America Ferrera, 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: 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.