America Ferrera Turned Her Latinx Identity Into a 'Super Power': How She's Inspiring Others to Do the Same
By Liz Calvario
America Ferrera is focused. The 36-year-old actress, producer, entrepreneur and activist has been empowering communities to use their voices for well over a decade. She’s helped create opportunities for people of color in front and behind the screen, and break stereotypes in Hollywood by fighting to play roles that speak to her life experience.
The Los Angeles native got her big break in 2002 with the indie film Real Women Have Curves. The film gave Latinas the opportunity to see a reflection of themselves on the big screen. She went on to star in films like Gotta Kick It Up! and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. In 2006, she landed her most pivotal role as Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty.
At the age of 23, she won her first Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and Emmy -- becoming the first and only Latina to win an Emmy for Best Actress.
“I didn't get a lot of the jobs people were willing to see me for. The gang-banger's girlfriend, the sassy shoplifter, pregnant chola number two, these were the kinds of roles that existed for someone like me. Someone they looked at and saw as too brown, too fat, too poor, too unsophisticated,” said Ferrera during a TEDTalk last year.
“These roles were stereotypes and couldn't have been further from my own reality or from the roles I dreamt of playing,” Ferrera, who is of Honduran descent, added. “I wanted to play people who were complex and multidimensional, people who existed in the center of their own lives. Not cardboard cutouts that stood in the background of someone else's.”
In 2015, Ferrera returned to the small screen in the NBC comedy Superstore. She was an executive producer on the show, which is now on its sixth season. She also got the opportunity to direct during the show’s second season. In her latest project, Gentefied, Ferrera is also the executive producer. The show features an all-Latinx cast that touches on gentrification, immigration and the LGBTQ community.
“Presence creates possibility,” Ferrera passionately stated in her TEDTalk. “I couldn't change what a system believed about me, while I believed what the system believed about me. Change will come when each of us has the courage to question our own fundamental values and beliefs. And then see to it that our actions lead to our best intentions.”
Ferrera’s passions go far beyond acting. The mother of two became an advocate for women’s rights, immigrant reform and equality for all. In 2008, Ferrera publicly endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. She led the Hillblazers organization in support of Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Following Donald Trump’s divisive speech announcing his candidacy for president of the United States in 2016, Ferrera took a more prominent role in organizing the Latinx community to exercise their right to vote.
"As a woman, as a Latina, as the daughter of immigrants, as an American, it did feel like a death of an idea that I had built my American identity around," she told Makers in 2018. "And that made me realize that there was just work to do. So what I chose to focus on was empowering communities to use their voices.”
As a result, Ferrera along with Rosario Dawson and Wilmer Valderrama joined forces with Voto Latino, a grassroots political organization focused on educating and empowering a new generation of Latinx voters. All three serve as board members.
"It's been an incredibly challenging year," Ferrera said earlier this month while speaking with Becky G on her podcast En La Sala. "We have this opportunity, there is so much to show up for and there is so much that is worth our time and our energy. And at the moment, I could burst out into tears just thinking about it, everything is on the line. We have so much to fight for."
Ferrera noted that Latinxs are "bearing the brunt" of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Latinxs being 18% of the U.S population but 34% of essential workers. "We deserve a voice and we deserve representation and we deserve decency and opportunity and the right to live without terrible lies and awful attacks being lodged at us," she expressed.
"So, we have a lot to do," she said, adding, "Latinas alone can be the deciders in this election, in every single state that matters in the outcome of this election...Latinas have the numbers to show up and be the deciders of what happens in this election. If we show up, we make the difference!"
Ferrera delivered one of the most powerful speeches she’s ever given in front of 1.2 million people at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. It coincidentally happened one day after Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States.
“As a woman and as a proud first-generation American born to Honduran immigrants, it's been a heartrending time to be both an immigrant and a woman in this country,” she said. “Our dignity, our character, our rights have all been under attack and the platform of hate and division assumed power yesterday. But, the President is not America, his cabinet is not America, congress is not America, WE are America. And, we are here to stay.”
“We won't build walls and we won't see the worst in each other and we won't turn our backs on the more than 750,000 young immigrants in this country,” she concluded.
Following her Women’s March speech, Ferrera said it became very important to continue to build a sense of community. She and her husband, filmmaker Ryan Piers Williams, along with Valderrama, launched Harness, a nonprofit that gives artists, activists and entertainment industry leaders the tools to make a political impact.
"People make decisions every single day that impact my life — the air I breathe, my ability to walk down the street and be safe, how much money I make for the job I do, whether I can choose what happens to my body," she expressed in a 2019 Vogue interview. "And at every important social moment in our history, artists have played a role. It doesn’t have to be about marching. The art itself has a role to play. At the end of the day, it’s about wielding that sword with awareness."
The Harness trio has focused a lot of their attention on the U.S Census, encouraging people to fill out their form so that marginalized communities can be accounted for and helped in the future.
“When Black and brown communities are not counted, we give people in charge permission to ignore us and our needs,” she, along with founder of Fair Count and Fair Fight Stacey Abrams, wrote in a CNN op-ed. “The 2020 census is a way to take back our power: the power to advocate for ourselves and make our voices heard. Harness that power by being counted.”
SHE SE PUEDE
In August, Ferrera and Eva Longoria, along with other female leaders, launched She Se Puede, a new digital platform that hopes to inspire, affirm and inform Latinas on how to leverage their power in a way that transforms their lives, families and community. The name was inspired by Dolores Huerta's iconic 1972 phrase “Sí, se puede!"
"It's a place for Latinas to be seen, to be represented, to be celebrated, and to have the power that we have reflected back at us so that we can know it, own it and act from our power," Ferrera said during a recent Good Morning America interview.
She Se Puede’s goal is to ensure that the experiences and perspective of Latinas are no longer excluded from society.
“This election year, everyone is reminded of the Latino population numbers and how fast we are growing as a community. But let’s be clear: demography is not destiny,” Ferrera said in a statement to ET regarding the launch of She Se Puede. “Unless and until we believe in our own potential and realize our own power, we will remain underrepresented as a political and cultural force.”
Ferrera’s unwavering commitment for equality for all is truly inspiring. She’s been a fighter since day one, forging her own path while helping others. It’s no surprise she was honored earlier this year by the National Hispanic Media Coalition for her contributions to the Latinx community.
And, if there’s one thing we can all learn from Ferrera is the importance of knowing your worth and power.
“My identity is not my obstacle. My identity is my superpower,” Ferrera concluded her TEDtalk. “Because the truth is, I am what the world looks like. You are what the world looks like. Collectively, we are what the world actually looks like. And in order for our systems to reflect that, they don't have to create a new reality. They just have to stop resisting the one we already live in.”