Meet The Puerto Rican Powerhouse Behind Your Favorite Shows

Introducing The Gratitude Series, a four-part Refinery29 special running in November that will celebrate the women of color whose work in Hollywood we are grateful for — especially during a time when the industry is still struggling to be more inclusive. Zetna is our second subject; be sure to also check out parts one, three, and four.
Photo: Courtesy of Zetna Fuentes.
Zetna Fuentes' career as a director of popular television shows began with a love-scene packed episode of a teenage murder mystery. In 2012, the then-pregnant soap opera director was in ABC's directing program for women of color when she got the opportunity to shadow an episode of Pretty Little Liars.

"It takes a lot of support to get someone to say yes in this industry," Fuentes says. "I was just supposed to be shadowing the director, but they ended up giving me my first full-length hour episode. I owe PLL so much, because them taking that chance on me was what started it all." And she means that quite literally.

Working in theater after college eventually led Fuentes to the world of soaps; her directing work on One Life to Live would earn her three Daytime Emmy award nominations in 2010, 2011, and 2012. But when that show was canceled, it was working on that episode of PLL that convinced her to give the big time a real shot. And so, like many before her, she moved to Hollywood to chase her dream.

"It was a very controversial decision, because I only had one full-hour episode directing gig under my belt!" says Fuentes. "In hindsight, it’s terrifying to think that we actually did it; my husband and I had an 18-month-old son at the time, but we just took a chance and leapt."

The move worked out: PLL was followed by dozens more directing gigs on shows like Jane the Virgin, Shameless, and Shondaland pillars Scandal, Grey's Anatomy, and How to Get Away With Murder. But Fuentes says even the most fast-paced, complicated show — like, say, the blink-and-you'll-miss-something HTGAWM, which she calls a "wild ride" — doesn't compare to working on daytime.
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It takes a lot of support to get someone to say yes in this industry.

Zetna Fuentes
"Directing a soap opera is really frenetic, organized chaos, shooting like 12 scenes a day sometimes!" she says. "My days now start at 7 a.m., and we're working at breakneck speed. But I always remind myself this is nothing compared to the pace of soap operas."

Despite her success, sometimes living in Los Angeles and working in Hollywood feels a million miles away from growing up between Puerto Rico and the Bronx, NY, Fuentes says. "Sometimes it just feels like I’m on another planet, because my background and where I’m from is so very different from what I’m doing right now."

But it was sharing a room with three siblings as a child and listening to her father talk about his favorite films from the 1940s that unknowingly inspired her career. "My dad would tell me all these stories about gangsters from the movies," she remembers. "They were sort of not appropriate for a little kid, but he sparked my imagination. I always studied really hard in school, and by the time I reached college, I knew I wanted to be in storytelling."

Now she gets to be a storyteller for a living. But the one downside for Fuentes is not seeing many other Latinos in the industry, a feeling she admits can get kind of lonely. And she's not the only one who feels that way. "The very first day I got to the set of Jane the Virgin I was walking in the parking lot, and someone ran and leapt into my arms," she says. "It was Gina [Rodriguez]. She hugged me so tight and she said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’ It literally made me cry."
Photo: Courtesy of Zetna Fuentes.
Fuentes on the set of "Jane the Virgin" with stars Gina Rodriguez and Justin Baldoni.
The bright side, according to Fuentes, is that there is a sort of camaraderie among the Latinos whom she does work with, like actress Sara Ramirez, and directors Roxann Dawson and David Rodriguez, as colleagues and inspirations. "Dave and I are both working in Chicago right now — me on Shameless, him on Chicago Fire — and one day we looked at each other and were like, 'Can you believe this?! Look at us, two Puerto Ricans from the Bronx working on crazy-big shows! How awesome is that?'"

Still, she adds, "It’s probably not the best thing that I can name all of the Latinos in Hollywood on like, a couple of hands. People usually hire people that they know, so when the majority of the people hiring are of a certain background, everyone else is going to look like them. It's a lot of weight on us, but until we start to see those executives making changes, I think we have to take it upon ourselves to open doors for our own people and reach out a hand to mentor and actively seek them out. It's never a good feeling to be the only brown person on a set."

Up next for Fuentes are episodes of FX's Snowfall and various pilots in the works. She says that whim decision to pack up and move to Hollywood four years ago definitely paid off, and she's never regretted it. Well, almost never.

"I do miss New York," Fuentes says. "L.A. is great, but in my heart, I'm still a New Yorker from the Bronx."
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