If there’s anything we’ve learned in recent years across media and social movements, it’s that representation matters now more than ever. Films like Marvel’s Black Panther, Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings, Crazy Rich Asians and even Disney’s Coco have made people from their respective communities feel seen in a new light: as superheroes, romantic leads, or as the young hero who saves his family’s legacy. On television, series like Fresh Off The Boat, One Day At A Time, and Black-ish have shared the experiences of families of color for millions to see and relate to.
The most competitive branch of entertainment, live theatre, however, has historically excluded communities of color from leading roles. Despite the challenges that come for BIPOC performers in the theatre industry, Latinx have continued to penetrate the industry, represent our communities and strive for change.
In honor of Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month, we interviewed four actors who have made it to the iconic Broadway stage and chatted with them about their experiences performing, the changes they’d like to see in entertainment and some of the Latinx stories they’d like to see adapted for the stage.
Ashley de la Rosa, a Dominican and Puerto Rican-American actress from NYC, shared that one of the first times she felt represented was when she heard the Broadway cast recording of In The Heights when she was in college. “Just listening to the soundtrack alone and hearing references to my culture and neighborhood of Washington Heights made me feel like I had a place to belong and celebrate.” De la Rosa is currently playing Peggy Schulyer/Maria Reynolds in the national tour of Hamilton and previously performed on Broadway in Mean Girls: The Musical and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
“Any backlash or negativity I faced came from people, always non POC, who tried to put me in a box because my ‘look’ didn’t fit their narrow idea of who was ‘right’ for the part,” De la Rosa shared. “At first, it really bothered me and I took it personally, believing I wasn’t enough, but as I got older I realized that it comes from their own ignorance and lack of creativity – and that says more about those people than it does about me.”
One of the most iconic classic musicals in Broadway history is West Side Story, which has been a staple in Latinx representation over the years and a show that nearly every Latinx performer has done at some point in their career. Even I played Bernardo in a concert production when I was in high school!
Manuel Stark Santos, a Puerto Rican-American performer, shared that the first time he felt represented onstage was when he himself was performing in a production of West Side Story. “It was at a theatre in Houston called TUTS,” also known as Theatre Under The Stars, a massive outdoor stage and venue that seats over 2500 people.
“That’s where I did my first production of West Side Story!” Santos is currently starring in the national tour of Hamilton and understudying the lead role, and made his Broadway debut in the 2009 revival of West Side Story, followed by the musicals Gigi, On The Town and Disney’s Aladdin.
Hillary Porter, an actress of mixed Puerto Rican and Caucasian descent, said West Side Story was also an influential show for her, sharing “while I always resonated and identified more with the Sharks, I saw all of the different parts of my whole self represented in that show.” Porter also shared her desire to see more meaningful Latinx representation both onstage and behind the scenes. “I would love to see Latinx performers represented outside of stereotypical Latinx characters and playing more leading roles in our industry. And it would be so powerful and beautiful to see a Latinx story being performed on stage played by all Latinx performers, and still be able to see an entire rainbow of races represented.”
Porter most recently performed on Broadway in A Bronx Tale: The Musical and was part of the national tour of classic musical Hello, Dolly! She also went on to share some of the Latinx entertainers she admired when she was growing up, “I saw a lot of myself in Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan, and Shakira because they were also such strong dancers in addition to their singing, and are true overall entertainers.” Others also shared an affinity for artists like Selena, and both Hillary and Puerto Rican-Cuban-Spanish actress Alexia Sky Colón felt a musical about Selena is long overdue. “Selena for the Stage!”
Alexia Sky Colón has performed in the Gloria Estefan-centered Broadway musical On Your Feet!, West Side Story and Hamilton, and shared that On Your Feet! is when she felt most represented. “Sharing the stage with so many latinx people, dancing to the music I grew up on, telling the story of immigrants thriving in America despite the challenges.” Colón also shared that she was discouraged by many to pursue a career on Broadway because of the lack of opportunity for Latinx.
Colón went on to share some inspiring words to young Latinx who may be seeking a career in the arts, saying “Don’t settle. No matter what you are told by others, go for your dreams. If the doors aren’t open, be the one to kick it down, with sabor.”
At the end of our interviews, we asked each actor to share some encouraging words to all their fellow Latinx during Hispanic Heritage Month. Here’s what they had to say:
“To my fellow Latinx, take this time to reflect on the accomplishments of yourself, your family, your culture, and celebrate how far you’ve come!” ~Ashley De La Rosa
“Continue to be proud of every bit of who you are. Our heritage helps make us all more special, especially in an industry where we are underrepresented. Because of that, you might just become someone’s biggest inspiration because they finally saw themselves represented through you.” ~Hilary Porter
Our history runs deeper than we can imagine. We Latinx people are an eclectic group made of success and sacrifice. As we hold our traditions close to our hearts, we honor the past and pave the way for stories untold. ‘Paciencia y Fe’” ~Alexia Sky Colon
“Be brave, be bold, and blow us all away!” ~Manuel Stark Santos