Don’t expect me to be fluent in Spanish. I am a Southerner. My parents moved us from Flushing to a motel off the beach in Florida. One day, we were riding on subways and the next cruising along A1A beach side where everyone was in a bikini and sun burnt from the glorious Tropic of Cancer sun.
My Puerto Rican family wanted to live a better life: own a home with a yard and a dog. They wanted to send us to schools where my sister and I could not only fit in but thrive and get a college degree. So my dad worked day and night, my mom eventually got her first diploma while my sister and I assimilated to Central Florida living.
Both sides of my parents’ family eventually followed suit, with the Perez clan and Colon clan living in a 45 mile radius and making up most of the growing population of snow birds to inhabit Florida.
I refer to it as the Dirty South. I grew up in four wheeling mud pits, love the taste of fried gator tail, swam in sink holes and until this day, I say y’all in group settings.
But I was fully aware of how different I was when kids tried kicking my ass because I had “black” hair. I was followed by department store employees because the profile of a teenage ethnic girl was number three on their list of suspects for shoplifting. I was also told “I don’t date black people” by my middle school crush.
In Florida, I was considered black no matter how light my skin was. So once I went to drama school I got to play a lot of chorus girls because “we just don’t see your type in the lead”.
My type was confusing. My first manager in New York said that our first year together because she couldn’t sell the Perez name. “You don’t speak Spanish. You should change your name.” I thought about it. Who could I be? Tanya Paris: no, sounds made up. Tanya Pere: definitely a name people would mess up. Tanya Dawn: those two names should not even be placed together!*
Nope. I stuck with Tanya Perez. Yeah, Rosie Perez was famous and when I first started auditioning, everyone wanted me to “do her” in auditions. I didn’t. There was only one Rosie Perez & I wasn’t that type. YOU CAN’T TOUCH ROSIE, PEOPLE!!! But I developed a catalog of Spanish accents to eventually get cast in roles I was better suited for.
All I did for a few years was accented Cubans or Puerto Ricans off the island during my regional theater days. I was happy working on plays that told stories about Latinos, even though they were all these nostalgic plays about families in conflict back in the 30’s and 60’s. I call this period of my theater life the Latin Explosion. However, I had a secret that I kept under wraps until one of my cast mates found out by asking me something in Spanish: that I had no idea what they were saying. I would feel shame and feel inauthentic about my lack of ingrown Latin-ness everyone else came to the table with. I could fake it, but it never was natural and I worked thrice as hard on anything containing Spanish just to make sure no one would catch that I wasn’t “legit”.
I was ethnic enough to get those parts but too ethnic for Chekov or Neil LaBute. For TV, I got plenty of calls for any Latina fresh off the boat and if I tried to audition without an accent, I would always be asked to do one. My favorite audition story about diversity casting was when I was asked to do it in “my language”.
“So you mean in English? Because that’s my language”.
My first audition for a major studio film on a hot franchise, the casting asked for me to pull back my hair. “Hollywood doesn’t understand curly hair”. Oh I have heard it all, sauce it up, spice it up, can you be more urban, put an accent to it …”What kind of accent?” “Oh, whatever, just Spanish sounding”.
I could have easily thrown in the towel due to the ignorant understanding of the true term of diversity but I was an artist with a challenge. If the script called for a receptionist from Guatemala who defected to the states 3 years ago, I worked on an accent from two regions, Guatemala and Manhattan. A character like that wants to fit in. I get cast in a play in Cuba during the 60s but the play is in English, well my accent is thick enough but not too thick that the little old ladies from Jupiter, Florida in row Q can hear you.
I have adapted over and over in this business. Assimilated to these changes and held on to the sails while this industry finally understood that ethnic no longer means accented. That an American woman like myself can look like several kinds of minority groups and be represented as a character NOT a quota. Shonda Rhimes put it best in her Diversity Award acceptance speech given last year at the DGA Awards: “I have a different word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalizing TV.” **
Amen to that, Shonda!
Today, this industry is finally waking up to the fact that people who look like me might actually be an Ivy league educated neuroscientist with a great stay at home husband from the Mid West who is the one with the thick accent.
I am happy to report that all my television work had me speaking like I normally do…with a very slight twang. Tee Hee!
*Fun Fact: My mother gave me the middle name Dawn because her first name translates to dawn. Ain’t that sweet!
* *Sourced from Huffington Post article by Brennan Willams, Shonda Rhimes Says She Isn’t ‘Diversifying’ Television, She’s ‘Normalizing’ It — There’s A Difference