A decade ago, director Robert Rodriguez had trouble getting Hollywood approval for a Latina actress Salma Hayek, before she was Salma Hayek to play a leading role in his Mexican mariachi massacre film Desperado. But no one questioned this year when he cast Jessica Alba, whose dad is Mexican American, as an Irish stripper in his film-noirish interpretation of the cult comic Sin City. Rodriguez has become Hollywood's most influential Hispanic by putting Latinos in top roles and broadening the definition of what a Latino role is. "Hollywood didn't have parts for Jennifer Lopez or Salma Hayek 10 years ago," says Rodriguez, whose Spy Kids trilogy, with Latino superheroes played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, changed all that. "Now, you don't have to cast Latins in just Latin roles anymore."
Staying clear of Hollywood, Rodriguez, a Mexican American born in San Antonio, Texas, operates out of his Troublemaker Studios, based in Austin, Texas. His gory gunfests, starting with his debut El Mariachi, and cheery fantasies the latest is The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D have raked in more than $565 million.
His success sets the stage for a new generation of Latino filmmakers, like twentysomething Chilean Nicolés López, who's getting the Hollywood rush for his movie Promedio Rojo. But Rodriguez, 37, isn't ready to discuss his legacy. "'Most powerful Hispanic in Hollywood' is cool because you know a lot of Latin kids will look up to that and see it's not a strike against you," says Rodriguez. "The only thing I ever wanted to do," he adds impishly, "is never have to work a day in my life."