September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

AT 3 A.M., MASKED GUERRILLAS CREPT OUT OF THE JUNGLE to the American’s shack. They shook him awake, then led him through the steamy night toward a hideout of the Zapatista National Liberation Army—the revolutionary force that had turned the mountains of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, into a battlefield in January 1994. When they arrived 20 minutes later, the Zapatistas’ mysterious leader known only as Subcomandante Marcos stepped from a wooden shack and surprised his visitor by greeting him in Chicano slang: “órale vato” (“Hey, man!”). Recognizing the line from his hit 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, actor Edward James Olmos smiled broadly as he shook hands with the most wanted man in Mexico.

Three months later, as he rides in the back of a flatbed truck through the Chiapas mountains, Olmos recalls that April 1996 meeting with Marcos. What, he wanted to know, did the Zapatista movement really stand for? Did the Mayan Indians really need to resort to violence to get their share of Mexico’s wealth? “I am not a Zapatista,” Olmos says now. “I’m not with the federal government. I just want to help the people in this region.” As both men knew, the simmering war—which first erupted in rebel attacks that claimed approximately 150 Mayan and Mexican Army lives—had devastated the farming communities of the region’s 1 million Indians. Seeing the ongoing impact of the revolt on the Mayans during a 1994 visit to Chiapas, Olmos—whose great-grandmother was Mayan—took up their cause, raising money throughout the U.S., then returning to Chiapas this summer to buy corn, beans, salt and cornmeal. In July the 49-year-old actor, best known for his roles as math teacher Jaime Escalante in Stand, and as Lt. Martin Castillo on Miami Vice, went back to help deliver the 64 tons of food. “I don’t care about the politics and the war,” he declares. “These people cannot starve to death. Not my people. I won’t allow it.”

Olmos’s people do not know movie stars. There is little electricity and no running water—let alone television—in Morelia, a tiny mountain village about 600 miles south of Mexico City. So when the actor thunders into town on the flatbed, the villagers run to see the sacks of food, not the famous American sitting astride them. Olmos starts pitching sacks into the village square. Soon a dozen men step up to help, and within 30 minutes they have unloaded 32 tons—enough to feed 120 families through the end of August. When Mariano Santis-Gomez, a lean, 50-year-old farmer, approaches, Olmos stops to listen. “It’s good that you remembered us,” Santis-Gomez tells him in Spanish. “But do not forget about the others. There are more poor people. You must remember them as well.” His rough face still glistening from the afternoon’s labors, Olmos brightens. “I will not forget,” he promises.

Mayans—whose ancient culture took root centuries before such notions as land ownership and centralized government—joined the Zapatista uprising (named for the legendary 20th-century Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata) in the hope of obtaining self-rule, property and a share of their nation’s modern amenities. Instead, war and politics have pushed them to the brink of starvation, and it will now take much more than 64 tons of food to keep the remaining Mayan villagers from deserting the mountains for the cities or even starving to death. “Did we make a dent?” Olmos asks rhetorically. “No. But did we save lives? Yes.” (The Mexican government agrees. “What he’s doing is a true social labor,” says Dr. Norberto Tapia, media-relations coordinator for the government’s delegation to the Chiapas negotiations.)

So he forges ahead, unloading 32 more tons of food in a neighboring village, where he meets a young American agriculture student. Olmos immediately offers her $2,000 so she can spend six months teaching the villagers how to grow crops in organic ways that are more sustainable in the jungle environment. It occurs to him that there is a movie to be made about Chiapas. “We need to know about this,” he says of the centuries of discrimination and exploitation that have darkened the Mayans’ history. “The parallels between this and what happened to the Native Americans are frightening.” But the movie talk quickly gives way to more immediate, mundane concerns. “I’m getting more money and we’re doing this all over again,” he says.

Olmos’s dedication to Chiapas may be rooted in blood, but he has long been among the most active of Hollywood’s social activists. For years he has delivered motivational speeches and free performances to students, prisoners, migrant workers and juvenile delinquents. In 1992 he took to the streets of L.A. with a broom and a dustpan to help clear away the debris from the Rodney King riots. And as one of UNICEF’s three U.S. ambassadors, he traveled to Poland to monitor elections. At times, Olmos’s displays of selflessness have made him almost a caricature: an actor delivering so many messages, it’s hard to remember what he stands for. “It’s almost like Eddie has too big a heart,” observes Barry Greenberg, whose Celebrity Connection firm matches famous names to causes in need. “If you take on too much and try to save the world, you’re going to lose yourself.” But as Olmos told delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago last week, “It is the task of all caring adults to be messengers of hope to disenfranchised [youths].”

Olmos inherited that belief from his parents. His mother, Eleanor, 70, a nurse for 15 years, still works in the Los Angeles County General Hospital’s AIDS ward. His father, Pedro, 74, now retired, for years took time off from his jobs as a slaughterhouse worker, welder and post office employee to help coordinate Little League baseball competition for youth programs in East L.A. Pedro’s own father once found lost campers for the East L.A. Sheriff’s mounted posse, and his father acted as caretaker of a church for decades without accepting a cent. Olmos’s wife, actress Lorraine Bracco, 41, volunteers for a group that provides housing for disabled adults, and their six children (four sons from Olmos’s first marriage and two of Bracco’s daughters) have helped paint murals in L.A.’s inner-city schools. “It’s all a labor of love,” Olmos says.

But far from his only labor. For 32 years the actor also struggled to build a career, spending years in Los Angeles’s experimental theater before earning a Tony nomination for his Broadway performance as El Pachuco in Zoot Suit in 1979. Miami Vice and Stand and Deliver (which Olmos co-produced) made his craggy face famous, but despite a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for the former and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the latter, Olmos’s preference for Hispanic subjects and his insistence on meaningful roles have kept him in the dimmer reaches of the movie-star galaxy. “I don’t get hired much,” he says, with a shrug both proud and resigned.

Though he hopes that will change—next spring he’ll play Abraham Quintanilla Jr., the father of murdered Hispanic singer Selena, in an upcoming film—he doesn’t seem concerned that it may not. As a damp afternoon wind ruffles his hair, Olmos climbs back into his truck and prepares for another cameo appearance in a remote mountain village. “We have to make choices in life,” he says. “I choose to deal with reality.”

PETER CARLIN

BETTY CORTINA in Mexico and ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles

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