The first acting role Jesse Borrego ever won was bestowed by his kindergarten teacher, who told him he could be the lion in a circus play. He and his classmates had all wanted to play the clown, but once the role of the lion was settled he felt a profound sense of focus. “I said to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to be the best damn lion in the show.”
That formative experience of self-possession has helped Borrego in key moments throughout his life, including overcoming a bout of doubt when auditioning for the role on the hit 1980s television show Fame that would establish his successful acting career.
The story of the lion was one among many Borrego shared Thursday evening with a small but appreciative audience at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU). Borrego visited the school at the invitation of the Salazar-Escobedo School of Mass Communication and Theater, with students acting as interviewers, moderators, audience members, and fans of the 59-year-old actor.
Singing in two languages
Borrego landed the role of Jesse Velasquez through an open call audition held when Fame was at its height of popularity. Set at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts, the role demanded Borrego be a triple threat, singing, dancing, and acting.
He had been well-prepared in early life by his abuelita, Olivia Canales, a musical person who taught her son Jesse Borrego Sr. and his five kids many traditional Mexican songs. His sister Marina taught him to dance, and he went on to study ballet at the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW). He discovered his natural ability to inhabit a role when he first played the circus lion at age 5, a feeling that never left him.
Borrego estimated he was one among 10,000 eager young actors around the country participating in the Fame auditions, and said at one moment he felt very small when he realized what he was up against.
Each hopeful had to advance through separate vocal, dance, and acting auditions. Borrego knew singing was his strength, so he strategically entered that line first, observing how the judges responded to those who went before him. When he had his chance, he went right to his cultura, he said, singing — in Spanish — a traditional Mexican song he had learned from his father.
“‘Oh, by the way, I can sing in English, too’” he then boldly told them, launching into a popular song of the day.
He explained his thought process in the moment: “Right off the bat, I lead with my cultura. I went ‘No, I’m gonna let them know, and that’s gonna set me apart. I’m proud to be bilingual.’ And I think that those little moments … gave me that edge to succeed. And I think in my career, I’ve been able to do that constantly. I’ve been able to use that edge that comes from being proud of who I am and the traditions of my culture.”
The statement prompted loud applause from the OLLU audience. Believing in the value of his traditional San Antonio culture won him the Fame role alongside Janet Jackson and Nia Peeples.
A continuous education
Speaking primarily to students, Borrego described himself as a “student of the game,” who succeeded by not only relying on his natural talents, but also by observing how directors, camera operators, and technicians performed their roles behind the spotlights and stage curtains.
“As actors, if you ever want to look good, if there’s anything you do, make friends with the director of photography,” he advised any aspiring actors in the audience.
Following the end of Fame‘s run in 1987, Borrego won a role in the 1989 movie New York Stories, a compendium of vignettes by Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.
Borrego played alongside actors Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette, and said he learned much by observing how Scorsese worked with other actors. The main lesson was to trust himself, to “be the best damn lion,” and to lean on his cultura. He improvised his brand of “code switching” between Spanish and English, he said, and won praise from the director.
Borrego would go on to play roles in Con Air alongside Nicolas Cage and Dave Chapelle, and television series including Miami Vice, Married With Children, 24, Dexter, and Fear the Walking Dead, among an extensive list of credits.
His role as painter Cruz Candelaria in the groundbreaking 1993 film Blood In, Blood Out established Borrego as an influential representative of Latino culture in the entertainment industry. Earlier this year, he received an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of its Aperture 2021 diversifying initiative.
“That’s a big step,” he said of including more voices of color in the Academy, which determines the Oscars. “We have to be in the selection process, we have to be in the vetting process. … I’m hoping that the more diverse voices there are, there’ll be more diverse nominations.”
Poor student, dedicated teacher
Borrego admitted that he was a poor student at Harlandale High School, and only won a spot in the fledgling UIW dance and theater program with help from a mentor.
But those years of study introduced him to the acting community in San Antonio, which spurred him to move to the California Institute of the Arts theater program in 1983. Though websites say Borrego graduated, he admitted that he never finished school. The Fame auditions came while he was still a student, but launched him into a professional career from which he’s never looked back.
He now brings his range of experiences to teaching, mentoring, and developing young professionals through the nonprofit Cine Studio San Antonio, the production company he started in 2009 with his brother James, a film professor at San Antonio College.
Though Borrego has played many roles, he told his OLLU audience that his proudest moments have been portraying honorable and admirable members of Latino and Native American cultures, including in the 1996 independent film Follow Me Home, called “a work of genius” by author Alice Walker and recently re-released, and Tecumseh: The Last Warrior, which portrayed the Shawnee leader who tried to unify Native American tribes against U.S. invaders.
Borrowing a term from computer-generated animation, Borrego described an Anglo-dominated entertainment culture that often misses the voices of people like him, that leaves a gaping “cultural uncanny valley” between white culture and the lives of people of color.
He said that he has turned down many roles in search of those that reveal cultural realities.
“I believe my career has bridged that cultural valley, given us who we are, who we should be as we’re portrayed,” he said.