Lee Rodriguez on Embracing Her Afro-Latina Heritage and Sparking Change With Her Activism (Exclusive)

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Lee Rodriguez always felt like the odd one out, until she realized her uniqueness made her stand out. It's been a journey for the Never Have I Ever star to fully embrace her Afro-Latina side after growing up in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood. And when she did, she became a role model for young girls everywhere.

"I never really felt like I fit in. Maybe it might look like I did on the outside, but on the inside I was always very conflicted," the 21-year-old actress tells ET's Melicia Johnson about her childhood. "I was always the odd one out and kind of looked at in a different way."

Rodriguez stars as Fabiola Torres on the Mindy Kaling-created Netflix series. Her character is an intelligent, queer Afro-Latina, who's also known for her quirkiness and shyness.

Never Have I Ever
Netflix

"In high school I was this shy, tall girl with a big afro. Playing Fabiola, that's how she feels too," Rodriguez shares about the similarities between herself and her character. "She's an [Afro-Latina], tall, [with] dorky clothes. She's figuring herself out and she's trying things, some things don't work and she learns more about herself. And that's a perfect example of growing up."

It wasn't until Rodriguez went to high school that she saw more girls who looked like her. Seeing an older Afro-Latina student rock her natural curls in an afro inspired her to do the same.

"I never thought to do that. I always got my hair relaxed and I wanted it to be straight and I wanted it to be long until I saw her in her beautiful afro," Rodriguez, whose father is Hispanic and mother is Black, recalled. "I was like, 'Wow, I want to do that too. I want to wear an afro.' I was finally able to confidently wear my hair and it just became a huge part of me."

Rodriguez has always cherished both her Latin and Black cultures, sharing how she has "the best of both worlds."

"I'm thankful to be close with both sides," she says of her family, adding that while her paternal grandmother doesn't speak English and she doesn't speak Spanish, they're always "finding a way to connect" amid the language barrier.

Rodriguez feels her true self when she's performing. While she describes herself as an introvert, she admits she comes alive when she's on stage and singing.

"It's hard for me to express my thoughts and be very vulnerable. But when I am the most vulnerable and I feel the most myself and the most happy is when I sing," she reveals. "When I'm onstage sharing that, that's my time to get everything off of my chest. Music is a very, very special part of my life."

As a little girl, she would "have little concerts in my room to my stuffed animals," noting that music has been one of her favorite ways of expressing herself. She'll soon be releasing her own music. "That's probably the biggest part of me, is my music," she says, adding that she's "this sassy, diva onstage. I like that part of me because it's unexpected. I like being a little unpredictable."

Rodriguez also likes to spark change with her activism. Big on the topic of climate change, the actress started her own Instagram Live Series, Learning With Lee: The Climate Crisis, due to her lack of "knowing what's going on in the world" or knowing what to do. After researching topics and learning more about the environment, Rodriguez felt people needed to see the information on their timelines.

"I'm passionate about being an activist…If people were to learn [about climate change] and see this on a daily basis, like on their Instagram page, then I feel like people will start to gain more knowledge and care more," she explains. "I thought, well, why don't I have these conversations and record them and put them on my Instagram page? … I just wanted to create a safe space to learn and to grow and to essentially just be involved in what's going on with our planet."

"A lot of people just ignore it, but we can't ignore it. We really can't," she stresses, adding, "We have to pay attention and we have to use our voice."

Among her greatest calls to action is the use of fast fashion, which is one of the biggest polluters and consumers of water. While getting clothes fast and for a cheap price may seem ideal, Rodriguez hopes to enlighten people about how much harm it can do to the environment. She suggests shopping secondhand or finding brands that are sustainable and eco-friendly.

"Just having that level of awareness and consciousness can make a huge difference," she states. "It's not our fault that there's fast fashion, it's the big companies who need to change. But it's also our responsibility to tell them that they need to change. So that's something we could do, is just be more conscious in our shopping."

Raising awareness and touching on the importance of representation are just some of the qualities that make Rodriguez a role model. Calling herself "the new kid on the block," she reveals she's never felt more represented in mainstream Hollywood than now. Among the actresses she looks up to are Tessa Thompson and Zoe Saldaña. "Seeing strong Afro-Latina women like them inspires me," she shares.

It's safe to say Rodriguez can also count herself as one of these women. "I still got some experience to rack up," she says. "But for Never Have I Ever, my dad on the show is Hispanic and my mom is Black. So I'm really happy about that."

The role, which she will continue to play for the show's upcoming third season, has helped her discover a lot about herself. "When reading the scripts and taking on the role, it starts to make me question my own experiences," she explains. "Especially with [Fabiola] feeling like she's not really fitting in or she constantly feels like she has to people please. That's exactly how I am."

At 21 years "young," Rodriguez feels like she's constantly changing and evolving. "That's life and that's more than OK," she expresses. "But I also have those core things about me that may be different but are still very special and unique to me."

Rodriguez says it's "an honor" to be among celebrated Afro-Latinas in the industry, stating, "I feel very honored about that and I'm glad that I can represent Hispanic women onscreen. And I'm glad that audiences can feel seen in that way. So it means a lot to me."

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