At Bunker Hill Community College last week, another face in a large percentage of minorities walked the stark halls. But there was something about this particular face. It was glowing, inspirational, and was able to send a powerful message to hundreds of students. This face belonged to America Ferrera, the esteemed actress who embraces her stereotypical roles, using them as a way to impart self-respect on those who are confronted with some of the same difficulties she experienced in her youth.
Speaking as both an actress and a humanitarian as part of the community college’s “Compelling Conversations Speaker Series,” Ferrera was able to ignite the minds of the students whom filled the auditorium to hear the impactful celebrity speak about very real struggles, and very real issues.
“All I have to offer you are my first-hand experiences as a woman, and as a minority,” said the 27-year-old.
Ferrera grew up in a household where money and attention were hard to come by. But at night, the actress was able to free her mind from a tough reality, and dream. “I remember a time when I was nine years old, lying in bed,” she reflected, “seeing myself on the red carpet wearing long, grotesque diamonds. Then I’d squeeze my eyes even tighter to see the glamour.”
At seventeen, with her eyes opened, Ferrera landed her first paid acting gig, a career she knew she was destined for from childhood. But even still, her dream seemed hindered. Even her former agent once said, “Someone should tell that girl that she has inflated ideas of what she can accomplish as an actress.”
That statement resulted in diificult moments for the young actress, culminating in Ferrera’s self-deprecation. Yes, she was acting, fulfilling her lifelong goal, but it was almost as if she had made a deal with Rumplestiltskin, the eponymous fairytale character that made deals, giving people what they wanted only for something bad to come of it. She was acting, but only receiving roles that fit her stereotype—the chubby, Latino girl.
Frustrated and angry that she was being held back from becoming the actress of mass appeal she so desired to emulate, Ferrera turned to other outlets in order to feel of value. While completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California (USC), Ferrera was overwhelmed by the vast amount of devastation in the world, and how little she knew of it.
“When I discovered that I was an ignorant person, my heart broke,” she said. “I was the girl in the front row, crying…I mourned my stupidity. I took the SAT’s four goddamned times…How could I be such a dummy?”
Ferrera, who graduated from high school with a 4.2 GPA, was certainly no dummy. But she felt like there was only one thing she could do to help make a difference in the world, and that was to stop chasing her childhood dream. To better grapple with her decision, Ferrera sought advice from an esteemed USC professor, Dr. Anders.
“I don’t understand where I’m supposed to go from here,” she recounted. “There’s so much pain and suffering, I have to do something that actually helps people.” Understanding Ferrera’s concerns, Anders told the Emmy-winning actress that he tutored a young Latina girl, and one afternoon, he took her and her friends to see a movie, a movie Ferrera starred in called “Real Women Have Curves.” He told her that her movie about showing people that you can become more than a stereotype allowed him to have a conversation with the girl’s parents about sending her to college, a decision that changed the course of her life.
At that moment, Ferrera realized that her passion had the ability to inspire people. “What I love to do had the power to impact the world,” she said. “It was one of the first experiences that allowed me to make a difference and stay connected to who I am.”
Finally, Ferrera was able to accept that what she thought were faults, were really assets she could use to help inspire even more young girls that perhaps wished for the same aspiration as Ferrera. And although it was a very laborious struggle to attain her dream, being able to combine her passion, education and empathy in her craft has proven to be even greater than what she envisioned. Ferrera’s story about the fantastical reality she created for herself served as a beacon of hope for the reflections of Ferrera’s former self, sitting in every seat. Each student seemed to absorb Ferrera’s words, creating a tangible connection with someone who is really no different than them. They all share a commonality; they all share a dream.
“The only things that belong to me are the things I know, like education. My own life and career have been guided by mentorship. Your time here will bring you closer to your mentors,” Ferrera advised to the auditorium full of starry-eyed students.
“For a very established actress to say she’s honored to be here is very surprising. The crowd can actually relate to her because she doesn’t hide who she is,” said student David Rousseau, class of 2013.
Ferrera’s career has indeed given her the position of being a role model, and it is clear that’s not a job she holds lightly. Her work with various humanitarian organizations, including Save the Children to promote education for children in need, allows her to shine as brightly as she does on the red carpet. But unlike the diamonds she’s adorned in, the differences she’s able to make in young children’s lives are not gems she has to return at the end of the night.