2023 – Glamour
October 16, 2023
When I was five years old, I declared to my mother that when I grew up, I wanted to be both an actress and a human rights lawyer. While I already knew what I was passionate about in kindergarten, it wasn’t until many years later—well into my career as an actress—that I truly understood how these two ambitions could go hand in hand: how I could use my platform to amplify the causes I care about and use the power of storytelling to impact people’s lives for the better.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to fight injustice to incite change in this world.
From a very early age, I experienced inequity. I knew that some people had more and other people had less. Compared with those I grew up with in the San Fernando Valley, I mostly found myself on the having-less side. My early years were marked by moving from one two-bedroom apartment to another, along with my five older siblings and a single mother who worked around the clock to meet our most basic needs.
When I was in fifth grade, we lost our assistance with meals at school. It was isolating and embarrassing to be hungry at school, unable to focus on learning and socializing. Even at that age—and even without the wider context of the world’s inequalities—I understood that it wasn’t because of anything I did or deserved. I knew it was unfair and not right for a kid to be hungry while there were clearly resources all around that could help fix the problem. Adults didn’t see my unmet need, or they did and chose to look the other way. This experience helped shape my desire to be a part of making people’s lives better, to try to forge a world where families and children didn’t have to work miracles to survive or to live with dignity.
In early 2001, when I had just turned 17, I got an opportunity to start my acting career with two movies back-to-back. It was the dream that nobody ever imagined was possible for me. But I had always believed in myself because my mother had raised me to believe that, in the United States of America, being a poor, short, brown, fat daughter of immigrants did not preclude my dreams. If anything, it made me an underdog, and there’s not much that the USA loves more than a good underdog story. I was determined to build a career in an industry that didn’t reflect people like me. I refused to be deterred.
I had a hunger to succeed and a hunger to understand the world. And I knew I would only be truly fulfilled if I pursued education alongside my acting career. So I chose to go to the University of Southern California to study international relations. It was a juggling act that squeezed out most of the fun of either experience and left me mostly with work. There were times I’d get acting jobs and have to finish my term papers on the floor of an airport, flying between sets. Nevertheless, I pursued both, juggling studying, auditions, and tutoring for gas money.
But in my freshman year I started to doubt my acting career. Was I simply being frivolous and driven by my own ego and ambition? I considered quitting acting, because I had decided it was a selfish dream and I should instead become a lawyer or a legislator, someone who could actually make a difference.
I remember going to a beloved professor and sobbing as I told him what I was thinking. His reply changed everything. He told me he had a mentee, a young Latina student, at a local high school in East Los Angeles. She had asked him, a white male professor, to watch my first film—Real Women Have Curves, about an 18-year-old girl also from East Los Angeles struggling between her desire to go to college and the desire of her mother for her to stay home and work to help support the family. She wanted him to understand what she was up against at home in her own life.
He then asked her parents to watch the film to understand how they could support her dreams of education. He explained to me that my movie was life-changing for this young girl and had allowed her to have a conversation that she had never thought possible. He allowed me to see storytelling as a powerful tool for change. And from that moment on, I understood that my dreams didn’t have to be exclusive to one another—I could pursue what I wanted and also use the stories I told, and the platform I had, to impact the lives of others.
I remember in 2008, during another Hollywood writers strike, I wasn’t able to work, and it was also a presidential election year. I had always been inspired by Hillary Clinton, so I decided to campaign for her. I wanted to call out how unfairly Hillary was being treated: what people said about her, the conversations that focused on her clothing or the tone of her voice instead of her long career that included improving the lives of countless children and their families.
Through campaigning, my confidence in my own advocacy grew. I became driven toward the Latino community and our engagement in democracy. I was born and raised in a matriarchal home and understand deeply how Latina mothers and women influence what happens in a household.
It is so often the women who carry so much of the responsibility to create access and opportunity. But also, it is the women who are given the least resources to achieve it.
So I became very passionate about democracy and elections, and that’s how I got proximate to the issues of environmental racism and access to education, reproductive freedom, and bodily autonomy. All these issues mattered to me and connected to me as a woman, and as a person who wants to see the true empowerment of families and communities who are often left to fend for themselves.
In January 2017, shortly after Trump got elected, I spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, about protecting the rights of women and immigrants, and the importance of defending our freedoms and democracy. That election was a turning point for so many of us, and like so many others, I was spurred into greater action. Alongside my husband [actor, writer, and director Ryan Piers Williams] and our friend actor Wilmer Valderrama, we created Harness, a nonprofit organization building community among artists, activists, and culture makers collaborating to create a more just future through art, influence, and action. I feel deeply grateful and proud to be a cofounder. As I am of my other initiative, Poderistas, another nonprofit organization and platform dedicated to amplifying Latina voices and building community.
I realize now that I helped build the kind of organizations that I wish I’d had when I was a young artist looking to use my platform for change. For so long I was trying to figure out how to benefit the issues I cared about, how to amplify the voices of marginalized communities, and how to improve the safety and lives of other women.
After a decade and a half of searching for answers through trial by fire, the best and most consistent answer I had gleaned from my experience was to build community. When the #MeToo movement exploded, I was one of many women who were gathering folks from the entertainment industry and from the front lines of social justice. We did the one thing that seemed so natural in the face of a reckoning: We started talking to each other. We built a community that became Time’s Up. Time’s Up was a moment of intersection, of blurring the lines between entertainment and social activism. And the unity was crucial to any of our voices being heard. It would’ve been very easy for interested parties to write off a movement started by mere actresses in Hollywood, or to drown out the voices of 700 women farmworkers. But standing together made it harder to ignore. This was about women from all walks of life standing together in unison against the imbalances of power that exploit and endanger women across all industries. This was about community as power.
I was newly pregnant during the beginning of #MeToo and Time’s Up.
Since becoming a parent to my now five-year-old-son and three-year-old daughter, I’ve experienced a whole new category of imbalance in the workplace. I’ve seen the inequalities that put the burden of parenting on women, the disproportionate cost of what that means to mothers and their careers, and the cultural expectations placed on women that we internalize and hold ourselves to.
I’m on multiple text chains with working moms stressing out about dilemmas like whether to go on a work trip or miss their kids’ doctor appointment. Women at every level of their careers are having to make choices that cost us money, affect our mental health, our physical health, and quality of life. Our culture and our policies must change.
In 2020 I learned that the Directors Guild of America, one of the best health care providers available in my industry, still didn’t offer parental paid leave. Documentary filmmaker Jessica Dimmock wrote an open letter campaigning the DGA to adopt a parental leave policy that did not penalize women for getting pregnant. The DGA has since added a parental paid leave policy to their latest contract. I was so proud to be a small part of rallying women to sign on. I know without a doubt that the community that has been built among women in Hollywood in the last few years has allowed for quick and effective organizing toward change. Community is power.
We have a presidential election in the US next year. But the reality is every year is an election year, and every local and state election matters. We’ve seen how local elected officials in the US and in other parts of the world have authored and passed laws harmful to vulnerable communities like trans youth, people trying to access their reproductive rights, indigenous populations, and asylum seekers.
I deeply believe that protecting democracy and human rights depends on building communities where women, and our most vulnerable populations, are safe to use their voices and to lead.
My deepest hope is that the future for women looks like genuine safety: physically, emotionally, and mentally. My commitment is to keep fighting and showing up in beloved community where women find strength and courage in each other, to continue the work toward the change that we all deserve.