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From sound stage to global stage: Eva Longoria takes a seat at annual Clinton meeting

Actress Eva Longoria speaks on stage during the final day of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on Sept. 6, 2012 in Charlotte, N.C.
Actress Eva Longoria speaks on stage during the final day of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on Sept. 6, 2012 in Charlotte, N.C.Tom Pennington / Getty Images file

It wasn't long ago that Eva Longoria was more likely to share a dais with fellow actresses like Teri Hatcher or Felicity Huffman than with a former president of the United States, business leaders, or heads of foundations. But the “Desperate Housewives” star is now turning heads as a political power broker and prominent Latino issues advocate.

On Thursday, Longoria will participate in a panel discussion moderated by President Bill Clinton at the annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative America in Chicago. Sharing the stage with Sara Martinez Tucker, CEO of the National Math + Science Initiative; Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani, Inc. (the yogurt chain); and Laysha Ward, president of community relations for Target Corp., Longoria will take part in a session about achieving economic and social mobility.

She will also release a report commissioned by her eponymous foundation evaluating the factors that contributed to the success of recent Latina college graduates who grew up in disadvantaged environments.

The 38-year-old actress and executive producer isn’t just fundraising or glad-handing; her influence extends to policy and strategy. After serving on President Obama’s commission to create a new National Museum of the American Latino, Obama asked Longoria to be co-chair of his inaugural committee. It paid off: She was able to persuade the president last year to issue a directive for helping the children of illegal immigrants gain citizenship.

“I always knew that the end goal of my journey in life was not to be famous, was not to be an actress. I feel like I haven’t even tapped into the potential that I have as a human being,” Longoria said in a keynote speech at the Lozano Long Conference at the University of Texas last year. “When it comes to my identity, I’ve found out over the years that I’ve just constantly negotiated my position and my space as a Latino, as a woman. And I’ve built my own cultural wealth by discovering my roots, exploring my roots and by staying curious about the world.” (Longoria was traveling out of the country and unavailable for an interview for this story.)

The role of skillful political operator is one she readily gravitated toward in her ongoing quest to bring attention to issues close to her heart — immigration reform, the United Farm Workers and the education and empowerment of U.S. Latinas. Volunteerism and charity work have been an important part of Longoria’s life since growing up on a ranch in Corpus Christi, Texas, near the Mexico border. Through her childhood, she told Newsweek, her mother insisted that she spend her free time in soup kitchens and donate regularly to the Salvation Army and Goodwill.

“At the foundation of her being and what she wants to accomplish with her life is that she’s been there,” said Henry Muñoz, the finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee who has worked with Longoria on several issues and projects. “She doesn’t forget where she came from, and what members of her family and people she grew up with experienced. I see her activism, her community engagement and her involvement as just as important to her as being an actress.”

After she graduated from Texas A&M University-Kingsville and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, Longoria quietly began working with organizations like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Padres Contra el Cancer (Parents Against Cancer). Inspired by her sister who has developmental disabilities, Longoria also co-founded Eva’s Heroes to help young adults with special needs.

“The way Eva has described it to me, she looks at that period as a learning period,” said Maggie Neilson, co-founder of Global Philanthropy Group, the Los Angeles firm that oversees Longoria’s foundation.“She talks about the mentors who helped her get educated about the historic and other issues important to her community. She very smartly wasn’t someone who went on blast early on. She took the time to really learn. That’s why I think today a lot of people are surprised by the depths of her knowledge. She really took a long time to know what she cares about and understand it.”

The end of “Desperate Housewives” opened up Longoria’s schedule to become more actively involved in President Obama’s re-election.

Longoria was the first person Munoz reached out to when he began developing The Futuro Fund, which raised $30 million for Obama’s re-election campaign and created a resourceful fundraising network that will impact elections to come, he said.

“I’ve seen Eva in meetings with the President, for example, where this is not a celebrity interaction with people of substance,” Munoz said. “This is a serious policy discussion about the impact of an issue on a community. She is my friend. But that aside, she is a very serious, important and nationally recognized activist for the Latino community and for the community of women.”

She has also dedicated herself more fully in The Eva Longoria Foundation, the non-profit organization she launched last year that invests in educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for U.S. Latinas. In May, she graduated from Cal State Northridge with a master’s degree in Chicano studies and political science.

“That gave her the additional information and knowledge with which to work on her non-profit issues and on the presidential election,” Neilson said. “To me, it all kind of makes sense and none of it is new. It’s all just culminated in the last 18 months. She just didn’t have quite as big of a toolbox and platform from which to make a difference and she also didn’t have quite as much time. The stuff she’s been doing all along has just now come to the forefront.”

Longoria wants other Latinos to follow in her footsteps and seize the power the country’s largest minority group demonstrated in the November election that it now has.

 “We have to think about what these changes mean for our community,” Longoria told the University of Texas audience. “I find a lot of people are scared of this change. Where is this xenophobia coming from? I think there’s a Taco Bell on every corner. I don’t understand it. I think we also have to think about who has to gain from this xenophobia. It’s time for Latinos to stop being a number and start being a market, to stop being the largest minority in the United States and start being the most influential group in the country.”