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America Ferrera on Being Latin in the U.S. Film Industry

America Ferrera at the 2010 Voice Awards
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Participants in the 2020 Emmy Awards — including actor, director and producer America Ferrera — discussed, and joked about, a variety of topics and issues prevalent to the USA.

Some of these topics included Black Lives Matter and the faces that have fueled the movement, voting, COVID-19, and the space that television has created for individuals of different backgrounds to share their stories and experiences. 

During the night, prominent actors, directors and producers shared some of their experiences and struggles while working in the entertainment industry. Among them was Ferrera, who talked about her first audition when she was 16. 

America Ferrera (via Instagram)

Ferrera’s story

In her story during the Emmys, Ferrera discusses how she spoke like a “Valley Girl” but the casting director wanted her to say the lines again and sound more Latina. When Ferrera spoke to her parents about it, they told her that because she is a Latina, people had certain expectations of what she should sound like and what kinds of roles she would land.

“That realization for me has fueled me to create more opportunity for little Brown girls to fulfill their talent and their dreams,” Ferrera said during her Emmy Awards segment. 

Ferrera grew up in Los Angeles, Calif., USA. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras, making Ferrera a Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK). Ever since she was little, Ferrera knew she wanted to act and be a performer

At first, Ferrera was optimistic that she would get to star in the kinds of roles that Julia Roberts stars in. But after that first audition, Ferrera realized the media had different roles in mind, as she says in her in her TED Talk

These roles were stereotypes and couldn’t have been further from my own reality or from the roles I dreamt of playing. I wanted to play people who were complex and multidimensional, people who existed in the center of their own lives. 

So Ferrera worked harder so casting directors wouldn’t see her as the gang-banger’s girlfriend or the sassy thief. Then, in 2002, she was cast the lead in the comedy-drama film “Real Women Have Curves” where she got to play a character that didn’t require her to change her looks or voice.  

The film became a success, winning multiple awards, and in 2019, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Ferrera thought that the success of the film would change the way Latin Americans would be portrayed in the media, but it didn’t. 

That realization for me has fueled me to create more opportunity for little Brown girls to fulfill their talent and their dreams.

In 2006, Ferrera was cast to play Betty Suarez in the comedy drama “Ugly Betty.” She won many awards for her role in the show including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 2007. This was the first time a Latin woman won in that category. 

America Ferrera (via Instagram)

Ferrera saw a similar phenomenon with “Ugly Betty” as she did with “Real Women Have Curves.” The show was successful and won a lot of awards, but there wasn’t a big cultural change in the media. 

Despite this frustration, Ferrera decided she wouldn’t give up on being herself in the film industry. Instead she would use her voice to advocate for the media reflecting the diversity in the U.S. and the world.

America Ferrera (via Instagram)

‘American like me’

Along with being a successful actress, director and producer, Ferrera also wrote a book in 2018 called, “American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures.” 

This book takes people on a journey of first-person stories told by prominent U.S. citizens as they share their experiences as first-generation Americans assimilating into U.S. culture while remaining connected to their parents’ passport culture. 

“I felt so alone and isolated in [the first-generation American] experience,” Ferrera said in an interview on “The View”:

I never saw that story told in our culture, in our narrative. And then I grew up and realized this is millions of American experiences.

Cross-cultural contributors to the book include Lin-Manuel Miranda, Liza Koshy, Laurie Hernandez, Wilmer Valderrama, Uzo Aduba, who won an Emmy for her role in “Mrs. America,” and many other actors, athletes, politicians, artists, comedians, activists and entrepreneurs.

Just as Ferrera works to give other Latin American actors and CCKs a spotlight, the 2020 Emmys gave Ferrera a platform to share her experience as a Latina that was just starting out in the movie industry.

America Ferrera (via Instagram)
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