Actress Ada Maris credits comic Paul Rodriquez with proclaiming her unique status on television, when she appeared recently on his Los Angeles talk show.
" 'Hey congratulations, you're the only one,' he said, but at first I didn't know what he meant," says the actress, who plays Gina on NBC's "Nurses."
The only what?
The only Hispanic actress currently co-starring in a leading, continuing role in series TV.
"I thought about it and I guess it's true. I know everyone else," she said in a telephone interview about tonight's two-episode season finale of "Nurses," in which she plays a key role. (The show is at 8 p.m. on NBC, but is being delayed until 2 a.m. on local affiliate WMAR-Channel 2 because of an Orioles game.)
The actress means she knows just about all the Hispanic performers in Hollywood, because "there's not enough work to make it a very large community."
And that is why she takes pride in having made Gina a character who has risen beyond the stereotypical fate of most Hispanics on TV.
In the second episode, Gina makes a revelation with implications carrying over to next season, and relating back to an earlier episode in which prim Gina lost her virginity to Dr. "Hunk" Kaplan (Kenneth David Gilman).
Ms. Maris says it does not spoil the surprise to know the plot line grew from the fact that in real life she is expecting her second child. She is married to actor Tony Plana, and they have a 3-year-old son, Alejandro.
"I'm happy they decided to include it in the show," she said.
Ms. Maris says she has not been greatly involved in efforts to improve opportunities for Hispanics in the entertainment industry, as her husband has. But ask her if discrimination exists and her answer is blunt.
"Sure. I've done a lot of thinking about this, and wondering why the opportunities are so sparse," she said.
Few roles exist, and those that do "are almost without exception demeaning parts," she contended.
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) reported last fall that in 1991 just 3 percent of performers in both TV and feature films were Hispanic. Most portrayed gang members, drug dealers or maids.
"It's very frustrating to be invisible in your own country," Esther Renteria, executive director of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, told the Associated Press last fall in connection with the SAG study.
Ms. Maris was born and raised with a brother and sister in the Los Angeles area, but their parents were born in Mexico. Her husband comes from Cuba, and Spanish is the language spoken in their home.
The actress tells a story about her first break in TV to illustrate the narrow range of casting for Latinos.
She was a regular in the syndicated series "What A Country," which was set in a classroom of immigrants seeking to become American citizens. (It ran in 1986-87, and starred Russian comic Yakov Smirnoff.)
"My name was Maria, of course," she said, adding that her first line involved the kind of ethnic gag that seems required of minority characters.
"The teacher was named Mr. Brown, and he had written his name on the blackboard. I looked at it and was confused and had to say, 'But I am brown.'
"But you really write yourself into a corner that way, because how much can you do with a character who only speaks three words?" she said.
But things have not changed much. Told that the new CBS series "Dudley," starring Dudley Moore, includes the character of a Spanish-speaking maid (played by Lupe Ontiveros), Ms. Maris just sighed.
"She will either disappear in a few shows, or they'll have to look for the possibilities in the character. The irony is that writers are hungry for good characters."