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Desperate Housewives' Ricardo Chavira

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On TV, Ricardo Chavira plays Eva Longoria‘s macho husband, Carlos Solis, a character known for his tough-guy persona. But off-camera, there’s one subject that brings out the broad-shouldered actor’s true vulnerability: the memory of a night in 1981 when, as a 10-year-old in San Antonio, he saw his father and mother, by then divorced, locked in an embrace. “My mom was in the kitchen, crying, and my dad was holding her, really crying,” Chavira says. “I didn’t understand. I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

His mother, Elizabeth Ries Chavira, then 37 and raising three children, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Says Chavira: “When I saw her come home from the hospital after the first chemo treatments, I really knew. She was a healthy woman—5’5″ and 120 lbs. She went down to 98 lbs. and lost all her hair.” Six years later came the bitter end. “That morning I was with her,” recalls Chavira, 16 at the time. “I came back from school, and she took a severe turn. Her breathing was erratic. I was with her. And she passed away.”

As difficult as those memories remain, Chavira, now 33, has decided to use his experience to help educate others. As a Latino, he hopes to reach out to the men of his community, especially those who have been raised not to talk about women’s health issues. Even worse, he says, “some Latino women aren’t getting early detection. They’re fearful their husbands might get upset because they’re going to see a male doctor for a breast examination.” Chavira will serve as honorary chair of this year’s Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s National Race for the Cure, to be held in Washington, D.C., June 4. “My message is, Guys, put the old ways aside. These are our mothers, daughters and wives.”

Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the Komen foundation, thinks Chavira is the right guy to get the message across. “His show is the hottest thing in town, and he’s a big, strong guy talking about breast cancer. It helps take the taboo away.” His DH costar Eva Longoria is equally supportive. “Ricardo and I are both Texans, both Mexicans, and we share the same values. Family is our No. 1 priority.”

Chavira is the son of two former Peace Corps volunteers who became health care professionals in the Latino community. His father, Juan Antonio, is the son of migrant workers; Chavira remembers his mother for her “great smile and great laugh.” Though his father gave emotional and financial support, his mother’s death—which the family rarely discussed—threw Chavira into turmoil. “I was mad at the world, and I was thrown in jail three or four times for different things,” he says. “Let’s leave it at that.”

He eventually rebounded, earning a master’s in fine arts at U.C. San Diego and a role in Six Feet Under before Housewives. Today Chavira, unmarried, has a 2-year-old son, Tomás Antonio. Despite his current success, there is something he views as a greater accomplishment: In March, the San Antonio office of the Komen foundation featured Chavira in a pamphlet. When he showed it to his dad, says Chavira, “he said, ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever done in your life.’ ”

Susan Schindehette. Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.