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← My identity is a superpower -- not an obstacle

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Showing Revision 6 created 05/23/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. On the red tiles in my family's den
  2. I would dance and sing
    to the made-for-TV movie "Gypsy,"
  3. starring Bette Midler.
  4. (Singing) "I had a dream.

  5. A wonderful dream, papa."
  6. I would sing it with the urgency
    and the burning desire of a nine-year-old

  7. who did, in fact, have a dream.
  8. My dream was to be an actress.
  9. And it's true that I never saw
    anyone who looked like me
  10. in television or in films,
  11. and sure, my family and friends
    and teachers all constantly warned me
  12. that people like me
    didn't make it in Hollywood.
  13. But I was an American.
  14. I had been taught to believe
    that anyone could achieve anything,
  15. regardless of the color of their skin,
  16. the fact that my parents
    immigrated from Honduras,
  17. the fact that I had no money.
  18. I didn't need my dream to be easy,
  19. I just needed it to be possible.
  20. And when I was 15,

  21. I got my first professional audition.
  22. It was a commercial
    for cable subscriptions
  23. or bail bonds, I don't really remember.
  24. (Laughter)

  25. What I do remember
    is that the casting director asked me,

  26. "Could you do that again,
    but just this time, sound more Latina."
  27. "Um, OK.

  28. So you want me
    to do it in Spanish?" I asked.
  29. "No, no, do it in English,
    just sound Latina."

  30. "Well, I am a Latina,
    so isn't this what a Latina sounds like?"

  31. There was a long and awkward silence,

  32. and then finally,
  33. "OK, sweetie, never mind,
    thank you for coming in, bye!"
  34. It took me most of the car ride home
    to realize that by "sound more Latina"

  35. she was asking me
    to speak in broken English.
  36. And I couldn't figure out why the fact
  37. that I was an actual,
    real-life, authentic Latina
  38. didn't really seem to matter.
  39. Anyway, I didn't get the job.

  40. I didn't get a lot of the jobs
    people were willing to see me for:
  41. the gang-banger's girlfriend,
  42. the sassy shoplifter,
  43. pregnant chola number two.
  44. (Laughter)

  45. These were the kinds of roles
    that existed for someone like me.

  46. Someone they looked at
    and saw as too brown, too fat,
  47. too poor, too unsophisticated.
  48. These roles were stereotypes
  49. and couldn't have been further
    from my own reality
  50. or from the roles I dreamt of playing.
  51. I wanted to play people
    who were complex and multidimensional,
  52. people who existed in the center
    of their own lives.
  53. Not cardboard cutouts that stood
    in the background of someone else's.
  54. But when I dared to say that
    to my manager --

  55. that's the person I pay
    to help me find opportunity --
  56. his response was,
  57. "Someone has to tell that girl
    she has unrealistic expectations."
  58. And he wasn't wrong.
  59. I mean, I fired him, but he wasn't wrong.
  60. (Laughter)

  61. (Applause)

  62. Because whenever I did try to get a role
    that wasn't a poorly written stereotype,

  63. I would hear,
  64. "We're not looking
    to cast this role diversely."
  65. Or, "We love her,
    but she's too specifically ethnic."
  66. Or, "Unfortunately, we already have
    one Latino in this movie."
  67. I kept receiving the same message
    again and again and again.
  68. That my identity was an obstacle
    I had to overcome.
  69. And so I thought,
  70. "Come at me, obstacle.
  71. I'm an American. My name is America.
  72. I trained my whole life for this,
    I'll just follow the playbook,
  73. I'll work harder."
  74. And so I did, I worked my hardest
  75. to overcome all the things
    that people said were wrong with me.
  76. I stayed out of the sun
    so that my skin wouldn't get too brown,
  77. I straightened my curls into submission.
  78. I constantly tried to lose weight,
  79. I bought fancier
    and more expensive clothes.
  80. All so that when people looked at me,
  81. they wouldn't see a too fat,
    too brown, too poor Latina.
  82. They would see what I was capable of.
  83. And maybe they would give me a chance.
  84. And in an ironic twist of fate,

  85. when I finally did get a role
    that would make all my dreams come true,
  86. it was a role that required me
    to be exactly who I was.
  87. Ana in "Real Women Have Curves"
  88. was a brown, poor, fat Latina.
  89. I had never seen anyone
    like her, anyone like me,
  90. existing in the center
    of her own life story.
  91. I traveled throughout the US
  92. and to multiple countries with this film
  93. where people, regardless of their age,
    ethnicity, body type,
  94. saw themselves in Ana.
  95. A 17-year-old chubby Mexican American girl
  96. struggling against cultural norms
    to fulfill her unlikely dream.
  97. In spite of what
    I had been told my whole life,

  98. I saw firsthand that people actually did
    want to see stories about people like me.
  99. And that my unrealistic expectations
  100. to see myself authentically
    represented in the culture
  101. were other people’s expectations, too.
  102. "Real Women Have Curves"
  103. was a critical, cultural
    and financial success.
  104. "Great," I thought, "We did it!
  105. We proved our stories have value.
  106. Things are going to change now."
  107. But I watched as very little happened.

  108. There was no watershed.
  109. No one in the industry
    was rushing to tell more stories
  110. about the audience that was hungry
    and willing to pay to see them.
  111. Four years later,
    when I got to play Ugly Betty,

  112. I saw the same phenomenon play out.
  113. "Ugly Betty" premiered in the US
    to 16 million viewers
  114. and was nominated
    for 11 Emmys in its first year.
  115. (Applause)

  116. But in spite of "Ugly Betty's" success,

  117. there would not be another television show
  118. led by a Latina actress
  119. on American television for eight years.
  120. It's been 12 years
  121. since I became the first and only Latina
  122. to ever win an Emmy in a lead category.
  123. That is not a point of pride.
  124. That is a point of deep frustration.
  125. Not because awards prove our worth,
  126. but because who we see
    thriving in the world
  127. teaches us how to see ourselves,
  128. how to think about our own value,
  129. how to dream about our futures.
  130. And anytime I begin to doubt that,

  131. I remember that there was a little girl,
    living in the Swat Valley of Pakistan.
  132. And somehow, she got
    her hands on some DVDs
  133. of an American television show
  134. in which she saw her own dream
    of becoming a writer reflected.
  135. In her autobiography, Malala wrote,
  136. "I had become interested in journalism
  137. after seeing how my own words
    could make a difference
  138. and also from watching
    the "Ugly Betty" DVDs
  139. about life at an American magazine."
  140. (Applause)

  141. For 17 years of my career,

  142. I have witnessed the power our voices have
  143. when they can access
    presence in the culture.
  144. I've seen it.
  145. I've lived it, we've all seen it.
  146. In entertainment, in politics,
  147. in business, in social change.
  148. We cannot deny it --
    presence creates possibility.
  149. But for the last 17 years,
  150. I've also heard the same excuses
  151. for why some of us can access
    presence in the culture
  152. and some of us can't.
  153. Our stories don't have an audience,
  154. our experiences won't resonate
    in the mainstream,
  155. our voices are too big a financial risk.
  156. Just a few years ago, my agent called

  157. to explain to me why
    I wasn't getting a role in a movie.
  158. He said, "They loved you
  159. and they really, really do want
    to cast diversely,
  160. but the movie isn't financeable
    until they cast the white role first."
  161. He delivered the message
    with a broken heart
  162. and with a tone that communicated,
    "I understand how messed up this is."
  163. But nonetheless, just like
    hundreds of times before,
  164. I felt the tears roll down my face.
  165. And the pang of rejection rise up in me
  166. and then the voice of shame scolding me,
  167. "You are a grown woman,
    stop crying over a job."
  168. I went through this process for years
    of accepting the failure as my own
  169. and then feeling deep shame
    that I couldn't overcome the obstacles.
  170. But this time, I heard a new voice.

  171. A voice that said, "I'm tired.
  172. I've had enough."
  173. A voice that understood
  174. my tears and my pain
    were not about losing a job.
  175. They were about what
    was actually being said about me.
  176. What had been said about me my whole life
  177. by executives and producers
  178. and directors and writers
    and agents and managers
  179. and teachers and friends and family.
  180. That I was a person of less value.
  181. I thought sunscreen
    and straightening irons

  182. would bring about change
    in this deeply entrenched value system.
  183. But what I realized in that moment
  184. was that I was never actually asking
    the system to change.
  185. I was asking it to let me in,
    and those aren't the same thing.
  186. I couldn't change
    what a system believed about me,
  187. while I believed what
    the system believed about me.
  188. And I did.
  189. I, like everyone around me,
  190. believed that it wasn't possible
    for me to exist in my dream as I was.
  191. And I went about
    trying to make myself invisible.
  192. What this revealed to me
    was that it is possible
  193. to be the person
    who genuinely wants to see change
  194. while also being the person whose actions
    keep things the way they are.
  195. And what it's led me to believe
    is that change isn't going to come
  196. by identifying the good guys
    and the bad guys.
  197. That conversation
    lets us all off the hook.
  198. Because most of us
    are neither one of those.
  199. Change will come

  200. when each of us has the courage
  201. to question our own fundamental
    values and beliefs.
  202. And then see to it that our actions
    lead to our best intentions.
  203. I am just one of millions of people
  204. who have been told
    that in order to fulfill my dreams,
  205. in order to contribute
    my talents to the world
  206. I have to resist the truth of who I am.
  207. I for one, am ready to stop resisting
  208. and to start existing
    as my full and authentic self.
  209. If I could go back and say anything

  210. to that nine-year-old,
    dancing in the den, dreaming her dreams,
  211. I would say,
  212. my identity is not my obstacle.
  213. My identity is my superpower.
  214. Because the truth is,
  215. I am what the world looks like.
  216. You are what the world looks like.
  217. Collectively, we are
    what the world actually looks like.
  218. And in order for our systems
    to reflect that,
  219. they don't have to create a new reality.
  220. They just have to stop
    resisting the one we already live in.
  221. Thank you.

  222. (Applause)