The Barbie film might be my favorite movie of 2023 so far and it isn’t because Ryan Gosling made me laugh or Margot Robbie made me miss my Barbies, it’s because my “big sister”, Honduran American actress America Ferrera knocked some sense into me (again). Over the years, Ferrera, 39, has played significant roles throughout her career that have always made me feel seen. Her memorable monologues make me want to speak my truth and always break the imposter spells that sometimes make me hide what makes me feel most Latina — the string of thoughts that often feed a monologue in my own mind:
Do I really want to wear this bikini?…I don’t people to stare at my chest.
I shouldn’t say I know Spanish because I’ll forget how to say a word mid-sentence.
I should play nice because I don’t want him to think I’m “hot-headed.”
The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants
The first time I remember Ferrera snapping me out of a brainwashed trance was in her performance as Carmen in The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants (2015). Just like the jeans, I too wanted to fit the mold of each character. I related to Lena’s (played by Alexis Bledel) quiet tendencies while also feeling like a rebellious Tibby (played by Amber Tamblyn). And while I hoped I looked like Bridget (played by Blake Lively) on a soccer field, my wishful whiteness lens was shattered when Carmen explained to her new future stepmother that she had an ass because she was built differently:
“… And you know what, Lydia? Just forget about the dress. We can tell everybody that Carmen’s Puerto Rican. And it never occurred to you she might be built differently. Or that, unlike you and your daughter, she has an ass that the tailor didn’t have enough bolts of material to cover, or better yet, just tell everyone there is no Carmen. Carmen doesn’t exist!”
It was in that moment, 13-year-old me realized Carmen was actually talking about my body. And while I wished those magical jeans would also fit me so I could be part of a lifelong friendship, it was Ferrera that made me feel like I really wanted to be Carmen’s friend. She looked like me. She sounded like me. We both felt like we had to disappear in order to be loved. It was the first time I looked at Ferrera and thought we could easily be sisters.
As the eldest daughter in a Latinx family, I always feel this intense pressure to have my life figured out. I’m obligated to provide a new blueprint for my siblings; I’m the one my friends come to for advice. As the oldest, Ferrera’s monologues always made me secretly wish I had a big sister growing up and I started searching for her on screen to help fill that void.
Real Women Have Curves
Ferrera’s groundbreaking debut performance as Ana Garcia in Real Women Have Curves (2002) gave voice to the predefined roles and negative self-talk generational trauma can have on Latinas. The film highlights the strained mother/daughter relationship and the negativity Ana endures about her body and life choices within her Mexican American household. It’s also a complicated reality that many of us can relate to, specifically the guilt trips and judgement she endures from her mom, Carmen.
Carmen: Are you embarrassed?
Ana: Of what?
Carmen: Look at you, you look awful.
Ana: Mama, I happen to like myself.
Carmen: You would look beautiful without all that fat!
Even in my 30s, I’m still navigating how to detach from those gender roles and family expectations but Ana beautifully emphasized what is really important.
“How dare anybody tell me what I should look like…or what I should be…when there’s so much more to me than just my weight! I want to be taken seriously. Respected for what I think, not for how I look.”
As someone who had braces for seven years, I really felt seen watching Ferrera as Betty Suarez in ABC’s Ugly Betty, which ran from 2006 -2010. There was also a point in my life where I had a dream of working for a magazine in New York. Betty’s tenacious spirit really influenced my go-getter attitude. It might have been the first time I ever saw someone who looked like me say affirmations on screen. I’ll never forget the moment Betty pumps herself up, first day on the job, right before running into a glass door in front of half the company: “You are an attractive, intelligent, confident businesswoman.”
Betty’s self-awareness was something that always inspired me. Her confidence was contagious and she made me feel like there wasn’t room for imposter syndrome when it came to going after your dreams. Especially if you were the first in your family to do so. In this iconic role, Ferrera reminded me that helping other women mattered:
“There is nobody here who cares about filling the inside, they only care about fixing the outside! You know what, this concealer here, this doesn’t change the fact that she doesn’t have a house! And this, this eyeliner isn’t going to bring back the people you love! These women have lost everything, and there is not enough styling gel in here to change that.”
Our collective experience as women is what can bring us closer together. Sharing our experiences is what makes us feel more empowered to take the lead. She was the hope I needed when I was navigating where I wanted to go next in my career and inspired me to keep following my dreams.
The last time I remember being inspired by America on screen was in NBC’s Superstore, which ran from 2015-2021. There will always be a season in life where you feel stuck in some continual time loop. Ferrera’s role as Amy Sosa, a big box retailer employee, reminded me that where you are now, doesn’t mean that’s what defines you. Like her character, I too would wear different name tags at a job so customers would never really know my real name, and her sarcasm was how I used to survive the 9-to-5 workspace.
“Yeah, see, Latino parents are different. We don’t really need our kids to like us. We just break their spirit so the world doesn’t.”
Amy’s patience alone deserved a prize for how much she had to put up with and yet her unfiltered advice still shined through. Her one-line zingers and mama bear commentary made me feel as if I could also share some of my internal thoughts without fear of judgment as well. What I loved about Amy was how she would take up space and tell it like it is — just like Ferrera does: “We can’t just live our lives afraid to offend someone. I think that we, you know, as a society, we need to just lighten up a little bit.”
This year, it was Ferrera’s speech as Gloria in the Barbie movie that perfectly explained what I and so many other Latinas and women, in general, have to deal with. I was reminded of how ridiculously hard it is to be a woman today. A hardship that I often brush under the rug because I’m both numb and exhausted from the experience of always having to explain myself or work ten times harder to make, on average, 54 cents to every $1 made by white non-Latinx men. In the film, Gloria speaks the truth of how difficult it is to be a woman. Every paradox stung me like a healing sunburn patch on my skin:
“We have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong. You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people.
But the line that really got me was:
“I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us.”
How many knots had I not unraveled? How many fake laughs or smiles had I performed because I didn’t want to seem rude or uninterested in something that actually made me feel really uncomfortable? Why was it so important for me to prove myself to people who didn’t even care? This monologue was different. It wasn’t sarcasm or a self-confident battle cry, it was a balancing act of what it felt like to simply just exist.
While I’m sure Ferrera would point to director and co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig for her choice of impactful words, this was one of the most powerful monologues I needed to hear. It was as if all her characters who had awakened me before reached out on screen and shook me out of the spell once more. I’m grateful that Carmen, Ana, Betty, and Amy all walked so that Gloria could run.
Ferrera was perfectly cast to deliver the most significant monologue I believe will be another stepping stone toward more on-screen truths in her career. I’m indebted to Ferrera for always using her opportunities on screen to remind us how important it is to stand up for ourselves, and to embrace the things we tend to hide — to be loud and take up space, to be a big sister for someone else.