Latina Takeover: Actresses From Miami Are Playing Big Roles for Disney, Broadway, and Hollywood
Photo by Stian Roenning
In 1985, Lupe Ontiveros played Rosalita, a clueless housekeeper who's the butt of jokes made by 13-year-old Corey Feldman in The Goonies. In 1997, she played another housekeeper, who gets a door slammed in her face by Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. In her later years, she scored roles as the mother-in-law (Desperate Housewives), the abuela (Maya & Miguel), and even as the killer of J-Lo's Selena. Before her death in 2012, Ontiveros estimated that she had played a maid more than 150 times — though in real life, the actor was the daughter of successful Mexican-American restaurateurs and had graduated from college in Texas. One night over drinks with actor Ana Villafañe — who played her granddaughter in the TV show Los Americans — Ontiveros said, "I played the maid so you didn't have to." Now, the 26-year-old Villafañe, who was raised middle class in Miami, is reaping the benefits of her TV grandmother's sacrifice as she heads off to conquer Broadway.
For decades, roles for Hispanic women have been limited to exaggerated stereotypes: the sexy mamacita, the diligent maid, or the sad girl chola. Yet the real lives of women are far more complex than Hollywood depictions have often allowed. Today, though, a small but growing wave of 20-something actors is not settling for clichés. Four Miami millennials — Villafañe, Aimee Carrero, Chrissie Fit, and Alexa PenaVega — are helping to change La-La Land by bringing authentic portrayals of Hispanic women to screen and stage. Carrero is voicing the first "Latina" Disney princess, Elena of Avalor. Villafañe will portray Gloria Estefan in the Broadway show about the singer's life, On Your Feet. PenaVega is acting in films such as Spare Parts that depict Latino struggles, and Fit is spotlighting old stereotypes with a sense of humor in Pitch Perfect 2 — and penning her own scripts.
But there's a long road to redemption for Hollywood. A recent University of Southern California study found that Latinos get less than 5 percent of film roles and that Latinas picked up more than their fair share of nude scenes. Forbes magazine's list of top-grossing Hollywood actresses remains, year after year, almost entirely white, though in 2015, the list went international and included Chinese actress Bingbing Fan. (Still, gender may be more of a disadvantage than race. Forbes notes sadly that the top ten highest-paid actresses earned only a fraction of what male actors made: combined, the women between 2013 and '14 took home $226 million, compared to the guys' $419 mil).
Yet, there is hope. Sofia Vergara, the Colombian-born star of the hit show Modern Family, was twice named Forbes' highest-paid female actor on TV. She earns a reported salary of $325,000 per episode, but clever licensing and endorsement deals — from Diet Pepsi, CoverGirl, and Head & Shoulders — are what helped her rake in $37 million overall last year. Being bilingual helps double her reach: Her ads for Burger King, Comcast, and State Farm are all in Spanish.
Hollywood bean counters would be wise to take note of the phenomenon. As the demographics of America change, so will those box-office totals. Statistics gathered by the Motion Picture Association of America state that Hispanics comprised 17 percent of the ticket-buying public last year — on par with their ethnic makeup in the total population. That number is bound to only grow; this year, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Hispanics already outnumber non-Hispanic whites in California.
Carrero, Villafañe, Fit, and PenaVega are experiencing a changing Hollywood firsthand. Having grown up in Miami — which has a 65 percent Hispanic population — these women are well-equipped to move fluidly between white America and Latino cultures. The sense of belonging they've carried their whole lives is helping to alter the old notion that Latinas should be spotlighted in the industry as simply "the other."
Next time one of these four plays a Rosalita, she'll be the leading lady, not the one taking orders from a teenager.
Photo by Stian Roenning
Aimee Carrero, The Disney Princess
Wearing a colorful dress, and with her hair neatly flowing down her shoulders, young actor Aimee Carrero is the definition of casual sophistication. Walking around the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and letting her cross-body bag slouch down her right side, the 27-year-old blends in with the crowd. Save for the stylish round Christian Dior "So Real" sunglasses, it'd be hard to pick her from a lineup as a "celebrity."
Carrero, who was born in the Dominican Republic but raised in Miami, has been living and working in Los Angeles since she was 20 years old. Now, seven years later, she's embarking on possibly one of the biggest chapters of her career: voicing the first Latina Disney princess. But that feat did not come without tribulations.
While she was still an infant, Carrero's Puerto Rican civil engineer father and Dominican teacher mother moved to Miami to give their children better lives and to be closer to family. The young Carrero sang, danced, and acted in her middle-school and high-school theater programs. Growing up in the suburb of Kendall, Carrero never felt out of place; in fact, she always felt as entitled as anyone. "That's one of the many things growing up in Miami afforded me," she says as she fingers a ruby charm hanging from her necklace. "I never grew up feeling like a second-class citizen; I never grew up feeling I was different than anybody else. So when I go out for the leading-lady role, I don't go in with a chip on my shoulder. I go in thinking, 'I can do this; I can do anything.' "
After attending Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High and graduating early from Florida International University with a degree in international relations, she got an agent who specialized in casting for children's shows and made the move from East to West Coast. "I was very naive then — I had only done two commercials and three student films — so I didn't really have a lot of experience."
Her greenness worked to her advantage,
In 2011, she landed a recurring role on a Cartoon Network series, Level Up, and three years later was cast as a series regular in the ABC Family comedy Young & Hungry alongside Emily Osment. Carrero says she always considered herself a dramatic actor — until she read for a role in the original NBC series Heroes.
"I went in for an audition to play a sorority girl who was getting hazed," she remembers, "so I was supposed to be really scared and crying in this freezer full of meat. The casting director was just laughing her ass off at my audition — she loved it. So they brought me in for the director and producer, and I killed it. They were laughing hysterically." Carrero called her agent to let her know it was practically in the bag. Afterward, though, she was told the executives loved her — "but it's not a comedy, so they went with someone else." Carrero laughs, "So that was my first clue that I could be funny."
Carrero was initially sent to audition for younger roles, so at first she was unaware how women — especially ethnic women — are treated in the film industry. One thing Disney and Nickelodeon do well, she says, is a type of casting referred to as "blind casting," "[where] race and ethnicity is not anything that is commented on [during the audition]."
But when Carrero was nearing 25, she switched representation and began auditioning for older roles. She noticed a stark difference: "The first thing that struck me was the shift in sexuality in the material I was getting — it was everywhere! And not all of it was exploitative, but it was there, and it was very present: You are the woman; therefore, you are the sex object."
After the sex shock came the stereotype shock. "I started getting not a lot but enough of the stereotypical Latin character — and not in a good way. Not in a way that makes some sort of statement or is done in a satirical or farcical way. It was just like, 'You're Lupe, and you're the housekeeper.' I turned down a lot of them, and not because I'm not proud of my heritage; I just think we're beyond those roles."
But when offered the chance to play strong, more authentic Latina women, Carrero has gladly accepted. In the second season of FX's The Americans, she played Lucia, a Sandinista leader undercover in the United States, for four episodes. Currently, the Dominican actor plays Sofia Rodriguez, the levelheaded best friend to Osment's eccentric Gabi Diamond on Young & Hungry.
While the sitcom is on hiatus, Carrero spends her days at the Disney animation studio doing some pretty significant voice-over work for her biggest role yet: Elena of Avalor, who has been described as Disney's "first-ever Latina princess." Technically, the dark-haired character is from a fictional land, where she became imprisoned in an amulet after protecting her little sister from an evil sorceress. But in announcing the show, Disney explained that it would "tell wonderful stories influenced by culture and traditions that are familiar to the worldwide population of Hispanic and Latino families." Elena will first be introduced into the plot line of Disney Junior's hit show Sofia the First, and then her own show will spin off from there in 2016.
Ironically, she almost didn't even read for Elena. She was vacationing with her family when her agent called about a voice-over audition, and since she was trying to disconnect from work, her first instinct was to pass. Her agent was persistent about her taking the audition, though. "I think they might have known more than I did, or maybe Disney told them it was a big deal but to keep things a secret," she remembers with a laugh. So she took the initial audition, didn't hear anything for another month, and then went in to do various grueling, hourlong auditions, all the while not knowing what she was even trying out for.
Recalling the moment she was told she landed the role, Carrero closes her eyes and smiles brightly, saying, "Everything in this business takes so long to happen, and so many things fall through, so when something actually happens, it's like lightning in a bottle, and it's a small miracle." It wasn't until an official news release started circulating that it felt real for her. "When I was growing up, there was no Disney princess I could really look up to, but Elena will be someone for the coming generations."
Although haters were quick to criticize Disney for doing too little too late for young girls of color, Carrero is optimistic: "I hope that more so than looking for the holes in the presentation — like the character's animated appearance — people will see what is there and what Disney is trying to do... After doing a few episodes, what I can say is that they do the best job they can to incorporate different types of Latin cultures into the series and the individual episodes. I don't think that one Latina princess is enough, but it's a start. It's progress; it's not perfect."
She tipped her hat to the actresses who helped her get this far: "On the one hand, I feel very lucky to be a part of this business now, because we stand on the shoulders of Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera, and even Jennifer Lopez, who, in my memory, was playing the leading lady in romantic comedies when no other Latin women were. These actors are the real trailblazers: They fought the fight, they played the maids so that I don't have to, and I hope that the generation after me will have an easier time of it than I'm having."
The humble Carrero says she wouldn't necessarily turn down a housekeeper role, but "I'm more aware with my roles than I have been in the past because I don't want to contribute to any regression... It's not that I'm opposed to playing a maid or a low-skilled laborer because I'm Latin; I'm just opposed to it being the only option."
Of course, Carrero hopes that more Latinas, herself included, will star as leading ladies. "I hope that in my lifetime, we see this shift and I won't have to talk about this anymore," she says gracefully. "It'll just happen — and I won't have to discuss what it's like to be a Latin woman in Hollywood."
Photo by Jim Bridges
Ana Villafañe, the Broadway Baby
Sitting in the Café at Books & Books in Miami, munching on hummus and vegetables, 26-year-old actor Ana Villafañe describes what it's like to audition for a typical Latina role in Hollywood. Everyone at the casting is wearing hoop earrings, wifebeaters, lip liner, and curly hair. "We don't always walk around like that," she says with a laugh. "I don't fit that stereotype anyway... and I don't go around waving a flag, 'Latina Mami, 143.' "
The Atlanta-born Cuban-Salvadoran is petite with soft features and big brown eyes. She's no chola. She looks like, and is, a Cuban girl raised comfortably in Miami. If anything, she's a reflection of a youthful Gloria Estefan — the singer whom she'll be playing on Broadway this fall in the biographical show On Your Feet! Her own self-description, though? "I'm kind of like a dork who loves Harry Potter."
When her family moved to the Magic City, Villafañe was 4 and didn't speak any English. She says she learned "the worst" English in her elementary school in the suburb of Westchester, where the Miami accent is strong. Only when she went west to Los Angeles to attend Loyola Marymount University did she become aware of it. There, it neutralized a bit, so when she returned home for the holidays, she remembers, "My friends were like, 'Who are you?' "
As a kid, Villafañe started doing musical theater at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. She wanted to be a veterinarian and a painter, not a singer or actor. But at the all-girl Catholic high school Lourdes Academy, her love for the stage "kind of spiraled out of control." She cast her friends and herself in the best roles at the Christmas musicals she herself penned. It was at one of those performances that one of her current managers spotted her. She signed with his agency her senior year.
Modeling and acting in commercials in Miami wasn't enough for Villafañe. At 19, she moved to Los Angeles, not knowing a soul there. She spent her time going to class, castings, and parties. It ended up taking her six years to finish college. "It took a lot of adjusting; there was a huge cultural difference," she remembers, describing changing clothes in her car between auditions on Interstate 405. At one point, she lived off residuals from a Coke commercial for a year.
Of the typical Latina bit roles, she laughs. "At first I did play them," she admits. "I played the victim of gang crime on TV like six times! My grandparents and parents and friends used to joke around that if they had to see me get killed one more time, they weren't going to watch it."
Then she booked her first show, Los Americans, alongside other Latino actors like Esai Morales and Lupe Ontiveros. She says it was "a great starting point for me. I was working with such incredible people who nurtured me." Offers started rolling in when she snagged her first lead in a Lifetime movie, Hiding. She took a semester off to shoot in Canada.
"But," she recalls, "I didn't want to do anything where I was pregnant or being killed by a gang or in a gang or anything that was too stereotypical." She turned down a lot of work and completed her last semester of school. She was worried about losing momentum, "but nothing was coming that felt right for me."
Recently, though, a breakthrough: Villafañe scored a role in the film version of the animated series Max Steel (out January 2016). The material was originally written for the character of Sidney Gardner, the blond girlfriend of the main character. The writer, Christopher Yost (who also wrote Thor: The Dark World), got to know Villafañe and rewrote the script to suit her, creating the character Sophia Martinez. Says Villafañe: "It was interesting to hear the producers and Mattel say, 'That is the new girl next door.' "
Still, sometimes it's amusing to play up the stereotype. One of the first jobs Villafañe got in Los Angeles was a voice-over for a kids' Wii videogame. On a break toward the end of recording, she was joking with another talent in a Miami accent. The woman in charge heard it, loved it, and had her do the whole thing over in a chonga accent. Villafañe bought the game for all her friends for Christmas.
"Sometimes you can inject those nuances into the characters," Villafañe says. Of Carmen Suarez, whom she plays on the Hulu show South Beach starring Andy Garcia, she says, "She's the ultimate Miami girl who got a record deal and got famous. She's a club rat. That was fun for me; you get to flex that muscle that you don't get to in real life."
Sexy Latina characters aren't for her, though. "The good thing is, I don't have boobs. I'm not going to be cast as the Sofia Vergara hourglass vixen. That's good for me, because I'll never be in that situation. There's different versions of sexy. But you're either Sofia Vergara and J. Lo or Michelle Rodriguez, and that's sad."
This winter, Villafañe will play Latina singer Gloria Estefan on Broadway. "She's so iconic and such a pioneer for us, and she never let go of who she is in order to succeed," says Villafañe, who will leave Cali for New York this week to begin rehearsals; the curtain rises November 5.
The actor makes sure to emphasize that "regardless of what kind of role it is, having that Latina face up there and out there is a good thing. Now it's just a matter of molding what kind of roles there should be."
Photo courtesy of PMK•BNC
Alexa PenaVega, the Spy Kid
Playing the role of the brave Carmen Cortez, 13-year-old Alexa Vega flew like a bullet through the clouds and ocean, risking life and limb to save her parents from robot-children killing machines in Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids. The 2001 sci-fi fantasy told the tale of a family of secret agents in a quest for adventure and plain old world-saving. The family just happened to be Hispanic.
Now, the very grown-up 27-year-old actor is known as Alexa PenaVega (she and her husband combined their names to make one). Her father is Colombian, and her mother, former model Gina Rue, is an Anglo-American. Her husband, Carlos Pena Jr. — who was raised in the South Florida city of Weston and gained fame with boy band Big Time Rush and the Nickelodeon show by the same name — is of Venezuelan-Dominican descent. With the recent announcement that the two actors will be competing alongside Tamar Braxton and Chaka Khan on Dancing With the Stars, season 21, the two are likely gearing up to be household names and a musical-acting-dancing power couple who also just happen to be Hispanic. Both, though, embrace their culture and still practice their Spanish. "We genuinely love our roots," Alexa says, and both have loyal Latin fan bases.
Though born in Miami, she spent the first four years of her life on a ranch in Ocala with the Hispanic side of her extended family. Later, she moved back and forth from Puerto Rico to Los Angeles. That's when PenaVega got her first role in a commercially successful film, playing a 5-year-old Helen Hunt in Twister, watching her movie dad get sucked up in a violent tornado. She made guest appearances on the small screen in ER and The Bernie Mac Show. Also a singer, she's provided the soundtrack for productions in which she's appeared, like the horror-comedy Repo! The Genetic Opera and the TV show Ruby & the Rockits, which starred David Cassidy. She even released several songs for the three Spy Kids movies — her biggest break.
PenaVega says that when Rodriguez, the acclaimed director of Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn, decided 14 years ago not to focus on the ethnicity of its main characters, the move was "innovative." Rodriguez told the Hollywood Reporter last year, "You can't beat people with the Latin stick. Even Hispanics don't want that."
But the relatively fair-skinned and usually blond PenaVega has never felt pigeonholed by her heritage. "I look white. When I tell people I'm Colombian, they're like, 'Wait? What?' ... I've been really fortunate to never have had to experience any bullying when it comes to my culture. I've always been proud to play different characters."
Though not out of necessity, she's taken plenty of roles playing Latino characters. PenaVega acted in this year's Spare Parts, a George Lopez movie about four undocumented Mexican high-schoolers who compete in an underwater robotics competition, and a 2006 HBO film directed by Edward James Olmos, Walkout, that addressed racism Latinos faced in East Los Angeles in the '60s. "I can look Hispanic, and I can look white, and that has opened doors for me in acting," she admits.
Her husband, who has darker features, hasn't had it so easy. It wasn't until she saw the struggle he faced getting roles of substance that PenaVega really gained perspective on being typecast. The swarthy looker has had trouble not being stereotyped as a gang member, mechanic, or gardener. It's not just in the casting room where he's targeted, says PenaVega; it's everywhere, even at the airport. "I've been really sheltered from that," she admits. "It's been interesting to look at it through his eyes."
PenaVega understands the economic reality that sex appeal drives big-money films. Listing Jessica Alba, Sofia Vergara, Eva Longoria, and Salma Hayek, the actress says that when it comes to getting roles, "Latin women have a much easier time [than Latino men]" — even if those roles often emphasize style over substance. She admires roles like Eva Mendez's small part in Girl in Progress, a single mom working to make ends meet. "Those aren't the big movies, which is a bummer, because that's more real."
Like Robert Rodriguez, she's in favor of de-emphasizing race or cultural identity. "It was such a big deal when Kerry Washington was the leading woman in Scandal. For me, it was like: How is that a big deal? There should be plenty of leading African-American women on TV." When Longoria was cast on Desperate Housewives amid a cast of mostly white women, "no one had to scream and say a Hispanic woman was on the show. It just was what it was."
Any challenges she faces are tempered by her faith, she says. "God is our number one. That's another reason, especially for [my husband], we've been able to handle any negativity that comes with being Hispanic in this business," she contends. "Even though we love this more than anything, we enjoy that it gives us a platform to be a light for other people and to love on other people. We don't think anyone should ever feel pigeonholed or bullied or separated in any way."
As the first married couple to compete on Dancing With the Stars, the PenaVegas are bringing that light and love to the ABC competition, which started September 14.
Photo by Ben Miller
Chrissie Fit, the Comedian
Growing up in Miami, Chrissie Fit's large Cuban family would throw parties — and she was the entertainment. "Everyone would be like, '¡Dale! ¡Baile ¡Canta!' — and sin pena [without shame]. I would get up and start dancing and singing," Fit says, laughing at the memory and at her own use of Spanglish.
Like many other Cubans who left the island for political reasons, Fit's grandfather came to the States with nothing but two suitcases, his two kids, and his wife. The petite actor says incredulously, "He didn't know anybody, didn't even know the language. How brave was that?" Decades later, Fit was able to get a solid education at Barbara Goleman High and later go on to study acting at a collegiate level at Florida International University.
"I'm so grateful for growing up in Miami," the 31-year-old actor says while settled into a majestic yellow velvet chair during an interview in the Alcove Bakery in Los Angeles, her thick black hair tucked neatly behind her ears with bobby pins. "It definitely helped me with my confidence, because I got to play so many different types of characters that I probably wouldn't have growing up somewhere else."
Prior to pursuing acting professionally, Fit played a Jewish student in her high school's production of Fame and Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, and she never felt discriminated against based on her looks. "I would play a character because I was capable... I was never limited."
Before moving to Los Angeles when she was 22, Fit admits, "I never thought that you couldn't get a role because of the way you looked. I thought it was based on your talent. If you could play the part, you were going to get it." But when she arrived, she was hit with a harsh reality. She says she started getting turned down for parts and would hear casting directors use the same excuse: "Oh, no, you can't do that because you're...," she pauses, looks down at her hands, chuckles, and says, "brown."
After years of playing roles like "Girl," "Student #3," and "Other Chola," Fit managed to break into larger, more notable roles like the badass biker chick CheeChee in Disney's Teen Beach movies and more recently Flo in Pitch Perfect 2.
"It has gotten better throughout the years I've been here," she reflects, "and now you see more diversity on TV, but at first, it was a real shock that just because I was Latina, I couldn't play certain roles."
Earlier this year, Fit stepped into a role that required her to amplify her ethnicity for comic relief while at the same time critiquing many of the existing stigmas on Latin characters. She played Flo in the 2015 film that takes a comedic approach to a cappella singing groups, Pitch Perfect 2. In the second installment of the soon-to-be trilogy, the Barden Bellas must sharpen their C's and polish their D's to qualify for a chance to perform at the world championships.
With her comedic timing and perfect ability to keep a serious face, Flo was a quick-witted Bella who arguably stole the show. While Brittany Snow's character, Chloe, spends half her time complaining about small things as if they're "the worst thing that's ever happened," Flo puts things into perspective, saying, "When I was 9 years old, my brother tried to sell me for a chicken, so..."
Flo was, in essence, a stereotypical token Latina whose purpose in the film was to point out the ridiculousness of such token characters and the stereotypes they represent. "Flo is always commenting on their white-girl problems," says Fit with a charming giggle. The actress knew the character could be slightly controversial because of that, so she had countless talks with the film's director, Elizabeth Banks, to make sure things that could be borderline offensive were held back or delivered properly, with silent stares, timely eye rolls, and one-line zingers.
In one scene, while the Bellas are all gathered around a campfire talking about their plans for after college, Flo flatly states that when her student visa expires, she'll likely be deported. "I've never told this to anyone, but that joke wasn't even in the script," Fit says. "It was a different joke about moving to Miami, actually, but it wasn't working — it wasn't hitting." She then got together with the screenwriter and director to go over alternatives. After improvising some bits, the final joke was pieced together.
So far, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Elizabeth Banks, and Anna Kendrick have been announced as returning for Pitch Perfect 3, due out in 2017. For contractual reasons, Fit couldn't say whether she's been approached yet to reprise her role, but hopefully, Flo is able to extend her visa and reappear in the film's third installment.
After Fit wrapped production on Pitch Perfect 2, she started writing — at first, she worked on a web series and movie scripts with friends. She recently finished the script for her first solo project, which she submitted to her agent for review (she can't share story details just yet). If there aren't enough positive, authentic Latin roles out there, she needs to write them herself, she decided.
"I just wanted to see more strong, complex characters that happen to be Latina," she says. "We experience emotions the same way everyone else does... Hopefully, with writing, I get to make more of an impact than just with acting. The longer you're in this business, you realize there's more power on the other side, and you can affect more and make more change on that side. We need more Latina directors, producers, writers, studio heads... Those are the people making decisions — and a lot of them are Caucasian males."
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