Exclusive: “OITNB’s” Selenis Leyva And “Jane The Virgin’s” Gina Rodriguez Talk Afro-Latina Struggles And Increasing Images Of Latinas On TV

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On Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to attend P&G Orgullosa’s Nueva Latinas Living Fabulosa Forum. The event highlighted Latina women (Nueva Latinas) currently breaking barriers and proudly embracing their heritage.  The panel, which included a variety of well-known and everyday women, touched on overcoming adversity, the importance of family, and the efforts being made to create change and educate others on the culture and complexities of modern Latinas.

I’m not Latina (last time I checked my Ancestry.com results I didn’t see any indication that I am), but I felt incredibly welcomed and embraced by the strong women in the room that night. The struggles of black women and Latina women are very similar in some ways, but it was nice to hear a different perspective and be able to appreciate someone else’s culture and come-up.

During the event I had the chance to talk to Selenis Leyva, who plays Gloria Mendoza on the hit Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black. After being told that she would only do a couple of episodes when she first joined the series, Leyva has since been promoted to a series regular for season three. To see how far she’s come makes Leyva emotional.

“It’s been amazing. Every actor dreams of that opportunity,” says Leyva. “I went in, auditioned for another role and didn’t get it. And then they said, ‘Oh you’ll probably do one or two episodes.’ I ended up doing 11 episodes, being on the poster, getting a contract and getting to be a series regular. So for me, it’s a dream come true. I’ve been at this for a very long time, so to finally be part of something where I’m being recognized for my work, individually and ensemble wise, it’s a dream come true.”

But there was a time when Leyva almost gave up on acting. The 42-year-old actress has nabbed all kinds of roles during her career. However, she informed me that she was ready to throw in the towel a few months before OITNB changed her life.

“I always felt that this is what I wanted to be doing, I just didn’t think that it was going to be happening in the capacity that I dreamed of,” says Leyva. “I never thought this was going to happen. The years go by and you do a pilot; it gets picked up or it doesn’t get picked up. So many things can happen in the course of this dream. Honestly, six months before getting Orange Is the New Black, I remember telling my manager I was done. She said, ‘No you’re not.’ I said ‘Yes I am.’ I believe in God. I got down on my knees and I said, ‘I get it. If this isn’t for me, then it isn’t for me.’ And then a week later, I started working. I worked on The Following, I worked on Elementary, I worked on a pilot and then I got Orange. So literally from that moment of deep surrender, that’s when you’re blessed.”

During the panel, Leyva spoke further on her bumpy road to success in Hollywood. As an Afro-Latina actress (Cuban and Dominican with “Jamaican and Haitian roots”), Leyva says that casting directors weren’t sure what she was and often told her that she wasn’t “Latina enough.”

“‘She’s so good, but she doesn’t look Mexican.’ I would say, ‘Yeah, I know. I’m not!'” says Leyva. “‘She speaks Spanish but she doesn’t look Latina. Oh, she’s exotic.’ They would say to my agent, ‘So your client, you know, the Latina who looks black but speaks Spanish…’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’ *takes off earrings*

But you know what? The reality is that yes, it was hard. Did I ever feel like I didn’t want to be Afro-Latina? Absolutely not. I had an amazing abuela — may she rest in peace — who was Jamaican-Cuban, and she was the most beautiful Afro-Caribbean. My daughter, she’s white [laughs]. She’s Cuban, Dominican, and Puerto Rican, and she looks white. But that’s okay! We come in so many wonderful shades and body types, and I feel that Orange Is the New Black is a celebration of that finally. And not only are we seeing Latinas in various shades and forms, but we’re seeing African Americans, we’re seeing white women, and we’re changing it up. So whoever said I wasn’t Latina enough, suck it!”

Also present to speak on her experiences was Gina Rodriguez, the Golden Globe-winning star of the hit show, Jane The Virgin. The 30-year-old Chicago native is glad to see more opportunities open up on-screen for Latina women, but says they have a long way to go, including in the way Latinos look at one another.

“I think that with events like this, we get to start talking about how our different backgrounds are so vast,” says Rodriguez. “How under the Latino umbrella there are so many different cultures that are celebrated. But immediately, and excuse me for being a little controversial, we readily say, ‘No, I’m not that, I’m this. And that doesn’t make me that. I don’t need papers because I’m Puerto Rican!’ It’s a very interesting conversation. So how do we educate people, as well as unite? So you educate: ‘Okay, here are the different cultures of the Latinos underneath that Latino umbrella.’ But then how do we unite to where we can say, ‘If you see me that way, that also makes me proud because I represent that same struggle?'”

And Rodriguez is hoping Latinas of all backgrounds can come together to bring the next generation the positive images they need; the positive images that remind them that Latinos are here, they’re thriving, and they’re important. It’s something Rodriguez and many women on the panel didn’t have when they were kids.

“I asked my mom as a kid, ‘When did Puerto Ricans come about?'” says Rodriguez. “She said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Well, when did it happen? Was it in the ’50s or the ’60s?’ She said, ‘What are you talking about?!’ I said, ‘Well, because I don’t see us anywhere. I don’t see us on the TV. I don’t see us in the movies I love. When did it happen?’ She said, ‘We’ve always been around, and you will tell those stories one day.’

It is so important for us to have people that we can relate to. It lets us know that we belong. That belonging, especially in our day-to-day where everybody is walking around on their iPhones getting their information–we need to make sure we’re a part of the positive information we put out into the world. That way your little girl will see that and say, ‘Oh, I’m there, I’m there, I’m a doctor, I’m a lawyer, I’m a this and I’m a that,’ because we are all of those things. And in Hollywood, it’s very vital to make sure that we’re telling our stories. It’s good to have those faces on-screen because we’re reminded that we belong.”

 

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