Breaking Barriers: On the Set of “American Family”

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“Latinos are here to stay. As citizen Raquel, I’m proud to be Latina.” – Raquel Welch

I was called to work as a background extra for an up-and-coming PBS television drama series called “American Family.”  I was cast to play an illegal immigrant who worked in a sweatshop and was in jeopardy of being deported at any given time.

The studio was walking distance from my house (which was so convenient!). I was super excited to see what this new show was all about. My agency had given me very little information, all I knew is that they were in need of Hispanic women, and I was more than thrilled to be working.

My first day on the set, I found out that Gregory Nava was the director/producer for this series. This genius of a man has films like El Norte, Mi Familia, Selena, Frida, and Why Do Fools Fall In Love under his belt… No pressure right!?

It was an honor to be part of the very first television series with a predominantly Latino cast. I had finally arrived and knew this could very likely be the big break I was looking for. Patience really is a virtue if you’ve ever worked in the entertainment world. Most of the time you are doing a whole lot of nothing, but waiting around until it’s your time to shine.

One day of work turned into four months of steady work with “American Family,” surrounded by incredibly talented actors like Sonia Baraga, Esai Morales, Constance Marie, America Ferrera, Kate Del Castillo, Patricia Velasquez, and greats like Raquel Welch and Edward James Olmos! I’m leaving out so many of the amazing people I got to meet along the way. The crew, makeup, wardrobe, craft services, and even security became more than a familiar faces after a while.

Patricia Velasquez was a dream to work with! She is a gorgeous Venezuelan model/actress who is famously known for her role as Anck-Su-Namun (I had to Google that name) in the blockbuster hit “The Mummy.” We left our comfy studio in Hollywood for the desert like sand dunes in the valley as we attempted to cross an imaginary border into the United States. It was very interesting observing how professionally she carried herself.  At first, she came off as standoffish diva wearing headphones in her own little world. Later, we found out from her personally that the most difficult scene she had to do was done, and she apologized for ignoring everyone. Patricia wasn’t rude after all! She was just getting into character for a difficult scene and was now ready to loosen up and enjoy the rest of the day with all of us.

It was a very humbling experience to see that even the most experienced of actors get nervous just like the rest of us. Her knowledge of the business was quite eye opening and validated many questions I had as a young Latina actress trying to make it in the business. I think Gregory Nava played a huge role with everyone’s nerves that day! This man had the power to make or break you.  Just being in his presence alone was so intimidating it was flat out terrifying.

Finally the last scene of the day! Bittersweet because Patricia Velasquez’ celebrity guest cameo on “American Family” was over and that we’d go our separate ways after working and bonding for a week. I quickly learned the name of the game: Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am.  Just like that! I was feeling emotionally and physically drained after hours of walking, running, climbing, and hiding from Border Patrol when Gregory Nava calls me out by name and asks me to lead the pack of immigrants, fall on my knees, drink the last drop of my water realizing you are out of water, and might die of dehydration while staring blankly into the never ending horizon. Did you get all that!?

As I stared blankly at him instead of the horizon, I quickly gathered my thoughts and regained strength in my legs that felt like giving out at any minute.  I over exaggerated my first attempt, but nailed it the second time. Watching Mr. Nava and Patricia in their element was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget! I was exactly where I always pictured myself, and my dream of being on television had finally come true.

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