America Ferrera Is DONE being Put in a Box

The actress and activist opens up about being a Latina in Hollywood and how the 2016 election felt like “a death” in this candid MAKERS interview.

America Ferrera has been battling stereotypes for her entire life—which is why the Superstore actress was more than ready to help start #TimesUp this past fall, the movement working to end sexual harassment in the workplace and even the playing field between men and women in Hollywood (hello, wage gap).

As a Latina, Ferrera knows that while gender inequality impacts all women, women of color are hit particularly hard. (Latinas earn as low as 42 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men in certain states.) (opens in new tab) Of course, Hollywood is not innocent of this blatant sexism—minority actresses are often underpaid, and Latina actresses in particular are hyper-sexualized. (opens in new tab)

Ferrera has felt this discrimination—and stereotyping— acutely throughout her career as an actress.

At her first audition, the casting director asked her to sound “more Latina.”

“I grew up first and foremost American. I was very aware of the fact that I didn’t speak perfect Spanish. The girls who did speak Spanish made fun of me,” she says in a new interview with MAKERS (opens in new tab), the feminist media brand on a quest to share the stories of trailblazing and gamechanging women. At her very first audition, the casting director asked her to sound “more Latina.”

“It became very clear, very quickly, that the industry looked at me and saw a brown person and that there was a specific box for that,” she says.

That audition may have been nearly two decades ago, but the movie biz hasn’t progressed much since. Latinos make up 18 percent of the U.S. population (opens in new tab) and is Hollywood’s most crucial audience (opens in new tab) (in 2016, Hispanics bought 18 percent of all movie tickets, (opens in new tab) a massive number in proportion to population), yet Latinos make up a minuscule fraction (just 6 percent) (opens in new tab) of movie and TV roles. The ones who do get a leading role are often slighted during awards season—not a single Latino actor or actress was nominated for any of the four acting categories during the 2018 Oscars. (opens in new tab)

Of course, these issues stem from larger, systemic problems in the country. As the daughter of immigrants, the 2016 presidential election hit Ferrera particularly hard: “Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and talked about attacking women,” she says. “As a woman, as a Latina, and the daughter of immigrants, as an American, it did feel like, in a lot of ways, a death.”

Instead of accepting her fate as a Latina female in Hollywood and in America, Ferrera decided to fight back, co-founding Harness (opens in new tab) with her husband Ryan Piers Willaims and Wilmer Valderrama. The organization aims to unify grassroots leaders and influencers in the entertainment, business, and tech businesses to catalyze change in underrepresented communities. The organization gives a voice to minorities, immigrants, refugees, and people of color, turning “hashtags into action” via live events and forums.

Though there is certainly a lot of work to be done, Ferrera is optimistic about the future: “I gain strength and encouragement from those around me who are being courageous, and brave, and stepping out. I need them to keep doing that, because it’s what keeps me going.”

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(Image credit: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Megan DiTrolio is the editor of features and special projects at Marie Claire, where she oversees all career coverage and writes and edits stories on women’s issues, politics, cultural trends, and more. In addition to editing feature stories, she programs Marie Claire’s annual Power Trip conference and Marie Claire’s Getting Down To Business Instagram Live franchise.