Played By: Edward James OlmosHe is based off real-life calculus teacher Jaime Escalante. Escalante is determined to teach inner-city students they are more than just a statistic through mathematics. He believes they have the potential to exceed expectations, all they need is ganas (desire). Over the course of the film, we see his dedication in educating his students and the positive impact it has on them. Although his students are accused of cheating because their scores seemed too perfect, they re-test and still get perfect scores.
- Badass Bookworm: He performs a multiplication hand trick in response to Chuco flipping him the bird.
- Cool Teacher: His students refer to him as 'Kemosabe.'
- Deadpan Snarker: Starts the movie off really exploiting this trope, although it's lessened by the end. Often mixed with Dull Surprise.
- Determinator: After being hospitalized for a heart attack and denied to continue working, he writes class notes on paper napkins and has a nurse smuggle them to his students so they can continue studying despite the incompetent substitute teacher.
- Jerkass: Starts the movie off very cynical and mean-spirited. Claudia even calls him out on it.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Warms up to his students by the end, especially when he protects them from cheating accusations.
- Papa Wolf: He is extremely protective of his students, particularly when they are accused of cheating by the ETS people.
Played By: Lou Diamond PhillipsAngel is a member of the Maravilla gang who secretly possesses a natural gift for mathematics. Although he is shown to be a tough guy who doesn't take his education seriously in the beginning of the film, he has a desire to learn, evidenced by his multiple attempts in convincing Mr. Escalante to let him stay in his class. Toward the end of the film, it is revealed Angel is indeed gifted in the subject, for he received a 5 on his AP Calculus Exam - a perfect score.
- Gangbangers: He is a cholo, or a Mexican gangster.
- Genius Bruiser: Although he is tough, he is highly intelligent.
- Hidden Depths: He's naturally gifted in mathematics.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: He cares for his sick grandmother whom he lives with.
Francisco "Pancho" Garcia
Played By: Will GotayPancho is a young mechanic and one of the students who seems to struggle with calculus. Earlier in the film, he is shown to give up easily, nearly choosing a job at a forklift over his education, however, Escalante convinces him his education is the key to success and a good career. When Escalante returns to the school, after his heart attack, we see a change in Pancho's attitude toward his education, most notably when he correctly answers a problem he's been struggling with.
- Annoying Laugh: When Angel makes his famous "decomposing in my locker" joke, Pancho laughs a grating laugh that lasts far longer than the joke's duration and enjoyability. It becomes cringe-worthy at one point.
- Berserk Button: When Angel spits at him, when his car stops working, and when he is unable to solve a problem.
- Grease Monkey: He is a mechanic.
Played By: Karla MontanaClaudia is what some would consider a "pretty girl." Most people seem to judge her based on her looks and social life, including Mr. Escalante who makes a snide remark to the class, but he soon apologizes. She possesses both brains and beauty and wants to be taken seriously. When trying to convince her mother to sign Mr. Escalante's permission slip we see Claudia's determination to get an education in this exchange:
- Claudia's Mother: Boys don't like if you're too smart.Claudia: Mom, I'm doing this so I don't have to depend on some dumb guy the rest of my life.
- Break the Cutie: When she has a hard time balancing her social life with her education.
- The Ditz: Averted. She is more than just a face.
- The Fashionista: She's shown to be trendy.
- So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Evidenced in how Mr. Escalante jokes about her social life to the class.
Guadalupe "Lupe" Escobar
Played By: Ingrid OliuLupe is a fiery redhead who is one of Mr. Escalante's smartest students. In the beginning of the film, she didn't take her education very seriously, staging a protest, in which she and her classmates would refuse to take Escalante's quizzes, however, she was the only one who went through with it, which got her sent to the "chair." Later on, her attitude shifts, and she becomes the mother hen of the classroom.
- Dark-Skinned Redhead: Averted. Her hair is naturally dark brown.
- Fat Girl: Angel refers to her as the "gordita."
Played By: Vanessa MarquezAna is a shy, soft spoken girl who expresses an interest in mathematics, her first day of Mr. Escalante's class. She is almost forced to drop out of school because her father wants her to work in his restaurant, however, Mr. Escalante intervenes. The next day, not only does she return to school, but she solves a problem the students were struggling with (she didn't even read the board).
- Lovable Nerd: A female version of this trope.
- Shrinking Violet: Earlier in the film, she is shown to be a soft spoken shy girl.
Armando "Tito" Guitaro
Played By: Mark EliotTito is a new-wave musician who is a "ladies man." He is often shown to have an easy-going personality, but still manages to do well in Mr. Escalante's class.
- Big Man on Campus: He is very popular at his school, particularly amongst the female crowd.
- Chick Magnet: He is shown to have multiple girlfriends, possibly even Rafaela◊, whom he starts hanging out with.
- Cool Shades: ◊
Played By: Patrick BacaJavier is the know-it-all of the class. He's never gotten anything lower than a B-, and often expresses this to Mr. Escalante, when he receives a low grade. Like Ana, he enjoys mathematics, but can be boastful at times, which annoys a few of the students.
- Teacher's Pet: Averted. Escalante doesn't show special treatment toward him.
Played By: Lydia NicoleRafaela is an immigrant who transferred to Escalante's class in the beginning of the movie. She is quiet, and is shown to hang out with Tito the majority of the film.
- The Illegal: Possibly. It is unknown how she came to the US from her native country.
- Tomboy: She dresses in masculine attire the majority of the film (over-sized shirts and pants), whereas the other three female characters dress more femininely.