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America Ferrera: how Ugly Betty became the powerful Latin soul of ‘Barbie’

Almost 20 years after starring in the series that made her famous, the American actress of Honduran descent has the most commented-on role in the new movie about the Mattel doll. She has become — with the permission of Margot Robbie — the star of the record-breaking film

America Ferrera
America Ferrera at the London premiere of 'Barbie,' on July 12, 2023.MAJA SMIEJKOWSKA (REUTERS)

America Ferrera never imagined making a movie about Barbie. Never. Like her co-star, Margot Robbie, she never played with the Mattel star as a child. But while Robbie never had an interest in them, Ferrera, 39, felt rather disinterested. Perhaps she even felt a bit of animosity. Was she — around 5 feet tall, with light brown skin and black hair — represented by the lanky, very blond and very white mannequin? It was never in her plans to have anything to do with the product. But today, nearly four decades after that childhood without dolls, the Californian of Honduran descent has become one of the key pieces of the movie Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig. During its first weekend in theaters, the blockbuster flick raked in more than $300 million.

For the Los Angeles-born Ferrera, Barbie was never a goal... until Greta Gerwig arrived. And she gave Ferrera what she likes the most: the freedom and the ability to be an actress, to play with the role and be whoever she wanted — a little like what the Barbie doll intends to offer young girls. This is a very American quality, of projecting yourself and seeing yourself in what one so badly desires.

“I believe, as an American, that there’s nothing that I cannot achieve if I work hard enough and if I want it very much,” she herself recounted a few months ago on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. That persistence, which comes from her childhood, has helped her build a solid career in Hollywood that has spanned more than two decades, encompassing acting, directing, producing and (beyond cinema) activism and advocacy, especially for the growing and increasingly powerful Latino community.

Ferrera has fought to hone her niche and be an active representative of her community. She knows it and fights for it in every role and every moment she gets the chance. She herself has said in more than one interview that she feels 100% American, but also 100% Latina and, despite not having been born there, 100% Honduran. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Tegucigalpa in the 1970s to give their children a better life and, above all, an education. This was her mother’s ardent desire. Of the six children, America was the youngest. In the early-1990s — when she was seven-years-old — the marriage broke up. Her mother was left to care for all her children, while America’s father abandoned them and returned to Honduras, where he died in 2010.

The family lived in Woodland Hills, a predominantly white neighborhood north of Los Angeles. América Griselda, the mother of the actress, worked as a cleaner in a Hilton hotel, while bearing the economic, physical and mental responsibility of mothering five daughters and son. She wasn’t narrow-minded, but she was pretty strict. There was never a quinceañera party, nor Barbies, of course. Her children had to study; that was the priority.

The young America always got good grades. Her goal was to go to college. But she got bitten by the acting bug as she took part in school dances and plays, such as Hamlet and Oliver! By high school, she was already taking acting lessons. Even so, she enrolled in the prestigious (and very expensive) University of Southern California, thanks to a Presidential Scholarship — one of the most important in the United States, which rewards the best high school students from all over the country.

After that began the casting calls and auditions. Disney came knocking on Ferrera’s door with a commercial dance film — Latin Rhythm — which came alongside Real Women Have Curves, an independent film that won her awards at the Sundance and Spirit film festivals. These projects helped America position herself for the public and the critics.

In both movies, she played young Latinas, linked to a community with stories to tell. It’s what she had always been looking for. “I always wanted, simply, to be an actress,” she explained, in a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times. When asked if she had broken representative beauty standards by becoming the face of the Covergirl makeup line, she replied: “I just wanted to have a career, for my dream to come true. I didn’t set out to challenge stereotypes or represent anyone. I wanted to live my dream.”

The dream came true, although, as she admitted in an interview from the early days of her career, it was hard for her to see it. She thought she would go from ugly duckling to swan, just like that. Until she realized that this was only a dream, like the one that launched her to fame. It was thanks to the adaptation of a soap opera, Ugly Betty, which ran from 2006 until 2010, that she became a popular character. When the glasses and braces arrived, so did the fame and big projects.

America couldn’t believe the success that resulted in an Emmy, the SAG award, the Latin Woman of the Year by Billboard, or even the Golden Globe. Ferrera, at 22, felt like an impostor. Only much later has she been able to explain this. “When I won the Emmy… the only thing I remember was being on stage and accepting it with the feeling that no one in that room thought I deserved it. And I’m ashamed,” she recounted, on the Armchair Expert podcast. “There were people in my life who perpetuated those narratives and made me feel like I hadn’t earned that moment. When I look back at that moment, my heart aches for that 22-year-old girl who couldn’t really enjoy it.”

It wasn’t easy to shed the skin of such a popular character, but the years have smoothed everything out. Betty left and America recovered her voice. In The Los Angeles Times, she noted how she has spent her entire life challenging stereotypes, but she’s also just someone looking for their place and trying to discover who they really are. “I was a 17-year-old child trying to figure out how I felt in my body in this world, in this culture, with the beauty standards that existed and what that said about me and what my value was. And that was 22 years ago.”

In a TED Talk that she gave in 2019, she opened up about this: “I thought sunscreen and straightening irons would bring about change in this deeply entrenched value system. But what I realized in that moment was that I was never actually asking the system to change. I was asking it to let me in, and those aren’t the same thing. I couldn’t change what a system believed about me, while I believed what the system believed about me.”

Since she said goodbye to Betty Suárez, Ferrera’s star status has allowed her to advocate for causes that matter deeply to her. In addition to continuing to play roles in films and TV series — including the three popular installments of How to Train Your Dragon — she has created, directed and produced her own series, such as the hundred episodes of Superstore. And she’s done all of this while searching for Latinos like her — more than 62 million throughout the U.S. in total, with more than half of the people in her home state being of Hispanic descent — to achieve fair representation. In 2020, in the middle of the presidential campaign, she and Eva Longoria founded Poderistas: a digital community to unite, celebrate and support Latina women from all over the country. She herself knows that as a Latina and as a woman, she is underrepresented in the industry, especially in positions of power. She wants to reverse the situation. “I think a lot of us who have been in this industry for a few decades have realized that, if it’s going to change, we’re the ones who have to change it,” she told MSNBC.

Now, Ferrera is once again in the spotlight, thanks to her role in Barbie, where — without spoiling anything — she plays Gloria, the woman who is the cause of what’s happening to the doll. Her role is central, especially a long speech that she gives — overwhelming and perceptive — which becomes a key moment in the film. Gerwig gave Ferrera complete freedom to develop the tone, and, according to what she told the actress, even Meryl Streep would have liked to deliver the monologue. Ferrera told Vanity Fair that it took two days to record the speech (particularly because it was part of a larger sequence) and that she had to repeat it “between 30 and 50 times.” Ariana Greenblatt — who was sitting next to her in the scene, portraying the character’s daughter — even managed to learn it by heart. “There’s no woman in my life who those words aren’t true for,” America sighed. “Not a single one. So it felt like a gift.”

A gift from the director, and also from the writers, Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, who wink at their character by turning Ferrera’s real-life husband into her husband in the film. Ryan Piers Williams — actor, writer, producer and director — has been Ferrera’s partner since 2005, when they met in college. Back then, he recruited her for a little film he was making. Together, they have artistic and charitable projects, such as the Harness Foundation, which they founded together with fellow artist Wilmer Valderrama after Trump won the 2016 elections, to support artists and activists. In 2015, Ferrera and Shakira penned an open letter against Trump in HuffPost, where they ripped apart the “offensive” comments “against Latino immigrants” that the then-presidential candidate had made.

The artistic duo formed by Ferrera and Williams was married in 2011, after six years of dating. They have two children: Sebastian, born in May 2018, and Marisol, born in May 2020, in the midst of a pandemic. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight during the premiere of Barbie, Ferrera laughed, recalling how, after her children visited the film set, the little ones were shocked: “Now, they think that, when I’m not with them, I live and work in Barbie Land.”

America Ferrera will probably never be a doctor, as her mother always wanted — a prestigious profession that offers security. But she did finish university; she managed to graduate in 2013, with a degree in International Relations. Her strong sense of duty and her competitiveness —which she recognizes and is proud of — have brought her to where she is, but not without difficulties. As she herself said in that 2019 TED Talk: “If I could go back and say anything to that nine-year-old, dancing in the den, dreaming her dreams, I would say, ‘My identity is not my obstacle. My identity is my superpower.’”

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