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Mandy Gonzalez was a teenager when she sat in her bedroom in Saugus, Calif. and watched the cast of “Rent” perform at the Tony Awards. Watching actress Daphne Rubin-Vega sing "Seasons of Love" made a lasting impression because she was “someone who looked like me… I thought ‘I can do this,’” recounted Gonzalez.
Flash forward to today, and there’s no doubt Gonzalez, who is Mexican and Jewish, has made it in the acting world. She currently plays Angelica in Broadway’s hit musical “Hamilton.”
Gonzalez is one of a small group of Hispanic professional theater actors working on Broadway today. Even though Hispanics make up 18.3 percent of the nation’s total population, the first-ever Actors’ Equity Association study of diversity noted that less than 3 percent of its members identify as Hispanic or Latinx. Broadway audiences don’t reflect our country’s diversity, either. A January 2018 report from the Broadway League discovered that Latinos account for only 7.1 percent of theatergoers.
However, Broadway has indeed been inching toward progress in terms of diversity over the years. For example, the original 1979 Broadway production of “Evita” was picketed by the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors for not hiring Latino actors to tell a story about Argentinians. But when “Evita” was revived in 2012, it had actors of Latin descent in the two lead roles, among others.
And today, a quick glance at the headshots of performers in “Hamilton” paint an inclusive picture. Aspiring Hispanic performers can also look to multiple Broadway shows for inspiration—there’s Karen Olivo in “Moulin Rouge,” Eva Noblezada in “Hadestown,” and Shireen Pimentel in the upcoming “West Side Story,” to name a few.
Still, many are quick to note there is still a long way to go.
The sweet smell of success
As one of a small list of Latina Tony Award winners, Lindsay Mendez, who won the prestigious award for her portrayal of Carrie Pipperidge in the 2018 revival of "Carousel," has certainly provided inspiration to others. Raised in a Hispanic community in Norwalk, Calif. by her Mexican father and Russian/Jewish mother, Mendez didn’t have many local opportunities to explore her passion for the arts. “In predominantly Hispanic communities, there’s not a lot of money or effort to explore the arts for young people,” Mendez said. She was one of the lucky kids whose parents had the time and the means to help her get to acting class.
Actress Bianca Marroquín’s arts education involved extensive travel. Marroquín grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, which is located on the southern bank of the Rio Grande. She went to school and took dance classes in Brownsville, Texas, which meant that she had to cross the border several times a day. She was playing Roxie Hart in the Mexico City production of “Chicago” when Broadway called and wanted her to perform the part in the Broadway version of the musical.
Still in Mexico, she rehearsed the show in English during the day, and performed it in Spanish at night. She then flew to New York, and after just four days of rehearsal with the cast, she made her debut in 2013 as the first Mexican actress in a starring role on Broadway. She was only contracted to perform for three weeks but has starred in the show on and off for the last 17 years. Marroquín spoke of the determination Hispanic actors must have to succeed in this business: “Why take the path most travelled? You can be the one to make a difference so others can follow you. Make the path wider.”
Changing the face of musical theater
Broadway has always been slightly more forgiving than other mediums in overlooking the age and ethnic background of its performers. In fact, Gonzalez and Mendez, both raised in California, cited that very fact as one of the reasons they moved to Manhattan in the first place. Mendez said, “I didn’t see people who looked like me in the TV/film industry, so I didn’t know if I could find a place there. I didn’t want to play a maid, and I wasn’t sure if I could be accepted as who I was otherwise.”
There were still many challenges. Mendez and Gonzalez were both told that they should change their last names to something more “American” if they wanted to make money as actors. Gonzalez said, “My L.A. agent told me I wasn’t getting work because of my last name. I had a new name all picked out—Mandy Carr. But I thought about it, and I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to be let into the room because of my talent, not because of my last name. Now I’ve played all those parts that agent said I wouldn’t play.”
Gonzalez and Marroquín both played principle roles in the Broadway run of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” a ground-breaking musical that took home the Tony for Best Musical in 2008. That musical signaled a shift in the look and sound of Broadway.
Set in Washington Heights, a predominantly Hispanic-American borough north of Manhattan, the show featured Spanish language, rap and hip-hop. “It was the first time I was in a room filled with Latinos. Usually we’re all competing for the same part,” said Gonzalez.
The show also brought a more diverse audience to the theater. “The audience started to change,” Gonzalez said. “People who are ‘my family’ started coming to see the show because they’re seeing themselves on stage.”
From the big stage to the small screen
Marroquín and Mendez have since leveraged their theater success to secure splashy roles on network television. Marroquín portrayed Broadway legend Chita Rivera in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon,” and Mendez is playing Sara Castillo, a court stenographer looking for love, in CBS’s “All Rise,” which premiered on Sept. 23. Mendez, who loves representing a professional, everywoman character who just happens to be Hispanic, said, “I’m thrilled to play a person who is just like me.”
Marroquín said she was “still pinching myself” over the gift of playing Rivera, a powerhouse triple-threat of Puerto Rican descent. But when she first began auditioning, Marroquín wasn’t considered for Latina roles because she had short, red hair. “[Directors] were looking for a stereotype of what a Latin woman was supposed to look like,” she said. “Today, they’re more forgiving—we come in different sizes, shapes and flavors. We look different and we sound different. And now they’re getting it. Now it would be safe to go back to my red hair.”
Bienvenido a Broadway
All three women are committed to the “sisterhood” of Latinas in the arts, and they are all working hard to encourage young people to pursue creative work. Mendez said, “I want to use this platform to tell people that I’m here. I pursued the arts and look what happened to me. There’s a big turn in the industry as a whole — people are really looking to cast in a more diverse way, and people are feeling that energy.”
Gonzalez has performed in the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration concert series hosted by Viva Broadway, an audience development partnership that helps connect Broadway to Latino audiences. She also developed a social media #fearlesssquad campaign. “Girls of all different ethnicities would write to me that they felt like they didn’t belong anywhere,” Gonzalez said. “When they post a photo with the hashtag, they’ll immediately have an entire community rallying around them.”
Marroquín serves as the National Ambassador for Viva Broadway, helping to spread the word about Broadway and all it has to offer. “Things have changed,” she said. “There are more Latin stories, there are more Latin writers, and they’re writing more stories for Latin women.”