as help others with your success, Murphy said. The professor said she hoped that her students took many valuable lessons from Trejo.

“I hope my students took away so many life lessons about second chances, about persistence, helping others, it’s very clear his life is devoted to helping others and in helping others, people help him,” Murphy said.

This article has been updated to properly reflect the title of Clancy, who serves as managing director of the Midnight Mission.