By 2017, Roswell, New Mexico star Jeanine Mason was well versed in "squads." It had been two years ever since the release of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video, and the hashtag was all over her Instagram, accompanying the same kind of images of perfectly coiffed, uniformly attractive, and — almost always — majority white groups of women.
But one day in October, Mason landed on a #squad photo that caught her off guard.
“I was really surprised by how affected I was by it,” Mason recalls over the phone from New Mexico, where her reboot of the beloved ‘90s WB show films. The photo belonged to Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez, who appeared in the image as the center of a group of women. America Ferrera, Eva Longoria, the One Day at a Time ladies, the Brooklyn 99 ladies, Rodriguez’s Jane co-stars, and Station 19’s Jaina Lee Ortiz all grinned at the camera. The caption read: “Fiercely Latina.”
At the time, Rodriguez’s photo seemed to be a feel-good snapshot from an exclusive afternoon hangout. But when Eva Longoria shared another #FiercelyLatina photo a month later, this time from her home with the added hashtag #LatinasWhoLunch, it was clear to Mason that something was happening to this squad. What started out as a spontaneous group of 15 had multiplied into a couple dozen who met regularly.
Grown-ish actress and Desperate Housewives superfan Francia Raisa was one of the women who was at Longoria’s home that day. “I couldn’t even believe I was invited,” Raisa tells me on the phone. “When I walked in, Eva gave me a huge hug. She was like, ‘How are you! How’ve you been?’ And I’m like, “I know I’ve never met you. That’s crazy that you know who I am.’”
But, in this moment, Raisa, Longoria, and every other woman in the room evolved into more than just fellow performers — they became family. Spanglish flowed, as did some candid conversations about finding your way through Hollywood as a Latina. Elders like Longoria gave pep talks. “Years ago, the idea of directing or producing was not even possible [for us]. And now, Eva has been doing it all,” Raisa remembers. “When she started talking about producing, she looked me in the eye and said, ‘You. Can. Do. It. You can direct!’ … I was like, ‘Okay, that’s all I need. Eva gave me the green light.’”
One month later, One Day at a Time’s showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellet invited Mason to a #FiercelyLatina event. Mason, who first burst onto the scene as a So You Think You Can Dance phenom, was auditioning for a role on Calderon Kellet’s 2018 CBS pilot History of Them, which never made it to air. “She said, ‘You have to come to the next meeting,’” Mason explains. “I was like, ‘Girl. I’ll be there. I will fly there if I need to.’”
The meeting was a near indescribable experience for Mason. “It’s so fun to just walk into a space in the middle of Hollywood, and feel like I’m totally with family. It’s all the little things. We’re accustomed to code-switching on set. But here, from the music we had playing in the background, to the food, the clothes we were wearing...” Her voice drops an octave. “I remember going into audition rooms and being so conscious about my thighs. But walking in here and seeing all of our shapes… Those things are just so comforting.”
But there’s more to this sisterhood — and it is a sisterhood, Raisa says — than simply feeling comforted by familiarity. Members are also determined to make room for themselves in an industry that has long refused to open its doors to Latinas. “We’ve all been on different sets inhabiting the token Latina on a program. The one,” Mason says. “And to be the whole crew is so powerful. The purpose of these meetings is to ask what we don’t have, either in access or information or agency. We address that and empower each other.”
Take for example the time one of the members who was working on a major broadcast network found out that she was going to receive a short-term love interest. The actress wanted a Latinx man for the role, but the network had other plans. “They said they were having trouble finding someone, and so they were going to open it up to other ethnicities,” says Mason. “She was like, Hold. Please.’” She tapped the #FiercelyLatina group for help, and names quickly flooded in. One of those suggestions booked the part.
Actress Lisa Vidal, who will star in ABC’s upcoming Miami-set The Baker and the Beauty, also put in a casting call to crowdsource possible talent hiding under her nose. She, too, found someone through #FiercelyLatina.
The group also acts as a gut-check for Latinx-specific issues. Raisa went to her first meeting soon after she booked Grown-ish, where she plays Cuban-American Ana Torres. “When I first booked it, I was a little nervous because I’m not Cuban and my character is," says Raisa, who is Honduran- and Mexican-American. "I was nervous for [viewers] obviously. But I told [the group], ‘I was nervous for you guys, too.” Raisa was afraid that playing a character who didn’t share her specific background would be a disservice to the Latinx community.
Ever since Puerto-Rican Jennifer Lopez played Mexican-American superstar Selena Quintanilla in 1997, there’s been a fierce debate within Latinx communities of who should play which roles. Some argue that only performers who share that specific Latinx background should win those parts. But according to the sisterhood, that outlook is more damaging than productive.
“Eva said, ‘Girl, if you need to know anything about our cultures, ask us,’” Raisa says about Longoria’s advice. Another actress pointed out that Australians aren’t losing sleep over playing American roles. We shouldn’t be arguing about this,” Raisa recalls. “There are so few roles for us. We should be celebrating each other rather than nitpicking. It shouldn’t matter.”
Mason also had her own writer’s room issue to work out. Her character’s ex-fiancé may appear on-screen for the first time in the second season, and there was an opportunity to cast an underrepresented Latino for the role. “What if he’s Afro-Latino? What if her dad has an opinion about that?” Mason asks, about the potential to use a casting decision to create an opportunity to discuss colorism within Latinx communities. Aside from Starz’s Vida, most television series have long avoided even mentioning this issue. But Mason believes that this may be the time to do it.
“There’s not enough space when the Latina character is the B storyline,” Mason says about the lost opportunities for shows to include in-group issues like colorism if Latinas are never the central character. “But if the A-story belongs to the Latina, then the B storyline can be her dad dealing with his racism as a Latin man.”
It’s obvious that this sisterhood has inspired the young women inside of it to begin thinking of themselves as more than on-camera performers. "We talk a lot about how, through access, you have space to bring people to the table,” Mason explains.
That realization led Mason and Raisa to start thinking about producing, which gives them much more creative control. Last November, Raisa announced that she would be developing a feature film about the 1947 Mendez vs. Westminster school desegregation case with her producing partner, Mandy Teefey, who — along with her daughter Selena Gomez — produced the controversial Netflix show about teen suicide, 13 Reasons Why. The federal court case case decided that Mexican-American students couldn’t be forced to attend schools separate from their white peers.
“It’s just such a personal story for me. I really want to do it right,” says Raisa. She's currently pitching it to studios.
When Mason first heard about Raisa’s Mendez vs. Westminster project, she reached out to chat about her own ideas. Although Mason has guest-starred on Raisa’s old series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, she hadn’t even shared a scene with the show’s only top-billed Latina. The #FiercelyLatina sisterhood gave Mason a peer mentor.
“[Francia] has already dipped her foot in the pool, and I’m like, ‘Where do I start?’” Mason says about their chat about making the transition to producing. “I just needed her to be like, ‘Girl, you’re not going to get eaten up, and this is your space to take up. Go!’”
Mason took Raisa’s words to heart. She is currently mulling over a dance project and chasing two books to adapt, one of which is about a Cuban family much like Mason’s. That project led to a group meal with a TV writer and the novel’s author who's a fellow #FiercelyLatina member. If it happens, the project will be television’s first true-story Latinx historical epic centered around women.
If there’s any problem in the group, it’s that everyone is thriving so thoroughly now that they barely have time to meet. “But if anything, we’re all celebrating each other, and now we feel more open to inviting people to things and saying, ‘Hey I’m doing this. I’d love your support,’” Raisa says.
That invitation is serious. This sisterhood could literally grow by one this very second. “If there’s a writer out there who wants to write something, let me and Francia know,” Mason laughs, dreaming of future series led by revolutionary Latina casts. “Please send us a DM!”
Being Latinx in America is no easy thing. Fighting pressures to abandon our culture, traditions, and heritage, we’re carving out a unique identity in America that’s all our own. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29's #SomosLatinx, we’ll explore the unique issues that affect the community during Latinx Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15.