An Ode to America Ferrera's Trailblazing Career

Whether she's acting in front of the camera or directing and producing behind it, America Ferrera uses the power of storytelling to raise voices and fight for more Latinx representation in Hollywood.

By Elyse Dupre Oct 02, 2021 12:00 PMTags
Watch: America Ferrera Wants More Latinas in Hollywood

From an early age, America Ferrera knew she wanted to be an actress.

"On the red tiles in my family's den, I would dance and sing to the made-for-TV movie Gypsy starring Bette Midler," she recalled during a 2019 Ted Talk. "''I had a dream, a wonderful dream, papa.' I would sing it with the urgency and the burning desire of a 9-year-old who did in fact have a dream."

The 37-year-old star has certainly made this dream a reality. From her roles in Real Women Have Curves and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to her performances in Ugly Betty and Superstore, Ferrera has appeared in several beloved movies and TV shows. And the dream continues. She's also working behind the camera as a producer and director. 

Through the power of her storytelling, Ferrera has been able to raise voices, drive change and fight for more Latinx representation in Hollywood.

America Ferrera's Best Roles

Here's a look at her trailblazing career.

Fighting Against Stereotypes

When Ferrera was a teenager, she had her first professional audition for a commercial.

"I was this little, brown, chubby valley girl who spoke, you know, like a valley girl," Ferrera, who was born in Los Angeles and is the proud daughter of Honduran immigrants, said in an interview for the 72nd Emmys. "I walked in, did my audition. The casting director looked at me and she was like, 'That's great. Um, can you do that again but this time sound more Latina?"

Ferrera wondered if the casting director was asking her to do the audition in Spanish. "She was like, 'No, no no. Do it in English but just, you know, like, sound more Latina,'" she recalled. "I am a Latina, and this is what I sound like."

Ferrera was dismissed and told her family about the audition. "'They wanted you to speak in broken English,'" she remembered them saying. "'They wanted you to sound like a chola. What did you think was going to happen? They were going to, you know, have you starring in the next role for Julia Roberts?' And I was like, 'Yeah, that is what I thought.'"

But Ferrera didn't let this experience stop her. "That realization for me," she said, "has fueled me to create more opportunity for little brown girls to fulfill their talent and their dream."

Telling Powerful Stories

In 2002, Ferrera played Ana Garcia in Real Women Have Curves.

"I traveled throughout the U.S. and to multiple countries with this film where people regardless of their age, ethnicity, body type saw themselves in Ana, a 17-year-old, chubby, Mexican American girl struggling against cultural norms to fulfill her unlikely dream," Ferrera said during her Ted Talk. "In spite of what I had been told my whole life, I saw firsthand that people actually did want to see stories about people like me and that my 'unrealistic expectations' to see myself authentically represented in the culture were other people's expectations, too."

Despite the movie's huge success, she didn't see the change she had hoped for. "I watched as very little happened," she continued. "There was no watershed. No one in the industry was rushing to tell more stories about the audience that was hungry and willing to pay to see them."

And she knew there was more work to do.

Starring in Film and TV

Fans continued to witness Ferrera's talents both in movie theaters and on their TVs at home. She starred in films like Gotta Kick It Up! and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and acted in TV shows like Ugly Betty and Superstore

"I am who I am," she told Porter magazine. "I don't fit in traditional boxes for women on screen. When I became an actress, my mere presence was a revolution because I wasn't supposed to exist in this industry."

Making History at the Emmys

In 2007, Ferrera made history as the first Latina to win an Emmy in one of the lead actress categories, taking home the prize in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series category for her performance in Ugly Betty. That year, she also won a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her role as Betty Suarez. Ugly Betty received 19 Emmy nominations over the course of its four-season run.

"Anyone who's ever felt like an outsider can see themselves in her and feel represented," Ferrera told W magazine that year about the role. "And who hasn't, at some point in their life, felt like they didn't belong?"

Working Behind the Camera

Not only has Ferrera starred in front of the camera, but she's also worked behind it. In addition to acting in and producing the NBC workplace comedy Superstore, Ferrera produced and directed Gentefied, a bilingual series that launched on Netflix last year and tells the story of three Mexican American cousins as they navigate their lives and dreams, try to save their grandfather's taco shop and witness the gentrification of their Boyle Heights neighborhood. 

"As a producer, bringing opportunity to the Latino community and helping to build a pipeline for our stories to be seen and to be celebrated and for our talent—we have so much talent—to be given the opportunity to shine is what drives me as a producer," she said after winning the Outstanding Series Producer honor at the National Hispanic Media Coalition's 2020 Impact Awards. 

Driving Change Through Organizations

Ferrera also empowers communities by founding organizations that seek to uplift them. In 2016, she founded Harness with Wilmer Valderrama and her husband Ryan Piers Williams. According to the organization's website, "Harness educates, inspires, and activates an interdependent community of Cultural Organizers to use the power of storytelling to imagine and create a more equitable world." She also recently founded the online community Poderistas with Eva LongoriaLatina magazine founder Christy Haubegger and other Latina activists.

"We are celebrating and hopefully inspiring Latina women to own their power," Ferrera explained on The View. "Because we all have power and we're all powerful, and the contributions we're making in our families, in our communities, in our home are already happening. Our stories need to be told and reflected to the larger narrative but also back to ourselves. Because what we see teaches us what to believe about ourselves. So, we need to tell the story about the power that we already have and that we're already exercising so that we can gain inspiration from what we know."

Being an Activist

In addition to being an actress, producer and founder, Ferrera is an activist. She spoke at the inaugural Women's March, has gone to Capitol Hill to discuss immigration reform, and has stressed the importance of voting. 

"People started calling me an activist, so I started calling myself an activist," Ferrera said at the 2017 EmpowerMe event, per MTV News. "But the truth is I'm just a human being who cares about the world and tries to use her platform to positively impact the issues that matter to me. I've been able to be an engaged, active citizen in the world and follow my passion for creativity and storytelling and really those two passions have merged more frequently than I ever imagined they would. I'm not just an actor, I'm not just an activist, I'm not just one thing—I'm all of these things and to honor all the different passions I have within me is the path towards the best version of myself."

Raising the Next Generation

Ferrera is also a mom to two kids—Sebastian, 3, and Lucia, 16 months—and she hopes to pass along the important lessons she's learned.

"My desire is to raise my children to love who they are," she said on CBS Mornings last year, "and to love everything about who they are and let their natural, innate love of themselves and love of others be what guides them." 

And she has a few words for her younger self, too. "If I could go back and say anything to that 9-year-old dancing in the den, dreaming her dreams, I would say, 'My identity is not my obstacle. My identity is my superpower,'" she said during her TED Talk. "Because the truth is I am what the world looks like. You are what the world looks like. Collectively, we are what the world actually looks like. And in order for our systems to reflect that, they don't have to create a new reality. They have to just stop resisting the one we already live in."