Emmy award-winning actor America Ferrera has embraced the opportunity to be a role model for her fans, a diverse community that includes everyone from cool kids to misfits, from all reaches of the planet. As the daughter of Honduran immigrants, Ferrera has been open about the real struggles that she faces as a Latina in showbiz whose look — her features, her shape, her skin tone — doesn’t reflect industry norms. She spent many years grappling with the discrepancy between her own understanding of her American identity and of Hollywood’s refusal to see her in the same light, but has risen to become an iconic identity master of this generation.
Ferrera recalled in her moving TED talk “My Identity is a Superpower — Not an Obstacle” how confused she had been when first starting out as an actor in Hollywood, unable to fully grasp why or in what ways the cards were stacked against her. She told the story of being urged by casting directors to “sound Latina” during one audition, a direction that baffled her. “Well, I am a Latina,” she thought, “so isn’t this what a Latina sounds like?” After successive auditions, she realized that casting directors thought of her as too brown, too fat, too poor, too unsophisticated to land the roles that she was capable of playing — even though she is so American that she literally is named America. She was instead limited to being cast for roles like “sassy shoplifter,” “pregnant chola number two,” or the “gangster’s girlfriend.”
Ferrera became so frustrated with her limitations that as a teenager she once showed up at an audition in whiteface, having dyed her hair blonde and lightened her skin with white powder. “It was a role that was written for a very standard, white skin, blond hair, blue-eyed American,” she explained to Access Hollywood in 2007 shortly after taking home an Emmy, “so I just did something that was a little silly and would have never worked. They laughed, then said, ‘We get it, we get what you’re saying, but you still don’t have the part.’”
Personal and Public Breakthroughs
Being cast as Ana in Real Women Have Curves or as the star of Ugly Betty was the first time she had the opportunity to connect with people who related to characters sharing their same insecurities, who faced the same challenges, who didn’t fit into the ideals imposed upon them by their communities. Ferrera’s show Ugly Betty was critically acclaimed and beloved by fans, nominated for a total of 11 Primetime and Creative Arts Emmys in the first year, premiering to 16 million viewers in its first season. Blaring at producers was the proof that people want to see their stories represented honestly, to see themselves in the actors who are cast to tell those tales.
I absolutely related to Betty’s naïveté. As the daughter of an immigrant, I also dressed weird for most of my school life. My Korean mother simply wouldn’t indulge the style or price of American fashion trends — which, for a teenager, revolve around wearing the same overpriced brand name crap that everyone else is wearing; instead, I mostly wore clearance-item oddities from Walmart and was fortunately too clueless to recognize when I was being ridiculed by my peers. I could see myself in Betty, and it made me laugh and root for her so much.
Ugly Betty became an unlikely inspiration for one future leader: “I had become interested in journalism after seeing how my own words could make a difference and also from watching the Ugly Betty DVDs about life at an American magazine,” said Malala Yousafzai, a quote that Ferrera cited in her TED talk. I mean, who in the world would’ve thought that a comedy like Ugly Betty would end up inspiring one of the most powerful young voices of our lifetime?
Ferrera had her own personal breakthrough with Ugly Betty as well, becoming the first Latina lead in history to win an Emmy. She had not been aware of this achievement at the time, telling Variety in 2016 that the impact of it was lost on her. “I was so in a bubble that I wasn’t even aware of what that moment meant in a larger context for women like me in the industry.”
Continuing the Work
Ferrera and the creators of her show had proven that people want their media to reflect the stories of their lives — and yet, despite their success in doing so, there was no revolution happening within the industry, no moment where the people at the top decided, “Sure, come on up!” In fact, another eight years would go by before the public would see the next Latina-led show to make it to a major network, Jane the Virgin. Ferrera has since taken up the mantle as an advocate for representation through Time’s Up.
She also has been doing her own part in producing the stories that need telling through her NBC show Superstore. In an interview earlier this year, Ferrera highlighted the importance of honest representations of motherhood in the media. “One of my favorite episodes has been the maternity-leave episode where Amy has to come back to work 48 hours after giving birth, which sounds like a ridiculous sitcom setup,” shared Ferrera. “And yet when the episode aired, I heard from so many women about how that was a reality for them.”
She and her team were surprised to get such a response from their audience, though America herself was facing her own identity crisis over motherhood, returning to work within three months of giving birth to her son Sebastian in May of 2018. “I didn’t realize how many pressures I had internalized about what I expected from myself — to be strong and tough and able to do it all — until I got back out there and wondered why am I not 100 percent 10 weeks after I gave birth to my child.” Even with all of her privileges, she explained, she was struggling to reconcile her expectations with the complicated reality of being a working, new mother.
Her Own Best Advocate
It’s easy to take for granted how much courage it requires to speak up about things that cut so deep, especially when we’re following a celebrity and are under the impression that someone in her position must be infinitely more put together than us mere mortals. But in 2016, Ferrera penned a piece for the New York Times, sharing how she had internalized the damaging norms of Hollywood, and how these ideas were threatening to derail her training for a triathlon. “Don’t even think about it, America!” an inner monologue warned her. “You’re the fat kid. The procrastinator. The quitter. You have cellulite. YOU ARE NOT A TRIATHLETE!” She kept wishing for something out of her control to disrupt her goal of competing in a triathlon. “Maybe a car could hit me … lightly?”
For years, Ferrera had put herself through beauty and body regimens in an attempt to transform herself from a petite, curvy, Latina into the actor that casting directors were looking for. The body anxieties that these experiences had stoked were now coming back to haunt her as a self-defeating inner voice, warning her of impending failure — but instead of getting frustrated with herself, she responded with self-love. “[My inner voice] was protecting me the best way she knew how,” she said, “and I learned to appreciate that, even if I no longer required her services.” In other words, thank u, next. That acknowledgement and release allowed her to value her body for what it was capable of accomplishing.
Concluding her TED talk, Ferrera put into words the profound realization that she had been valuing the wrong things in her field of work, that the obstacles she has encountered with her identity were never obstacles at all. “I was never actually asking the system to change. I was asking it to let me in, and those aren’t the same thing. I couldn’t change what a system believed about me while I believed what the system believed about me.” Those are words to live by, and that’s why we’re taking all our cues from this wise Latina, seeing ourselves for who we really are and forging a path that allows others to do the same.