“I’m going to be thinking about all of my students watching, and my mother, who passed away,” Mendez said. “I’m going to be wishing she were there, and knowing somehow that she is. And to be honest, I’m going to be thinking, 'Oh, I made it.'”
Mendez is part of an elite group of Latinos who have helped make this Broadway season the highest-grossing in history. They have succeeded despite daunting odds, and are sharing their artistry with audiences on the Great White Way.
“It has been a big learning experience, and when it starts to feel like too much, I try to remind myself of what my ten-year-old self would think of all this," said Mendez. "I would have never guessed this could happen.”
Mendez grew up in Orange County, California, where her mother shuttled her to classes and auditions. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York at age 18 — alone.
“When I came here, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me on Broadway. I just knew I had to stay true to myself,” she said. “Now here I am, a Mexican woman playing a role in 'Carousel,' set in New England, with a hugely diverse cast. That is exciting to me. Just because I am Latina doesn’t mean I can only play one character.”
Latinos are underrepresented among Broadway performers and audiences. According to the theatrical union Actors Equity, during the 2016-2017 season Hispanics comprised 2.9 percent of active membership. A January report from The Broadway League found that Broadway audiences are 77 percent white, with Latinos accounting for 7.1 percent of theatergoers.
Mendez, a former star of "Wicked" and "Godspell," said that her favorite part of performing is her connection with the audience. “It is so communal for a few hours. For a short time, we are all experiencing the same things, and I love that.” Mendez received a 2018 Drama Desk Award for "Carousel" and is considered a frontrunner for a Tony.
“Everyone has their hang-ups, and if you are a blonde white girl, the hard part is that there are so many other blonde white girls — but there are so many more opportunities,” de Jesús noted. “For Latinos, the pool is smaller, but there are also fewer roles.”
When de Jesús first began pursuing his career in New York, it was “kind of a shock” when he realized that his ethnicity would preclude him from certain roles.
“Do I wish I were getting more auditions? 100 percent. Do I wish I were being considered for roles with less of a stereotype? 100 percent,” he said. The theater needs more Latino producers and writers, he explained, like "In the Heights" and "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, to create better opportunities for Latino performers. “That’s what made 'In The Heights' so special; it was for us, by us.”
For now, de Jesús said, “The industry thinks it’s becoming more inclusive.”
“In the entertainment industry, people always want to put you in a box. In the beginning, I had to audition, basically, as a stereotype if I wanted to work,” said Nina Lafarga, currently appearing in "Frozen." “Now, people’s ideas of a Latina are changing. You can play different roles, and happen to be Latina.”
Lafarga finds that the joy of working in the theater outweighs the struggle. “This is a hard industry, and I’m grateful to be working consistently. Ultimately, I keep coming back to it, because nothing else gives me this kind of fulfillment. It is like a calling; it is what I am meant to do.”
For Joshua De Jesus (no relation to Robin de Jesús), being in "Harry Potter and The Cursed Child" has been a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Before being cast in his Broadway role, De Jesus dropped out of college to pursue his dream. “You can imagine how a Hispanic mom reacts when her child says he is leaving school, to become an actor,” he said.
De Jesus was working at a vegan cafe, and going on auditions for theater and television, when he had the opportunity to audition for Harry Potter. Initially he was wary, thinking, “What is this show going to do with a Hispanic teenager?”
Yet his mother encouraged him to go to the casting, insisting that he could show the producers something different.
“Now I’m here, and my life has changed completely," said De Jesus. "I feel incredibly lucky and honored to be part of it.”
All of these Latino actors, dancers and singers are savoring the exhilaration of performing on Broadway.
An alumni of "On Your Feet!," Beliard noted the difference between that show’s nearly all-Latino cast and her current production. Backstage at "On Your Feet!," there was always Spanish music playing and cafecito brewing. “Now, if someone is doing that, it’s probably me,” she laughed. Being one of three Latinos in the Summer cast inspires her to maintain a strong work ethic and “hold our community up at the highest level.”
Beliard spoke with NBC between a Saturday matinee and evening performance. “I’m going on adrenaline right now,” she said, referring to rehearsals for the Tony Awards. One of the show's lead stars, Ariana DeBose, is nominated for a Tony for best featured actress in a musical.
“I’m so thrilled to be with this cast on the Tonys,” she said. “We’ve been working so hard, and I’m excited. This is real, this is going down — and it’s going to be incredible.”
Raul A. Reyes is an NBC Latino contributor. Follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, and on Instagram at @raulareyes1.