The 2016 Election Felt “Like a Death,” America Ferrera
America Ferrera, the Emmy Award-winning star of Ugly Betty, talks about the ugly realities of racism and sexism that came into full focus during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Actress and Activist
For her starring role in Ugly Betty, America Ferrera became the first Latina to win an Emmy for Outstanding Actress. Over the years, the Superstore star has balanced a career of acting and activism that includes being a founding member of the Time’s Up campaign in 2018.
America Ferrera, Actress and Activist
Why She’s a MAKER: Through acting and activism, America Ferrera is shattering Latina stereotypes and fighting for women’s rights. By the age of 23, she became the first Latina ever to win a leading actress Emmy for her role in Ugly Betty. In 2018, the Superstore star was one of the founding members of the Time’s Up campaign, which addresses systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace. “What I chose to focus on was empowering communities to use their voices. So often the narratives about social issues leave out the very people who are impacted by them… [and] they know much better than those of us who just ‘got woke’ yesterday.”
Lost in Translation: Raised in Los Angeles by Honduran parents, “I grew up first and foremost American. I was very aware of the fact that I didn’t speak perfect Spanish. The girls who did speak Spanish made fun of me.” When she went to her first audition, she realized Hollywood wasn’t a fan of how she sounded either. “The casting director asked me if I could do it again, but please try to sound ‘more Latina.’ What she was asking me to do was speak broken English. It became very clear, very quickly, that the industry looked at me and saw a brown person and that there was a specific box for that.”
Role Model: In 2003, Ferrera was juggling college at University of Southern California and her career, feeling torn about which direction she should pursue. Then a professor told her about how Real Women Have Curves inspired a Latina girl he was mentoring to pursue college. “He said to me, ‘She would’ve never been able to do that if she hadn’t seen a reflection of herself,’” Ferrera recalls. “Being an actress had already become something bigger than me.”
Fighting for America: After the 2016 presidential election, “as a woman, as a Latina, as the daughter of immigrants, as an American, it did feel like, in a lot of ways, a death. A death of an idea that I had built my American identity around.” But rather than “cry and feel sad,” Ferrera raised her voice louder than ever before. She formed Harness with her husband Ryan Piers Williams and Wilmer Valderrama to unite grassroots leaders and influencers in entertainment, business, and tech to create change in underrepresented communities. “I think about how lucky I am that the opportunities I have, have come to me—and also how much work there is to do so that it gets better for the next generation.”
AMERICA FERRERA: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My parents are immigrants from Honduras and they split up when I was quite young. My mother raised six children on her own. Watching her do whatever it took to provide the life that she came here to give us was a real testament of what we're capable of.
I grew up feeling, first and foremost, American. Very aware of the fact that I didn't speak perfect Spanish. The girls who did speak Spanish made fun of me for not speaking Spanish. The very first audition I ever went to wasn't specified Latina. The casting director asked me if I could do it again, but please try to sound more Latina this time. And I was really confused.
I thought, do you want me to speak in Spanish? No, I want you to speak in English. I just want you to try and sound more Latina. And what she was asking me to do was to speak broken English. It became very clear, very quickly that the industry looked at me and saw a brown person, and that there was a specific box for that.
I was playing a young girl whose parents didn't understand her dreams for herself. The fact that it was this 17-year-old chubby Mexican-American girl, who no one would ever imagine would get to be the star of her own movie, I think that really opened up people's ideas of what was possible in terms of storytelling and who got to be the center of their own life.
I went to a professor of mine and started crying and saying, you know, what do I do? It was what I felt completely passionate and drawn to, and then there was go to school, get a really important job, and try and change the world. He said to me that he'd been mentoring a young girl. She was a young Latina girl. He'd been mentoring her for years and he couldn't really break her shell. She came to him and said, "Come watch this movie with me, it's called "Real Women Have Curves."
And so he took some of her friends to see the movie and she was actually going through a very similar thing with her own parents. And so it gave her the opportunity to start that conversation. And they did ultimately support her in her dream to go to college. I had no idea that he knew I was an actress. And he said to me, "She would have never been able to do that if she hadn't seen a reflection of herself." What I realized was that being an actress, it had already become something bigger than me.
Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and talked about attacking women. So as a woman, as a Latina, as the daughter of immigrants, as an American, it did feel like a death of an idea that I had built my American identity around. And that made me realize that there was just work to do.
So what I chose to focus on was empowering communities to use their voices. So often the narratives about social issues leave out the very people who are most impacted by them. There were people on the front lines living these issues and fighting for their communities. And they know much better than those of us who just got woke yesterday.
I gain strength and encouragement from those around me who are being courageous, and brave, and stepping out. I need them to keep doing that, because it's what keeps me going.
AMERICA FERRERA: Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers. And when I heard that, I thought I knew for sure that he could never last, that this country wouldn't stand for that. And nothing happened. He gained support. When he talked about attacking women, I thought, this country won't stand for that. And yet, it did. When he talked about banning Muslims, I thought, this country won't stand for that. I truly, truly, truly believed that that wasn't the identity of this country. So as a woman, as a Latina, as the daughter of immigrants, as an American, it did feel like in a lot of ways a death, a death of an idea that I had built my American identity around.
When I realized that for so many people, they had been living in the reality of this ugly picture of America that we were all so ashamed to see. This version of America has existed long before Donald Trump was even an idea. And that made me realize that there was just work to do, that we couldn't sit on the sidelines and cry and feel sad while there were people who had been working for decades and for generations to address these issues.
I'd always thought I had to separate America the actress from like America the person in the world. And I really reject that now because I don't need to have one word that sums up what I am to people. I am all of these things, and the more that I allow myself to embrace and be all of the things that I am and all of the things that I care about, the better my life is.
AMERICA FERRERA: I think the idea of being the first-- it's not the whole story, you know. I often think about the women who came before me who had to take on roles that were demeaning and not dimensional, and they lived and died that way. In Real Women Have Curves, Lupe Ontiveros played my mother, and I often think of her as one of the many mothers in my life because she looked at me and knew that my experience in this industry was going to be very different from the one she had.
When I start to doubt, you know, are we really making progress, are we really taking steps forward, are we making it easier for the generation behind us, I think about her and I think about how lucky I am that the opportunities I have have come to me, and also how much work there is to do so that it gets better for the next generation.
AMERICA FERRERA: We want to feel like we're in community and we're surrounded by people. It's what makes our lives worth living. My friends, my mentors, they have helped me through every single moment and they make everything that much better when there's something to celebrate or, you know, something that's hard and I need to get through.
When I have doubts, when I get tired, when I feel like I just can't do it today, I look up and there's my friend using her voice. There is my friend breaking boundaries. There is my friend doing something that terrifies her. And it helps me keep going.