The Woeful Portrayal of Willie Lopez

You wouldn’t be able to identify Rick Aviles by his true name on sight. No, you would, if you were a movie aficionado worth your ass fat in popcorn and candy, better know him as Willie Lopez. With this in mind, Rick Aviles can’t necessarily be blamed for what was available to “his kind” at the time he began segueing from stand-up comedy to film roles in the 1980s. Starting with his first foray into a major motion picture with a white man, Michael J. Fox in The Secret of My Success, Aviles achieved what, in the studio executive’s mind is the highest echelon someone Puerto Rican can reach: being a maintenance man.

This, of course, set the tone for Aviles’ most memorable performance as the peak stereotype of a Puerto Rican in New York: a murdering thief living in squalor doing the white man’s bidding for cash. That’s right, the famed Willie Lopez from Ghost, killer of Christ-like blanco Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze), is about the sum total of what Puerto Ricans have other than Jennifer Lopez in their American-based film oeuvre. With its similar plot parallels to A Ghost Story, Ghost remains unique for offering one of the only mainstream portrayals of Puerto Ricans in cinema (not counting, unless you really want to further discredit the territory, Puerto Ricans in Paris starring Luis Guzmán, who somehow managed to get two of the only other descendants of Puerto Rico in Hollywood involved, Rosario Dawson and Rosie Perez).

All that being said, Willie Lopez is a scary Puerto Rican man who gets paid to mug people (and more, for an increased cut of the profits) by rich white stockbrokers like Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn), no questions asked–other than where to be and who the mark is. When Willie Lopez isn’t busy pillaging the land of New York to survive, Willie Lopez returns to his lair off the Myrtle-Broadway stop (remember, Ghost was about twenty years before “artists” started gravitating toward the area). Willie Lopez lives in a coke den of an apartment building at 303 Prospect Place (which, naturally, doesn’t coincide with this area of the JMZ train, and is actually the address of a very bougie part of Prospect Heights). Because there’s no reason that he, nefarious villain that he is, should live in if not decadent conditions than at least clean ones, as Carl surely does.

Willie Lopez is a man who sits alone in his apartment eating beige food out of a carton with a can of Pepsi, joking that, “A lot of women know where I live” when Carl enters his apartment to warn him that occasionally faux psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) knows his whereabouts. Willie Lopez is a man who breaks into apartments and watches women undress with a leering, rape-eyed look. Willie Lopez is a man who calls women bitches. In short, he is the very embodiment of why, often, entertainment industry bigwigs will simply get other “similar looking” ethnicities to play the according part (e.g. Mexican-born Salma Hayek as Elisa Pedrera, a Puerto Rican elevated to the occupation of “caretaker” in the twenty-first century). Who wants to deal with someone from a class of people so low-caliber after all? The sort of ilk that gets rolls of paper towels thrown at them as a form of relief aid post-natural disaster.

That Ghost would be the highlight of Aviles’ career before he died of AIDS contracted from heroin use in 1995 is a reality only further sullied by the fact that his posthumous final role was as the voice of a cockroach in the first MTV Films-produced movie, Joe’s Apartment. How’s that for poetic injustice?

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