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Hispanicize 2016: Unimaginable Bullying Victim, Now Worldwide Inspiration

by Sandra Lilley /

MIAMI — It was hard to hold back the tears while watching a Latina, who has gone through the unimaginable as a bullying victim because of her appearance, receive an award for motivating and inspiring millions around the world.

Lizzie Velásquez received a Latinovator award on Thursday at Hispanicize 2016, a conference gathering thousands of Latinos from the worlds of digital, blogging, marketing and entertainment. The Austin, Texas-based Latina author and motivational speaker achieved international fame with the most watched TEDx talk from the 2013 TEDWomen event.

Velásquez was born with a rare neonatal progeroid syndrome condition (only diagnosed a couple of years ago) that does not allow her to gain weight and affects her physical appearance. She is one of only 3 people known to have this condition. Years ago when she was a teen she went online and found people were calling her the world's "ugliest woman." Saying she "cried her eyes out," she spoke of reading through scores of comments, including one person suggesting she "kill herself" because of her looks.

"I'm human - I allow myself sad days," said Velásquez, who proceeded to recount how she decided to harness her strength and focus on becoming an anti-bullying champion and author and push forward.

 Motivational speaker Lizzie Velásquez with her parents, Rita and Guadalupe Velásquez, at Hispanicize2016 in Miami on April 7, 2016. Brian Latimer, NBC News

Lizzie's parents, who are Mexican American, came to the stage and said that "from the moment she was born, we were in love with her." Her mother wiped away tears as she said that the key to dealing with difficult situations is to ask a lot of questions, "and never be ashamed."

Motivating Latinos to push personal and career boundaries is one of the themes at Hispanicize.

Actor JW Cortés is an example of someone who's pushed to achieve a remarkable career trajectory. He's one of the stars of the TV show "Gotham," playing Detective Carlos Alvarez - as well as a New York City police officer. He's also a singer and a decorated Marine combat veteran.

"No one ever gave me marching orders," said Cortés, a New York native of Puerto Rican heritage, who spoke of taking the initiative while in the military to pursue an acting career without having any connections. At a panel on Latinos and Hollywood, Cortés called on fellow Hispanic actors, especially those who are established, to be more vocal about underrepresentation in Hollywood. A recent University of Southern Carlifornia study pointed out that less that less than 6 percent of speaking characters in TV and film are Latino.

 SAG-AFTRA's Adam Moore, Entertainment Weekly senior correspondent Nina Terrero, Natl Hispanic Media Coalition's Alex Nogales and actor JW Cortés discussed ways to boost Latinos in Hollywood at Hispanicize 2016. (April 7, 2016).

Alex Nogales, of the National Hispanic Media Coalition gave some advice to the audience, telling aspiring actors or producers that "networking is a crucial skill in Hollywood," adding that geography matters too; while he said Miami was a good place for Spanish-language talent opportunities, California is still the place to go for English-language roles and participation.

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