- In the early 1970s, after completing college, moved to California and became a Los Angeles County social worker.
- Took drama class in 1973 at Hollywood High School in Los Angeles. After she won an acting competition held by the school, decided to pursue a career in acting.
- Made first TV appearance in the 1974 made-for-TV drama I Love You...Goodbye.
- Assisted in the creation of the Latino Theater Company in Los Angeles.
- Appeared in the stage and movie adaptations of Zoot Suit and Real Women Have Curves.
- Won a National Board of Review award and received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her performance in the 2000 film Chuck & Buck.
- Provided voice of Abuela Elena in the PBS animated series Maya and Miguel.
- Narrated the 2005 Independent Lens PBS documentary Maid in America, which featured women who work as domestics. By her own account, she has portrayed a maid more than 150 times in her career.
- Recipient of the National Hispanic Media Coalition Lifetime Achievement Award.