On Tuesday, January 31st, award-winning actress and political activist America Ferrera visited University of Massachusetts, Boston, where she was met with great warmth from the community. The reason for her visit? She was slated to speak about how race and class have affected her career. But in the end, America did much more than that. In recounting tales from her life, she heightened and inspired an entire ballroom of people.
Beginning on a humbled note: “Wow, I‘m sure there are a million other things you could do tonight. I‘ll try to make this worth your time!” Ferrera began to speak. She recalled how when she was nine years old, she used to daydream about having a life where the water in her house would never get shut off and the electricity would never go out. She dreamed of a life of fame, and wealth, and diamonds. She wanted to be a famous actress. America revealed that she caught the acting bug when she played the role of the Artful Dodger in a school production for Oliver Twist, and from then on, she just couldn’t stop. She appeared in a plethora of films and TV shows from a young age, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Touched by An Angel, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, How to Train Your Dragon, and most prominently, Ugly Betty.
But America did not fit the cookie-cutter image of an actress; she was not blonde, thin, or wealthy. She was quite the opposite of that, and that made her life difficult. America described, for example, how an ex-manager had once told her that she had “inflated ideas of what she could accomplish as an actress.” After that, all of a sudden, self-doubt began to constantly infiltrate her thoughts. She reported: “Like many other young people, I didn’t appreciate what made me unique.” This sentiment plagued her for years.
It wasn’t until she got to college and experienced what she calls her “pre-quarter life crisis” (a period in her life when she nearly quit acting) that Ferrera says her perspective of herself and her life changed dramatically. Fresh off the success of her movie, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, America decided that she would go back to college and study international relations. After a semester of learning about the existence of sweatshops, deformed baby alligators, and young girls forced into prostitution, America was utterly shocked by her ignorance. Growing up, America was academically gifted—she graduated from high school as the valedictorian—and was constantly told by teachers that she was “smart.” But after coming to college, Ferrera decided that she was “stupid.” She lamented: “I mourned the discovery of my stupidity. How could I be a dummy? But I didn’t know about the world; I didn’t know how to ask the right questions.”
At that point, America Ferrera looked upon her long-held passion and love for acting as a “frivolous, useless activity” that would not help people. She decided to quit acting. But luckily for her (and us!), America decided to speak to her professor/mentor, Mr. Anders, and ask him whether she was doing the right thing. In response, Mr. Anders told America about a young inner-city girl that he was mentoring. This girl had always held him at arm’s length, but one day she asked him if he really wanted to know what her life was really like. He answered, “yes,” and then at her request he took her, and a few of her friends, to see the film Real Women Have Curves. The movie was about a Mexican-American girl named Ana who is an accomplished student, but also works in her sister’s dress shop, and who, despite her mother’s old-fashioned perceptions of how a woman should behave, dreams of going to Columbia University. The movie portrays Ana’s struggles in dealing with both her traditional mother’s views, and her own self-image issues. Mr. Anders told America that because of that movie, he was able to open a dialogue with the young woman he was mentoring, and to tell her parents about her dreams of attending college, a dream that she was eventually able to fulfill. It was because of this movie, Mr. Anders told America, that this girl’s life was changed for the better. For those of you who don’t know, the role of Ana in that movie was played by America Ferrera.
All of a sudden it hit America that her passion for acting actually had the potential to help others. She realized, “I didn’t have to give up what I loved doing in order to help people.”
Ferrera referenced the many times over the course of her acting career that she was looked over for a role because she was “not Caucasian enough, or not authentically [Mexican] enough.” It hurt, but she realized that regardless, she needed to love herself. “I was fat, brown, poor, and ethnic…but my so-called faults made me perfect for [the role of Ana].” Likewise, in her role as the titular character in Ugly Betty, America felt that she was able to help people deal with the very same problems she went through growing up.
Ending her talk with a quote from Steven Levitan (the co-creator and executive producer of Ugly Betty), Ferrera stated, “[As actors,] we’re not just making people laugh, we’re making them more tolerant.”
And with that, the entire ballroom erupted into an uproarious standing ovation!