Rising star and Latina actress Isabella Ferreira is a beacon of light for other young Latinas looking to see themselves represented on-screen. The actress, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, first made her mark on the industry with her recurring role as Eva Diaz in Orange Is the New Black and a main cast member in Hulu’s Love, Victor as the “grungy, angsty” but soft-hearted Pilar Sanchez. Her most recent project, Crush, was released on Hulu at the end of April and features an all-star cast including Ferreira, Rowan Blanchard (Girl Meets World), Auliʻi Cravalho (Moana), Teala Dunn (Good Trouble), and Megan Mullally (Parks and Recreation, Bob’s Burgers). The film follows high school student Paige (Blanchard) as she navigates her desire to fit in, her dreams of art camp, and her sexuality. But the real heart of this story is the love triangle between Paige and sisters Gabby (Ferreira), and AJ (Cravalho), both of whom are unapologetically queer and Latina. Playing a character who could bring visibility to other queer Latinas so early in her career was the experience of a lifetime for Ferreira—especially when stories that spoke to her family and heritage were almost impossible to find during her childhood.
“Selena Gomez and Jennifer Lopez were my main inspirations growing up because I didn’t see a lot of people like me on the screen,” she tells HipLatina. “So I was excited to be able to play a queer, Latina character on screen.”
In fact, Selena Gomez, who got her start on Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place, was the very actress who inspired Ferreira to follow that same dream to perform in film and TV, though she’d been interested in the arts from a young age.
“I loved performing as a kid cause I grew up a little shy,” she says. “One day, my mom just threw me in dance lessons, and then I was a dancer for about nine years.” But when she started watching Disney Channel, suddenly everything fell into place. “My favorite show was Wizards of Waverly Place. I remember watching Selena Gomez and thinking ‘I want to be her. I want to do that.'”
As the lead of a show following a multi-cultural Italian-Mexican-American family, Gomez, who played young witch Alex Russo, was the first major example of Latina representation for many of us young millennials and Gen Z, and the push Ferreira needed to also make a splash in entertainment.
Since then, she’s played a variety of strong-willed Latina roles in film and TV. But what makes Crush so special, and by default, its characters, is that it effortlessly captures different queer experiences of teens today without ever feeling condescending, preachy, or desperate-to-relate-to. Ferreira’s character Gabby in particular reveals surprising nuance and complexity over the course of the film, which was part of the reason she was interested in the role in the first place.
She explains, “I loved that Gabby was just so charismatic. She was the popular girl at school, but she wasn’t the ‘mean girl’ at all. She was just herself. And I think that’s why everybody was kind of drawn to her.”
Because we’re seeing everything through Paige’s perspective, Gabby is portrayed as the “It” girl with the most fashionable outfits, the cutest accessories, the sunniest personality, and the intrigue of her fluid sexuality. It’s obvious why Paige is romantically attracted to her, even as Gabby is in an on-and-off-again relationship with another student at the school.
But over the course of the story, as Paige grows closer to Gabby’s more introspective and quiet sister AJ, Gabby’s walls and “perfection” slowly begin falling down. She never is seen in a negative or worse light in comparison, just a more real and relatable one. In one scene near the climax, Paige finds a drunk and tearful Gabby in the hallway, who reveals that she’s been dumped again by her ex and confesses that she’s tired of always being second best, of being tossed aside as soon as something better comes along. She becomes a real person in Paige’s eyes as well as the audience and for other queer Latinas, that respect for her humanity was invaluable. It was a powerful, heart-wrenching scene for Ferreira, too.
“It was the first moment that Gabby was able to be vulnerable with the viewer and let people see who she really is and how she really feels,” she says. “Everybody just sees the right person and they think, ‘Oh, she has their life figured out. Everything’s great.’ But everyone’s dealing with their own struggles.”
Later this month, Ferreira is eager to share the newest and final season of the critically acclaimed Hulu show Love, Victor, a Latinx-focused spin-off of Love, Simon. In comparison with the original film that centered on a gay white teen, LV follows Victor, a Puerto Rican and Colombian American teen coming to terms with his sexuality despite his family’s cultural homophobia. Since 2020, Ferreira has played his sister Pilar, “the grungy Latina daughter with a lot of layers to her.” In an experience unique to her other roles, she has grown with Pilar and made it her own over the years, bringing much-needed Latina representation to the screen.
“This was a dream role for me because I had a cast that was extremely supportive and loving,” she says. “We became such a proud family and had a crew that helped us along the way to just make an amazing show. It’s so powerful to be on a show that is not only entertaining but represents a lot. It’s an amazing feeling and it’s very empowering.”
Pilar has proven herself to be a fan favorite of the show. She’s one of the first characters to accept Victor’s sexuality, who is fearless and independent, and yet when she falls in love, shows her vulnerable and sweet side with her partner and the audience.
“I love being able to play different characters and get into different people’s lives,” Ferreira says. “I think my life is exciting, but being able to jump into new stories and work with new people constantly has been exciting.” Especially when she’s giving other Latinas the representation she wishes she had as a young girl, it makes her work that much more rewarding and fulfilling. She notes:
[ACTING] is an urgency for me because that’s who I am. I want to tell stories and be true to myself and the people around me and my family. I want my nieces and nephews to grow up seeing people like us on the TV screen or in movies. Representation is extremely important. If I’m in it at all in any way, if it would help, I’d love to do that.