Wilmer Valderrama can’t help but choke up when talking about his parents.
Born in Miami, Florida, to a Colombian father and a Venezuelan mother, theNCIS actor was three years old when his family moved to Venezuela. A decade later, the family returned to the Unites States in hopes of providing Valderrama with a better future.
“When I first came to the United States I was about 13-14 years old. The first thing my dad said was, ‘Mijo, we came here to work,’” the 37-year-old told ET earlier this month, ahead of hosting a pop-up portrait studio celebrating new U.S. citizens as part of the Keep Walking America campaign sponsored by Johnnie Walker.
“He said, ‘Your full-time job is to get the education that we didn’t have. Your full-time job is to learn how to speak English and obtain the tools you need to get to where you want to be,’” Valderrama added. “And, that was something that was very important to me.”
Valderrama, best known for his breakout role as Fez on Fox’s That ‘70s Show from 1998 to 2006, says his parents’ relentless work ethic and discipline set the foundation for his blossoming career.
“I really believe that those lessons and their wisdom really helped me get my act together really early on,” he explained. “I never forget those conversations, because I cannot wait to tell my kids. When I turned 18 years old, I was booking That ‘70s Show and I truly believe that was because of [my parents] and the work ethic that my culture has ingrained in me.”
And, while he’s gone on to partake in other successful TV shows and movies, it’s evident that one of his joys lies in his advocacy work. Over the years he’s become a big proponent of immigration reform, joining the board of Voto Latino in 2016, and helping establish the Ready to Lead program with the Hispanic Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
“Every time that I do an inner city program or help establish a program that [helps immigrants], all I picture is my family,” Valderrama said, becoming increasingly emotional. “All I see in every person I talk to, every immigrant that I come across, I see my parents when we first got here.”
“There is absolutely no difference. We didn’t speak any English. We ate dinner every other night, and not that it was a bad thing, for us Latinos, you just turn the music on a little louder and keep on pushing. We never felt sorry for ourselves, we just knew that we had to work a little harder, get up in the morning a little earlier and keep swinging. And, eventually something good will happen, and it did,” he continued.
Following the 2016 presidential election, Valderrama teamed up with America Ferrera and her husband, Ryan Piers Williams, to launch Harness. The organization, which has partnered with Hearst Magazines Digital Media, aims to shed light on the challenges facing vulnerable communities across the United States.
“My last 13 years of advocacy work has to do a lot with my parents,” he continued. “I understand what people are going through, my parents walked in their shoes, they too need a voice and need to be heard. And, it fires me up. It makes me feel like everything that I have achieved in this country is because of the struggle of every immigrant that has come to this country. We’re all a collective force, from the Italians, Chinese, you name it. I now look at my Latino heritage and Latinos in the United States and reflect on what we’ve been able to become and I think that deserves respect.”
In regard to the pop-up portrait studio celebrating new U.S. citizens, Valderrama explained that being able to share such an important moment in people’s lives is an indescribable feeling.
“One thing is seeing a kid open a present on Christmas, but it’s another thing to see someone become a citizen,” he said. “Because that achievement is forever. I’m so stoked. This portrait series will capture people’s first portrait as a U.S citizen. It’s a day where we get to share stories on how we arrived to the United States, the rolling of the sleeves and working hard. And, what it means to get a seat at a table by becoming a citizen.”
Valderrama says his job now is to help “reinforce the American Dream,” while making sure “that we never forget our heritage as we embrace our role in this beautiful country.”
For more on Valderrama, watch the video below.