America Ferrera just helped power Barbie into a billion-dollar success story, but growing up, she says, there were “no successful actresses like me.”
Speaking at the Academy Women’s Luncheon, presented by Chanel, which was held at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles Thursday, Ferrera, 39, recalled how remote her aspirations seemed as a first-generation daughter of Honduran immigrants.
“I was given the assignment to assimilate, excel and succeed. That meant leaving my heritage behind and trying to fit in,” Ferrera said of growing up in L.A. during her keynote speech.
The actress — who spoke before an energized crowd that included Annette Bening and Lupita Nyong’o, roughly 12 hours after the historic SAG-AFTRA strike ended — also talked frankly of her youth exploring her talent in public school theater departments. “Despite my best efforts, I would remain ‘other’ to those around me — too Latina to be fully American, and too whitewashed to be accepted as Latina,” she recalled.
“After all, there were no successful actresses like me. I was brown, short, overweight, and poor. I had no connections to the business and no money to pay for expensive acting programs. I had no community huddled around me, supporting my dreams. I, alone, held the vision for my life, and the belief that maybe I could do something I had never seen anyone like me do before,” said Ferrera.
By the time she became more successful in projects like Real Women Have Curves, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Ugly Betty, “I was used to standing on my own,” she explained, pointing to the loneliness and isolation of being “the only woman, or the only person of color in an important meeting or on set.”
Ferrera said she eventually found community by seeking out more Latinas in her orbit and later encountering a “transformative” sisterhood following 2017’s #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
“We must be resolute in our commitment to demanding opportunity, access, equal pay, investment and possibility for every woman,” she said. “What I know today is that none of us needs to do it alone.”
Also at the luncheon were Eva Longoria, Kristen Stewart and her screenwriter fiance Dylan Meyer, Rita Wilson, Riley Keough, Leslie Mann and daughter Maude Apatow, Lily-Rose Depp, Greta Lee, H.E.R., director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Ashley Park, Sadie Sink and Academy president Janet Yang.
With news of the strike ending arriving the night prior, stars were still reeling. “My biggest reaction’s like, “Let’s f–g go!” an elated Longoria tells PEOPLE. “Everybody wants to be back on the set, wants to get back to work.”
Wilson tells PEOPLE that she and Tom Hanks got the news Wednesday night and felt “utter relief. Just to be able to say like, ‘Oh, thank God. It’s over.’ We had heard rumblings that maybe it was going to happen over the weekend. And so when it came through, it was actually just a relief. So many people have been hurt by this. And yet sometimes you you’ve got to hold out and get things that you want. So I’m eager to see what it is that we’ve agreed to.”
And at the airy November luncheon, Barbie’s summer success story was still top of mind for many.
“I think the entire industry needs to stop using the model of what they’ve seen before to calculate success, Barbie being a perfect example,” director Patty Jenkins, who directed Monster with Charlize Theron and Gal Gadot’s two Wonder Woman films tells PEOPLE.
“Again and again these movies seem so shocking and surprising when they succeed, but they shouldn’t be. People are craving diverse voices,” she adds.
The luncheon marked the sixth anniversary of the Gold Fellowship for Women, the Academy’s program to support emerging women filmmakers, with this year’s fellowship granted to The Ghost filmmaker Erica Eng. Made possible by Chanel, the program reflected the fashion house’s deep commitment to nurturing the next generation of women filmmakers.