Mexican actor, writer, director and producer Eugenio Derbez is widely known for his comedic roles in “Instructions Not Included,” “How to Be a Latin Lover” and “Overboard.” Now he hopes movie fans will be inspired by his new role as a music teacher who tries to help a 17-year-old daughter of deaf parents develop her singing voice.
“I think we all know kids who want to be something else,” the Latino actor told NBC News. “A lot of people struggle with their passion for what they want to do and on the other hand what their parents want them to be or become.”
“CODA,” which opens nationwide Friday, is the coming-of-age story of Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones). She is the only hearing person in her family (the title of the film is an acronym for "child of deaf adults"), and Derbez said the movie puts her at a familiar crossroads that resonates with many families.
“I think a lot of people are going to relate to this story,” he said. “It’s the struggle between someone, in this case Ruby, who’s trying to find her voice literally in this world — and she’s torn between helping her family.”
Ruby wakes up at 3 a.m. to help her family as a deckhand on a fishing boat. They communicate using sign language, and she translates and interprets for her parents at medical appointments, the supermarket and other aspects of daily life. Derbez said this will resonate with U.S. immigrant families where the children sometimes translate for their parents who are not as familiar with English.
Derbez plays Bernardo Villalobos, the choir teacher who pushes Ruby to apply for a singing scholarship at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
Off-screen, Derbez is an advocate for promoting Latino culture in Hollywood. He said in a previous interview with NBC News that he opened his own production company in the U.S. to change the mainstream perspective about Latinos who were stereotypically represented on film and TV as drug traffickers, criminals and, in the best cases, gardeners, housekeepers or laborers.
Variety has named Derbez one of the top Latinos in Hollywood. With a combined more than 67 million followers across Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, he's also recognized as a top social media influencer in Mexico.
But when he reflects on the success of his career, he's thankful that his mom, actor Silvia Derbez, inspired him to pursue his acting dreams, which he wants to do for others.
“Thank God my mom was an actress. If not, I suppose I would have had a lot of trouble trying to be a comedian,” he said, speaking about the beginning of his career in Mexico. “I remember when I was young, every time that I said that I want to be an actor, everyone told me, ‘No, but what do you want to do for a living?’”
For deaf Latinos, a call for 'accessibility'
“CODA,” which was adapted from the French movie “La Famille Bélier,” won four top awards at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. For many, this is a watershed moment that brings a compelling story about the deaf community to mainstream audiences.
While visibility is important, there is a need for much more, according to Evelyn Peña, president and CEO of Deaf Latinos y Familias Organization.
The nonprofit group, based in South Los Angeles, uses instructors to teach American Sign Language in Spanish to the parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. She is also the mother of a 26-year-old, Richard Peña, who identifies as deaf.
“Visibility is important, but it’s a small part of what Latino families in the deaf community need,” Peña said. “We need more accessibility. Whether there’s a commercial or a news briefing, there should be an interpreter. There are a lot of deaf individuals where sign language is their first language and do not always read English word for word in captions.”
“At the end of the day, the goal for a deaf Latino family speaking Spanish and English is to become trilingual,” she said. “We teach parents American Sign Language voiced in Spanish so that they could teach their children our cultura Latina. And when their children learn sign language, they could teach them their deaf culture, because it’s two different cultures.”
Wilson Peña, Richard Peña's father, said the experience of connecting with Latino and deaf cultures is fundamental to understanding his son — as well as his own Spanish-speaking immigrant parents.
“We got to a certain point that we started realizing that we were becoming our parents,” he said. “My mom and dad, they came here from El Salvador, and growing up, I would speak to them in English and they would speak to me in Spanish."
He advises parents to start picking up sign language as soon as they know their child is deaf. That way they can communicate with the child — and learn from their culture.
Derbez said “CODA” tries to capture both the tension — and the diversity of this experience — on the screen.