America Ferrera’s Rise from ‘Real Women Have Curves’ to Oscar Nomination Glory
For America Ferrera, the highest use of storytelling is “to affirm one another’s full humanity.” And there is no greater testament to that than her impactful career as an actress, producer, and activist.
The “Barbie” actress was honored with a SeeHer Award at the Critics Choice Awards last Sunday night.
If her monologue in Greta Gerwig’s film was groundbreaking, her speech upon receiving the award on Sunday left us all with goosebumps.
“I grew up as a first-generation Honduran American girl in love with TV, film, and theater, who desperately wanted to be a part of a storytelling legacy that I could not see myself reflected in,” Ferrera said. “Of course, I could feel myself in characters who were strong and complex. But these characters rarely, if ever, looked like me. I yearned to see people like myself on-screen as full humans.”
“When I started working over 20 years ago – that seems impossible, I know – but it seemed impossible that anyone could make a career portraying fully dimensional Latina characters but because of writers, directors, producers, and executives who are daring enough to rewrite outdated stories and to challenge deeply entrenched biases, I, and some of my beloved Latina colleagues, have been supremely blessed to bring to life some fierce and fantastic women,” she continued.
In her career spanning more than two decades, America Ferrera has blazed a trail for all women of color, and it’s time we recognize it.
When tenacity is vital
Born in Los Angeles to Honduran parents, America Ferrera is a first-generation Latina who knows firsthand the experiences of many other women of color. Her mother worked as a housekeeping manager at one of the Hilton hotels. Her father returned to Honduras when Ferrera was seven years old.
Ferrera attended the University of Southern California (USC) on a presidential scholarship. She majored in theater and international relations but decided to focus on her acting career. She later completed her bachelor’s degree in 2013.
After her first roles in made-for-TV movies like “Gotta Kick It Up!” for The Disney Channel, her golden opportunity came.
America Ferrera broke stereotypes early on
The actress made her feature film debut in “Real Women Have Curves” in 2002 in the role of Ana Garcia. The comedy-drama directed by Patricia Cardoso is based on the play of the same name by Josefina Lopez. The film achieved fame in and out of critics’ circles for giving voice to young women struggling against stereotypes, loving themselves, and finding respect in the United States.
“Real Women Have Curves” won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Film and the Special Jury Prize for acting at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.
According to Entertainment Weekly, it is one of the most influential films of the 2000s. And it was hardly America Ferrera’s first.
Breaking ground on the small and big screens
Since the success of “Real Women Have Curves,” America Ferrera landed roles on television and in films like “Plainsong” alongside Aidan Quinn and Rachel Griffiths.
Appearing in nearly one production per year, Ferrera won hearts with films like “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer” and the short film “3:52,” which won the Audience Award at the San Diego Women’s Film Festival.
But Ferrera would rise to fame for playing a woman the world considered ‘ugly’
For those of us who grew up in Latin America in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the thought of an English-language adaptation of the hit Colombian novela “Yo Soy Betty, La Fea” was laughable.
However, it happened.
In the role of Betty Suarez, Ferrera wears braces, bushy eyebrows, and a tousled wig, as well as cosmetics and clothing intended to downplay her appearance. Ferrera herself invented the term “Bettification” to describe the process of creating her on-screen persona.
Ferrera’s brilliant performance earned her the so-called “triple crown” of television acting. The actress won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy Television Series, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Comedy Series, and the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, becoming the first Latina to win the award for Outstanding Lead Actress.
So far, she is the only one.
Little by little, Ferrera was able to embody characters that any Latina could identify with
After the success of “Ugly Betty,” America Ferrera made her way into U.S. film narratives with roles closer to her life story. She got the role of Carmen in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” (2005).
From theater to ‘Superstore’
Having conquered television, America Ferrera subsequently conquered the theater boards in 2011. The Latina actress played none other than Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago in London’s West End.
Then, she dipped her toes in the water for the first time in activist productions such as PBS’s “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”
She also sat in the director’s chair to try to get a soap opera on the air for ABC that interpreted the classic “Romeo and Juliet” from a Latino perspective.
Although the project never got off the ground, it did secure Ferrera a role on the NBC sitcom “Superstore,” playing Amy, a 10-year veteran floor supervisor at a superstore called Cloud 9.
Ferrera participated in the co-production, and despite the vicissitudes of the COVID-19 pandemic, she appeared in the series finale episode.
When the going gets tough, that’s when you have to fight the hardest
Then came “Gentefied,” America Ferrera’s most ambitious project in the role of executive producer. Premiering on Netflix on February 21, 2020, the series follows the story of three Mexican-American cousins and their struggle to pursue the American dream.
One of the most important stories for Latino representation on screen, “Gentefied,” was canceled in 2022 after only two seasons.
“So sad that our beloved Gentefied has reached its end,” Ferrera wrote after learning of Netflix’s decision not to renew the series. “I have nothing but immense pride for this gorgeous show and the incredibly talented humans who came together to put something new and deeply authentic on our screens.”
However, Ferrera said she was grateful the series made it to air.
“It’s a small miracle and a monumental feat every time one of our stories is birthed into the world,” she said about the continuing dearth of on-screen representation. “Let’s keep figuring out how to nurture and support our storytellers and stories – there’s still so much work ahead.”
And then came the Barbie revolution
Although Ferrera continued to work on projects like the big-screen adaptation of Erika L. Sanchez’s “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” the Latina actress was given an opportunity to change the representation of actresses of color in Hollywood forever.
It was her role in director Greta Gerwig’s feminist film, which Ferrera has deemed “a game-changing gift.”
“For most of my career, I have not been considered for roles that weren’t written specifically for Latinas,” Ferrera explained. “And that, in itself, limits what people are willing to think of you and what’s available to you.”
As Ferrera explained, “Being Latina was not the purpose of the character.”
“She had to be a full human and representative of many things. It wasn’t a ‘check the box’ type of casting. That has started to change a little bit, at least for me,” she added.
In her speech last Sunday, Ferrera thanked Gerwig again.
“Thank you for proving through your incredible mastery as a filmmaker that women’s stories have no difficulty achieving cinematic greatness and box office history at the same time and that unabashedly telling female stories does not diminish your powers; it expands them. Greta, your mind, your talent, and your heart have inspired us all. And thank you for asking me to be your Gloria.”
Now, her performance has earned her her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Ferrera will be competing against Emily Blunt for “Oppenheimer,” Danielle Brooks for “The Color Purple,” Jodie Foster for “Nyad,” and Da’Vine Joy Randolph for “The Holdovers.”
Ferrera is the eighth Latina actress to receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actress category in Oscar history. Among them were Katy Jurado, Rita Moreno, Norma Aleandro, Lupita Nyong’o and Marina de Tavira. Moreno won for her “West Side Story” role in 1961, and Nyong’o won for “12 Years a Slave” in 2013.
Outside of the set, Ferrera has recognized the importance of her platform as a star
During the 2008 presidential primaries, she joined the Hillblazers organization in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Similarly, she participated in the 2012 and 2016 Democratic National Convention. Ferrera has been active in the organization Voto Latino to get U.S. Latinos to exercise their constitutional right.
Ferrera also works with Eva Longoria as co-host of She Se Puede and was an opening speaker at the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017. That same year, the actress joined the #MeToo campaign, publicly revealing that she was sexually harassed when she was nine years old.
More recently, Ferrera signed an open letter from artists for a ceasefire in Gaza.
This article was originally published on January 16, 2024.