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‘Ugly Betty’ actress offers a message of determination to Catholic youths of L.A.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - During a candid and open exchange with local Catholic high school students, actress America Ferrera, star of mega-hit television show “Ugly Betty,” encouraged youth to overcome any obstacles in the way of achieving their dreams and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

PEP TALK - America Ferrera, the leading actress in “Ugly Betty,” speaks to students at Marymount High School in Westwood Jan. 26. (Ellie Hidalgo)

PEP TALK - America Ferrera, the leading actress in “Ugly Betty,” speaks to students at Marymount High School in Westwood Jan. 26. (Ellie Hidalgo)


She also urged students to become involved in this year’s presidential elections, noting that the results will determine the kind of world they will soon lead.

Ferrera keynoted a diversity conference Jan. 26 at all-girls Marymount High School in Westwood, which brought together 150 female and male students from 17 Catholic high schools.

“Every opportunity that faces you is really defined by how you accept that opportunity,” said Ferrera, who graduated from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills and went on to major in international relations at the University of Southern California. “You have no idea the people you are going to meet, the friends that are going to become a huge part of your life, the experiences and the people whose lives you’re going to touch,” said Ferrera, calmly and purposefully.

World is changing on diversity

The 23-year-old actress, who in 2007 won Golden Globe and Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Betty Suarez in the comedy “Ugly Betty,” said she knew at a young age she wanted to act. But the obstacles were many.

“My whole life I wanted to be an actress since I was seven years old. And my whole life I was told by the people around me, the people who loved me most, that this was probably going to be an impossible dream for me. Because you know, 10-15 years ago, there weren’t the sort of faces on television or in film you see now.”

A child of Honduran immigrants, Ferrera recalled that friends and family would tell her, “‘You’re Latino. That’s not really what they want in Hollywood. You’re short. You’re not the image, you know, of what a beautiful Hollywood star is.’“

“And all these things hurt, but they didn’t stop me,” said Ferrera. “All those reasons that everyone said I would never make it are all the reasons why I did make it. All those things that make me very unique -- and in their eyes a disadvantage -- were the things that opened the doors for me.

“The world is truly changing in terms of diversity and what is accepted, what we are going to see and whose stories we want to hear,” noted Ferrera, whose first movie role was for the Disney Channel’s “Gotta Kick It Up.” Next came the lead role in the independent feature hit “Real Women Have Curves,” about a full-figured East Los Angeles Latina high school student torn between going to college or getting a job to support her economically struggling family.

Taking the leap of faith

Ferrera, the youngest of six children raised by a single mother, recalled begging her mother to let her take studio acting classes. To pay for it, the then 16-year-old waitressed in the early mornings at the restaurant in the hotel where her mother worked.

“I knew that I had to achieve what I wanted to achieve, and I didn’t know how,” said Ferrera, wearing blue jeans, flats and a long black sweater. “What our own parents and our own families and our own cultures expect of us, versus what we want in our lives, these are all very big issues.

“But I took the leap of faith. ‘Maybe I’m wasting my time. Maybe I’m wasting my money, but I’ll do it.’“

Ferrera said she was able to sign on with a small agency as a teenager, but then spent a year auditioning for parts and never being called back.

“I would sit by my phone and I would cry, ‘When is this going to happen?’“ said Ferrera. After persevering for a year she got the call-back for the Disney film. A month later she landed the lead role in “Real Women Have Curves.” After that the doors were wide open.

“So I got to do what I wanted,” she said. “I got to act. But at the same time I was so lucky to be part of something that would show on college campuses, would show on high school campuses, started conversations.

“And so early on my career took this direction. This is something bigger than me. This is something I have the privilege of being a part of. At this time in my life when diversity is a huge frontier for us, I get to be a part of this change.”

Self-doubt in following passion

In fielding questions about the turning points and difficult decisions young adults have to make, Ferrera said that as a college freshman juggling her studies and acting roles, she found herself in another critical moment of self-doubt. Courses at USC were exposing her to the many injustices endured by exploited people around the world.

“I thought, how could there be so much going on outside the world and I’m finding myself just following my passion, just doing what I want to do? That felt so selfish to me,” said Ferrera.

She took her doubts to her professor who then told her the story of how he had mentored a young Latina high school student from Belmont High School near downtown Los Angeles. She asked him to see “Real Women Have Curves” so that he could understand the key struggles in her life.

“And he says to me, ‘If you think you can’t affect the world doing what you love to do, think again.’

“Things kind of got a little more clear for me,” said Ferrera in her down-to-earth style. “It’s about taking the gifts that are given to you and directing them towards great things and wonderful things, you know.”

Landing the role of Betty Suarez in “Ugly Betty” has continued her career trajectory.

“I felt like I read that script and I saw who that character was, and it so excited me. This is something new and different to see a character that I had never grown up watching on television. You know, I thought, if we do this the right way, this can be fun and entertaining, but it can do something else too. It can provide a whole new way for people to view what young women are capable of, and what young women bring to this world and what makes us valuable.”

College education: Go for it

Returning to the idea of opportunities, Ferrera urged students to “be open to new experiences that come along your way, and let that change you. Let that guide you.”

Not one to shy away from her brainy achievements, Ferrera encouraged high school students to strive for a college education. “It’s something my mother instilled in me from such a young age that education is the key. I think the education I got in school helps me to do what I do so much better.”

Balancing her celebrity is a deeply personal effort, she said.

“At the end of the day, it really isn’t about if people are watching as much as it is about fulfilling your own potential. When I think about all the pressure from the outside world, I really just have to go back to myself and say, this isn’t about anybody but me. This isn’t about proving anything to anyone, but making sure I can go to bed at the end of the day and put my head on my pillow and say I was the best person I could be today.”

Recently Ferrera is traveling and speaking with young adults and encouraging them to get involved in the political process, particularly the upcoming presidential elections.

“You know, this election is about you, more than it is about anybody else in this world. Because what happens now, who changes the course of this country, is going to determine the world we live in when we’re old enough to be the rulers and the leaders and the people who define what this world is going to be for the next generation. This really is your election,” she said.

“I think that we as young people are smarter than slogans. We’re smarter than campaign phrases. We’re smarter than, you know, commercials. I think you should dig deeper and find what each of you believe in and who you think is going to live that out,” she added.

“To go into that booth and vote for the first time is really empowering and makes you feel like, ‘I have a voice and I get to use it.’“

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (www.the-tidings.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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