“It’s definitely very fearful because you never know. You just never know what can happen,” Emily Tosta admits on an early January afternoon from a seat at the corner of the W Hollywood hotel bar. With its winding staircase and notice-me glam color palette of black-fuchsia-and-shine, this is a space made for boozy biz schmoozing. Tosta’s unvarnished honesty — and responsible-for-3-p.m. glass of water — stands in stark contrast with her surroundings.
The 21-year-old actress, whose new Freeform series Party of Five premieres on January 8, could easily be describing her reboot of the classic ‘90s family dramedy of the same name. The tragedy at the heart of the original Party — about five abruptly orphaned siblings — was a drunk driving accident that killed the innocent Salinger parents. While the 2020 version characters are analogues of the originals — Tosta’s Lucia is the new Julia (Neve Campbell), Emilio (13 Reasons Why’s Brandon Larracuente) is the updated de facto patriarch Charlie (Matthew Fox); Beto (Niko Guardado) is Bailey (Scott Wolf); Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi) is Claudia (Mean Girls’ Lacey Chabert); baby Rafael is baby Owen — the updated of the story is painfully, necessarily topical. Death doesn’t separate the Acosta clan — borders and immigration laws do. Tostas’ straight-A student-turned-fearless social activist Lucia and her four siblings are left to fend for themselves after their parents (Fernanda Urrejola and Bruno Bichir) are deported by ICE.
The feeling of fear, as Tosta is talking about, permeates the more emotional beats of Party: fear of the government ferreting out someone’s undocumented status, fear of Dreamer status getting yanked away, fear of the Acostas being further ripped apart. But that isn’t the fear Tosta is talking about.
She’s talking about her own fear.
Tosta, a Dominican Republic-born actress with Venezuelan roots, came to the United States on a tourist visa almost a decade ago, hungry for the American dream. Now she can see her face splashed on billboards five stories high in Times Square for a drama proudly tackling the true-to-life fallout of American immigration policy. While many would grab that ticket to fame and silently ride it all the way to uncomplicated luxury, Tosta is sharing her story to make the world feel just a little less scary for everyone else — and she isn’t holding a single secret back.
“I’m still [in the United States] on a work visa. I’m not even a resident,” Tosta, who also appears in FX’s Sons of Anarchy biker gang spin-off Mayans M.C., says over piquant pesto hummus. She arrived in Miami at age 12 with her mother Emilia Tosta. Neither women knew English at the time but were determined to make Emily’s acting ambitions a reality (Emilia still primarily speaks Spanish). Tween Emily soon acquired a work visa through an acting gig in the Florida city. Emily was then able to extend her visa to her mom, who still travels with her everywhere to this day.
“It was definitely fearful at first because I was like, ‘Am I supposed to be talking about this?’ Especially in the current political climate that we live in,” Tosta says of speaking openly about her complex immigration journey. “But at the same time, you just have to have faith in yourself and try to be a voice for those people [in similar situations]. Honestly, I was like, Eff it. I’m just going to go for it, because I’m just going to be that person for other teenage girls. Hopefully it works out.”
Tosta is literally putting her money where her mouth is when it comes to lending a helping hand. She founded Karttos International, a charity dedicated to sending care packages to Venezuela, with her mother, who hails from the South American country. Venezuela is currently in the midst of a refugee crisis, and 4 million people have fled the nation to escape the human rights violations of a country in severe political and financial turmoil. Karttos sends care packages of food, medicine, and other basic necessities to the Emilia s home country “To see people dying, hundreds of people dying every single day I want to cry just thinking about it. All [of my mom’s] family and my family is there,” Tosta says, becoming emotional.
“My body is beautiful. My face is beautiful. My ethnicity is beautiful. Where I come from is beautiful. My hair — my curly hair! — is beautiful.”
This year, Tosta is partnering with the Eddie Guardado Foundation, the charity set up by the family of Tosta’s Party sibling Niko Guardado, for a celebrity bowling tournament. Tosta spent the holiday break planning the fundraiser while recuperating from painful dental surgery in the Dominican Republic. “I’m like, Oh my God I didn’t realize it was going to be this hard to plan an event,” she recalls. “But we got it though! We’re gonna do it!”
Hopping on a round robin of calls with a still-bloody mouth was the cornerstone of her organizational success.
When you hear about Tosta’s uphill battle to conquer Hollywood, you realize something as normally incapacitating as wisdom teeth removal could never stop the 21-year-old. Tosta reached L.A. at 15 totally unaware of the punishing grind of auditioning ahead. As a curvy Latinx teen, she faced criticisms her willowier, blonder, and whiter peers couldn’t dream of.
“I didn’t know that my body was going to be an issue. I didn’t know that my accent that comes out sometimes — and used to come out a lot more back then — would be an issue. I didn’t know that who I am as a person ... was going to be an issue,” Tosta says. Oftentimes auditions would go well, but casting directors wouldn’t book Tosta, complaining her “baby face” and voluptuous frame couldn’t work together. She would even hear that parts for Latinx girls were going in “another casting direction,” which is the universal Hollywood euphemism for “fairer and slimmer.”
“I developed when I was 12. I’ve had this same body since I was little. I was like ‘What is a training bra?’ I was straight to a bra. Like a big bra. So it’s just like this is who I am,” Tosta continues. “As a 15-year-old, 16-year-old, 17-year-old that’s not the first thought that you go to. You start thinking, ‘Maybe there is something wrong with me. I keep hearing the same thing over and over again.”’
The negative feedback led to such a “dark period” for Tosta that she repeatedly considered “giving up” and going back to the Dominican Republic, where her two older sisters still live. “I was like, This is not for me. They clearly don’t accept people who look like me here,” she says. But Tosta remained in Los Angeles, and she eventually discovered the self-love she needed (she recommends America Ferrera’s April 2019 TED Talk if you require a similar boost).
“My body is beautiful. My face is beautiful. My ethnicity is beautiful. Where I come from is beautiful,” she proudly announces. “My hair — my curly hair! — is beautiful.”
Getting a lead role on Party of Five, a series packed to the gills with Latinx directors, writers, producers, and talent that cares about immigrants’ stories, certainly helped with that realization. Tosta is nearly brought to tears when she considers how different the audition process for the Freeform drama felt to prior casting nightmares. “It was so incredible to finally be accepted and understood for who I am rather than being put down for who I am. Being able to be a part of a project that actually embraces that?” Tosta begins. “This is what I was fighting for my whole life — this is what I wanted. This is why I stayed strong. For this specific moment.”
Now that Tosta stuck it out — through immigration struggles, language barriers, and devastating ignorance — she can look forward to the twists and turns ahead in Party of Five. When viewers meet her character, “freakin’ dope” Lucia, as Tosta calls her, in the series premiere, the 16-year-old is nearly shattered by the loss of her parents. Luce is angry and afraid for much of the episode, but the final minutes suggest she is about to find her voice through this traumatizing moment.
“She meets a character later in this season — I won’t say her name — who fights for justice,” Tosta teases about Lucia’s future. “Lucia starts getting interested in that, and she thinks to herself that maybe she couldn’t help her parents, but maybe she can help other people. She develops a passion for helping others and charity.”
That sounds a lot like someone we know.