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Becoming A Latina in Hollywood

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Fanny VelizSince this is my first contribution to Ms. In the Biz, I figured I should tell you a little about myself and my journey into Hollywood.

When I first moved to LA, I had a trailer full of things and a heart full of dreams. As we first rode into town and I saw the Hollywood sign for the first time, I knew I was home.

You see, I was born in the US and grew up in Venezuela. One of my earliest memories is of me onstage at the age of 4 performing to a packed theater. I clearly remember looking at the bright stage lights and hearing thunderous applause when I was done delivering a 10 minute monologue. After that there was no turning back… I had decided that I would be an actress.

Over the years I did everything I could to be onstage. I was a member of a children’s theater troupe and in high school I created pieces so I could perform, even though there was no theater class per se. I sang at church and at weddings, anything to feel alive, because that’s how I feel when I’m performing…Alive.

At age 17 my family decided to move back to the US so I could attend college. I was sad to leave Venezuela, but excited that I would be living in the country where movies are made and dreams come true.

There I was, taking my college entry exam when I was asked to check a box and select my RACE. I looked and saw boxes that read, WHITE, BLACK, ASIAN, MEXICAN, PUERTO RICAN, CUBAN, but tried as I might, I could not find the box that said VENEZUELAN.

It was then when I first realized I was a Latina. Don’t get me wrong, I knew Venezuela was in South America and a Latin American country, but the question of my ethnicity had never crossed my mind.  Little did I know it would also shape my career.

When I attended the University of Colorado at Denver, I was one of the few Hispanic actors in the Theater department. I would audition for plays and time and time again would not get cast. This perplexed me, because I KNEW I was a talented actress.  I was paying this school for my education, but audition after audition I would not get a part. One day, the dean of my college suggested I go to the Hispanic Theater Company in town and audition there. Which I did, and once again I started acting. I had found my community.  But I had this nagging feeling of being segregated to be able to do what I love and what I do best: ACT.

While in college I met a professor, her name is Laura Cuetara, and she encouraged me to start writing parts for myself. She was the first person, outside of my family, that saw my potential and believed in me. Under her wing, I started writing, producing, and directing. I wrote a part for myself in a play about Japanese Internment camps.  It was the first play I was a part of in college. From that part I was selected to represent the school at the Regional Kennedy Center acting competitions.  Then I knew this was my path, if I wanted to act I had to create the parts for myself.

When I first moved to Hollywood, I found the same to be true. I was thrilled about the parts I was booking, but then I started looking closer, and I realized most of the parts I was getting were stereotypes of what it is to be a Latina. I played the maid, the gangbanger, and the illegal immigrant with a thick accent (the same accent I had worked so hard to get rid off.) Ultimately, I got my SAG card by playing a prostitute.

Now, I don’t want you to think that this is a soppy piece about how unfair Hollywood is. Many groups in the business experience something similar. And this is when I realized I had to make a choice: I either had to wait for my big break to come, or create it.

So once again, I decided to start writing parts not just for myself, but for other Latino actors who found themselves in the same situation as me. Which turned out to be a lot.

I joined a wonderful organization called NOSOTROS. This is a non-profit organization founded by Ricardo Montalbán over 30 years ago to advance the careers of Latinos in the business. From there, I started to build my community in Los Angeles and started getting connected to other Latino organizations like Casa 0101 and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.

I started writing, producing, and directing short films. I have toured the country with my films to many film festivals and I’m proud to say that I have created many parts that highlight the talents of Latino actors. I have won many awards and received tons of press. I also directed the first Latina-only film festival in the country, which was founded by Josefina Lopez, the famed writer of Real Women Have Curves.

Now more than an actress I also consider myself an activist. My cause is to transform the image of Latinos in the media. My most recent triumph was completing my first feature film titled HOMEBOUND. At first I tried getting funding the regular way, but the studios I talked to were simply not interested. They could not see that there would be an audience for a film about an American family in Texas that just happens to be Latino. So I turned to the community and hundreds of people contributed so I could make the film. HOMEBOUND is now screening around the country in film festivals, private screenings, fundraisers, and in a few weeks it will have it’s first theatrical screening at a movie theater in Texas. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t get a note thanking me for creating this movie that portrays Latinos as an important part of the American fabric, with dignity and love.

homebound poster smaller

The audiences that have seen it are very diverse and are moved by the story.  One of my proudest moments was about a month ago, when the film was screened in Denver. My former college professor Laura Cuetara was present and I got to acknowledge her for encouraging me to create my own destiny.

I am now on the board of Nosotros, and I make it a point to do as much as I can to inspire and support my community. And you know what, I don’t feel segregated at all, because now I’m doing this by choice. In the US, Latinos are 16% of the population, yet only 2% of parts on all of TV and Film are Latino, and most of those are stereotypes. I don’t see this as a problem but as a huge opportunity to tell our stories. And I think Hollywood is starting to realize this.

I can’t wait for the day when my two boys grow up and go to the movies and don’t think twice about seeing a Latino play a character that any other ethnicity could have played; when as a community we are acknowledged to be an integral part of this society. And that moment is so close I can almost taste it.

Homebound official website: www.homeboundmovie.com

Nosotros official website: www.nosotros.org

Casa 0101 official website: www.casa0101.org

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About Fanny Veliz

Fanny Véliz, is an award winning filmmaker and actress. She writes, directs and produces short and feature-length films. She has appeared on television shows such as SOUTHLAND and independent films like the cult favorite WASSUP ROCKERS. Fanny is a citizen of both the United States and Venezuela and has created projects which offer new opportunities for Latino Americans to portray human characters with depth and texture beyond the stereotypes that are common in current entertainment faire. She has received several awards and recognitions for her work. Fanny attended the University of Colorado and is the mother of two delightful boys. Her latest project is her award wining Homebound feature film. Homebound is a film that aims to transform the conversation about Latinos in the media and offers a heartfelt human story about what it means to struggle with real problems in the United States. It was funded in part through crowd-funding campaigns as well as multiple fundraisers. The film is currently on the film festival circuit.