What Life Is Really Like For Latina Actresses In Hollywood

Photo: Rob Latour/REX USA.
In 2005, ABC decided to offer Spanish voice dubbing or subtitles for all of its primetime shows. Filmmaker Andrea Meller was pleased, but skeptical.

“It was pretty symbolic of what was happening on TV in general and in the country,” Meller explains. “I was amazed that ABC had acknowledged the growing Latino market, which was a really big change for a TV network. But, it felt like it was an exaltation with limitations.”

The decision to offer this service brought new viewers to popular series like Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty (which was originally based on a Colombian telenovela), and created roles for a number of Los Angeles-based Latino actors. As demonstrated in Meller’s new film, Now en Español (airing April 24 on PBS’ Voces series), ABC’s inclusive decision opened up an industry that, for many actors of color, has been an elusive dream.

Meller spent several years documenting the successes and challenges of five Latina actresses who dubbed the lead female characters on the hit series Desperate Housewives, which ran from 2004 to 2012.  What she discovered was that Marcela Bordes (Edie Britt), Ivette Gonzalez (Gabrielle Solis), Marabina Jaimes (narrator Mary Alice Young), Gabriela Lopetegui (Lynette Scavo), and Natasha Perez (Susan Meyer) had stories just as provocative and complicated as the characters they dubbed.

Meller spoke to Refinery29 from a screening at the Arizona International Film Festival in late April, and was excited to hear audiences’ reactions. “I didn’t want to make a ‘social justice hitting you over the head’ film with talking-head interviews that are all about representation and why the media has so much power,” she explains. “This is a personal story that you can walk away from, caring about these women. And, by thinking about their experiences, all of those other issues will naturally appear.”

Refinery29: You have a background working on thought-provoking documentaries, yet Now en Español is lighthearted and entertaining. Why switch gears?

Andrea Meller: I was working on another documentary about men and women in New York transitioning back into society from prison, and it just so happened that the three main protagonists were Latino. [My producer and I] realized that we talk about fictionalized movies and TV programs where the representations were always about Latinos committing crime, or impoverished, [but] we were doing the same thing. Those stories are important to tell, and I don’t think that we should stop telling those stories. But, for me, I wanted to add to the Latino experience, to tell the stories that are never told. So, when I read about the actresses in a New York Times article in 2005, I thought it would be a fun way to document that.

My parents are from Chile and I was born in New York. I’ve always been interested in Latino identity — what does it mean to be a Latina? Focusing on actresses who are having that defined for them by the entertainment industry when they go to auditions — it was an opportunity for me to address some of these social issues through pop culture.

You juxtaposed the actors within the set of Desperate Housewives, and certain pivotal scenes in the show are replicated with them as the characters they dub for. There's also quite a physical resemblance between some of the actors and their on-screen counterparts. 

When Marabina talks about matching someone’s voice who looks just like her on screen, I can’t imagine the frustration she must feel. It was interesting that they did visually match the characters, even though they were hired because of their voices. And that’s why we added a split screen, because they looked so similar. So much of the point of the documentary is about putting these women, who are normally invisible labor, on screen, and giving them a face — giving them an opportunity to be introduced as actors to the audience. That was part of the reason for positioning them in the same roles as their Desperate Housewives counterparts. But these women’s lives were just as interesting and, at times, just as dramatic as the TV show, so let’s play with that!

Gabriella (who's from Uruguay and had a different dialect) and Marcela (who's fair-skinned and blonde) spoke about the challenges of cultural diversity within the Latino community. 

I’m often perceived as “white,” and because I was born here and have no accent, I understand what they go through. Usually, in documentaries, they tell you to only focus on three subjects when you’re making your first doc. But, in this film, I wanted to focus on all five actresses, because I wanted to show the diversity within this very limited group. I didn’t go out and cast for this film; it just happened to be found within the actresses who were cast to dub for Desperate Housewives. Within that group, the women are from Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Uruguay. They look different, they have different kinds of accents, but I do think that there is a power in referring to Latinos as just one monolithic group in the U.S. What was interesting in terms of the dubbing work was that they needed to speak in this neutral Spanish dialect, so you can’t really tell where they are from. Because, it’s this pan-Latin community in the U.S., so everyone can understand and relate.

We see the actors affected by the 2008 recession, and the announcement that ABC temporarily halted the dubbing of their primetime shows. 

It’s such an American film. We had people tell us that we needed to screen it in Mexico and Latin America because half of it is in Spanish, and there would be a market for it there, but I thought, “this is an American movie.” Los Angeles is a character in the film, and we did it about the American worker. That resilience is about the American ethos of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” and to keep going when times are tough. I think all actors have to be resilient. I know I could never go and do what they do, because they are constantly going to auditions and constantly facing rejection — and most of the time, not knowing why they are rejected. These women are extremely strong and not only do we not see the Latino story that often, but we also don’t see Latina women on screen that way.

Do you see similarities between the experiences these women had and your role as a Latina filmmaker?

Oh yes! It was a surprise to me, because I didn’t know too much about the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. Documentaries are so different than the fictionalized world. For the majority of the film, it was just me filming the ladies, hanging out, and, as time went on and I got to really see their day-to-day experiences as actors — the rejection and the desire that they had to just keep on going, I thought, oh my god, I am doing the same thing: following my dream to make documentary films, and it’s not easy. I’m working so hard, and I don’t know if it’s going to pay off, but I know that I’m going to continue doing this. Overall, it’s an artist’s experience, but there is also the female experience, and trying to fight your way as a woman. These women have become my family.

Now en Español premieres on Friday, April 24, at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS’s VOCES. You can watch the trailer here
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