Aside from being a successful actress, America Ferrera has dedicated a lot of her time to breaking stereotypes and getting involved in activist work that empowers marginalized groups—women in particular. This past fall, she got vocal about her own #Metoo moment, having been sexually assaulted at the young age of 9 by a family friend. She also worked alongside Eva Longoria to help start #TimesUp, an initiative that was created to help end sexual harassment in the workplace and the wage gap that still exists between men and women today.
In a recent interview with MAKERS, Ferrera opens up about some of the experiences she’s had being stereotyped and even discriminated in Hollywood. In some cases, for not being “Latina enough.”
“I grew up first and foremost American. I was very aware of the fact that I didn’t speak perfect Spanish,” she said. “The girls who did speak Spanish made fun of me.” She came across similar issues even during auditions. In fact, Ferrera recalls how the casting director in her first audition even told her she needed to sound “more Latina.”
“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,” she said.
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This comes as no surprise, considering the lack of representation that still exists for Latino actors and actresses in both film and television. A 2016 USC Diversity Report found that Latinxs were getting less than 6% of TV and film roles. Marie Claire even pointed out how not a single Latinx actor or actress was nominated for any of the acting categories at this year’s 2018 Oscars. Seriously, how can we forget that?
Outside of Hollywood, discrimination looks even worse. The racial tension against people of color and Latinxs has been particularly intense since Donald Trump became president in 2016. Just last week, Trump referred to immigrants as “animals” in a White House meeting. There have been numerous incidents already of Latinos being discriminated just for speaking Spanish.
A Montana Border Patrol Officer recently stopped and asked two U.S. citizens to provide documents after hearing them speaking Spanish in a neighborhood gas station. He admitted that because the two women were Latina—he assumed they were undocumented. Unreal.
Last week, a White-American lawyer threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on employees at Fresh Kitchen, an eatery in Midtown Manhattan, just for speaking to each other in Spanish. He also accused the workers of being undocumented. The hate against Latinxs has been intense and Ferrera herself has felt it since Trump won the 2016 presidential election.
“Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and talked about attacking women,” she said. “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 of an idea that I had built my American identity around and that made me realize that there was just work to do”
As a result, Ferrera decided to take matters into her own hands by doing whatever she could to fight against all the hate. She teamed up with her husband Ryan Piers Williams and actor Wilmer Valderrama and co-founded Harness, an organization with a mission to unify grassroots leaders and influencers in the entertainment, business, and tech businesses in efforts to create more representation for marginalized groups, which includes everyone from people of color, women, immigrants, refugees, the LGBTQ community and more.
“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,” she said. “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,” Ferrera adds. “I need them to keep doing that, because it’s what keeps me going.”