“In the Heights”
Growing up in Mexico and starting her acting career on telenovelas in Mexico, Barrera says she “didn’t know what it meant to be a Latina.”
“Everyone in Mexico is Mexican; we’re all the same,” she says. “I wasn’t a minority over there. Coming to L.A. was a huge wakeup call for me.”
She made the move in 2017 and booked Starz’s “Vida,” which premiered a year later. That show, which centers on two Mexican American sisters from the fast-gentrifying East L.A., opened her eyes to new challenges but also the importance of seeing one’s self reflected on screen.
“The story and the character and how real it feels is always the first thing that attracts me to a role,” Barrera says. “Then I realized it’s all about identity, and we live in a time where people are having crises of identity all of the time because the political world right now is constantly telling people they don’t belong.”
Now, she is focused on taking on projects that “are important to a community and are important right now.” In addition to “Vida,” this includes Lin-Manuel Miranda’s upcoming big-screen adaptation of “In the Heights.” Both projects, she notes, are about people “trying to break out of this little box they were put in because of where they were born to pursue bigger dreams and be seen as something else.”
Barrera also wants to create opportunities for those coming up behind her. “You are light in other people’s path,” she says. “They should feel good when they’re around you, and hopefully inspired.”
— Danielle Turchiano
Angel Bismark Curiel
One of Curiel’s earliest acting inspirations was John Leguizamo.
“It was so rare that I got to see myself in roles, and he did that for me,” Curiel says. “One thing I said I was always going to do was work with John.”
That dream has paid off quickly for the Miami native; he stars in Leguizamo’s big-screen directorial debut, “Critical Thinking,” as a kid from an underprivileged school who becomes a chess master.
He also stars as Esteban Martinez, aka, Papi Evangelista, a former drug dealer turned talent entrepreneur, in FX’s “Pose.” Although Curiel notes that Papi “manages to consistently find that positive energy and be a better man than most in our generation,” he feels it is even more important that he is flawed.
“No one is perfect, and if you give young men that image of perfection they’ll never get there — because it will seem completely undoable,” he says.
Curiel attended a charter arts high school in Florida and later Pace University and says performing is what has given him the most “authority in my own education.” He explains: “It was, ‘Read this script and bring me what you have and from there we can work.’ In every other classroom it was, ‘Bring me what I need or you’re going to fall behind.’”
Now, Curiel also has eyes on expanding his career into writing and producing. “As an actor I can act as far as where other people view me, which leaves a lot to chance and subjectivity,” he says. “I want to change what a leading man looks like in these United States of America.”
— Danielle Turchiano
Calderon is taking over screens big and small — first with Netflix’s “Gentefied,” which launched in February, and soon enough with the feature film “Bridges.” Both of her roles in these projects, she says, were rewritten for her.
“It’s an honor but it’s greater to that than me because you do not see Dominican stories being told, period,” she says. “These stories are about real stories and stories we have yet to see. They are about our Latino brothers and sisters. ‘Gentefied’ is a Mexican-American story, and ‘Bridges’ is about a Venezuelan family. Being a part of history with these projects and really telling our truths and honoring our ancestors, I couldn’t have been blessed more.”
Calderon started acting in college and then moved out to Los Angeles approximately six years ago, when she was asked if she would work with a dialect coach to change her accent to “fit into more roles,” she recalls. But she resisted.
“I am this unapologetic person,” she says. “As a kid I was just really comfortable in my skin, and I’m so thankful to little Julissa who was that way because she teaches me that I can be myself, and it allows other people to see that and allows them to be themselves.”
Prior to these two scripted roles, Calderon was best- known for her work as a Buzzfeed creator and writing and producing is still a big part of her career path.
“It’s about making sure that people like me have a story — and have a story that is told by people that look like them,” she says.
— Danielle Turchiano
Award-winning cinematographer Costa developed “a passion for image-making” at age 14, when she worked as an assistant to a photojournalist in Brazil. She grew up in a middle-class Rio neighborhood, but was primarily interested in kids “on the other side of the social border from mine.”
While honing her craft, she saw a film that changed her life and the strictures of photojournalism soon proved too limiting.
“When I was really young, I saw this movie called ‘Before the Rain,’ from Macedonia. I just had never seen anything like it,” she says. “I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
Milcho Manchevski’s haunting triptych about love and war inspired Costa to broaden her horizons.
“I was more interested in changing the reality by creating one than just being there at the time of photographing it,” she says. “So I found a short course on 16mm in London, and convinced my parents to let me go by promising I’d come back in six months.” She ended up living in London for 6½ years.
Since then, she’s worked on a wide array of features, commercials and documentaries, collaborating with several first-time directors. Her most recent project, Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age story “Hala,” made its streaming premiere on Apple TV Plus last December.
Though “Hala” tells a story grounded in realism, Costa’s approach to cinematography is more atmospheric than strictly naturalistic.
“She was stuck in this between all these different identities,” Costa says. “So we chose a lot of wide angle lenses and static cameras.”
— Akiva Gottlieb
Originally from Puerto Rico, Francesca Ramirez, who goes by the stage name Chesca, began singing at 9 years old. Soon after, she was signed by Sony Music Latin Records. But her music dreams were sidelined after suffering an accident that required 17 reconstructive surgeries over a span of 10 years.
“It wasn’t until I was 21 that I was able to go back out there and say, ‘I’m just gonna go for it and start from zero.’ It was a process for me,” says Chesca, who moved to Miami and, for a short time, sang in an all-girl band. “It was just really hard to go into that business, especially coming out of a bad situation.”
But Chesca was determined to realize her dreams of becoming a solo artist. She moved to Los Angeles and in October 2018 she released her first single, “Azúcar.” The song netted 4 million views on YouTube and Saban Music Group, founded by media mogul Haim Saban, took ample note. He signed Chesca to the record label.
Chesca went on to act in Nicky Jam’s, “El Ganador” docuseries on Netflix and sings on the theme song of the “Dora the Explorer” movie. Her latest single “Deja de Hablar,” featuring Jon Z, was released in January.
She’s also cultivated a professional relationship with Pitbull, who included Chesca in the Static & Ben El single “Subelo,” the Latin version of his hit single “Further Up,” which Pitbull recorded with the Israeli duo.
“Sometimes life takes you in different directions, and me, my music and everything that I’m doing is all about persistence,” says Chesca.
— Cata Balzano
Mariana di Girolamo
Chilean actor di Girolamo drew international acclaim for her intense performance as a dancer struggling with emotional turmoil in Pablo Larraín’s drama “Ema.” For di Girolamo, the opportunity to play such a complex character, who finds solace in extramarital affairs and her career as a reggaeton dancer, was an eye-opening experience.
“We are not used to seeing women as protagonists like Ema. This type of role was always related to men as the user, the Casanova who does as he pleased. But the world has changed. Now, the protagonists are women who are strong and seductive and capable.”
Di Girolamo is now ready to try her hand in Hollywood.
“I hope to work in American films, and I think it’ll be a challenge to act in a language that isn’t mine, but I love challenges,” she says. Her first choices for directors? Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, and she also has a co-star in mind.
“I’d love to work with Tilda Swinton,” she says. “I love her work and her career choices.”
As for the future, di Girolamo says she sees herself working on her English, continuing to act in theater and stepping out of her comfort zone.
“I would like the opportunity to apply dance to my performance and maybe singing, too — why not?” she says. “I want to develop myself as an integral and versatile actress and I welcome every role that challenges me.”
“A Fantastic Woman”
The veteran Chilean screenwriter behind “Gloria,” later remade in the U.S. as “Gloria Bell,” and “A Fantastic Woman,” which won the 2017 Academy Award for foreign-language film, is in many ways still a student.
Several years ago, Maza moved to London to pursue a master’s degree at the London Film School because he wanted “the confidence to write in English.” Not content resting on his laurels, he’s currently working on his doctorate.
Maza has a history of straddling multiple vocations. A decade ago, he was working in Chile as a film critic, and befriended the promising young director Sebastian Lelio.
According to Maza, “At some point, I told him, ‘We are friends. I don’t want to spoil that, but maybe we can work together. And if it doesn’t work, no matter; we can move on.’ Then we wrote four films together in 10 years.”
After his success collaborating with Lelio, Maza has now struck out on his own as a director. His feature debut, “This Is Cristina,” is competing this month for the HBO Ibero-American Feature Film Award at the Miami Film Festival. The black-and-white dramedy chronicles the friendship and breakup of two Chilean women in their mid-30s. Salma Hayek signed on as an executive producer after meeting Maza.
Maza says, “I remember an interview with David Lynch where he said, ‘If you want to make a film, you have to choose an idea that you really love, because you’re going to have to work for several years with this idea.’ I took that very seriously.”
“High & Mighty”
One day on the set of the web series “High & Mighty,” a stoner comedy about an ordinary man who finds he develops super powers when drunk or high, the creator and showrunner, Mazariegos, had something of a revelation.
“I had previously been working at a mortuary,” he says. “So to go from that and to be on set, shooting stunts, doing crazy stuff, I was standing there thinking: I came up with all of this in my head!”
Going from mortician to writer and executive producer on his own show almost overnight was certainly a shock for the Washington, D.C., native. But with that well-received HBO/HBO Latino comedy under his belt, things have only gotten better for Mazariegos. For the past two years, he has served as a full-time staff writer on Fox’s long-running “The Simpsons,” working in the writers’ room alongside series veterans and other new voices.
Working on a show as revered as “The Simpsons” is an accomplishment that Mazariegos can barely believe he pulled off.
“It wasn’t even a dream I had,” he says. “It was a super crazy impossible brass ring. I used to draw Bart in my notebook in school. It’s an incredible thrill.”
He was nervous, starting out. “I was intimidated: it’s a bunch of Harvard dudes, and a lot of them have been here a long time,” he says.
But being in the company of other talented writers has been a refreshing change for Mazariegos, and he says it’s “a lot less stressful” than leading a show all on his own.
“Everything isn’t on you. There are betters in the room all the time, and someone can always pitch a better joke.”
— Calum Marsh
Back in 2015, before she booked her breakout role as femme fatale Veronica on the CW’s Archie Comics adaptation “Riverdale,” Mendes was stuck in casting limbo. She was taking auditions as often as possible, but while she seemed to be performing well, she could never land a part.
“I couldn’t adhere to people’s definition of Latina, but I wasn’t white enough to play the girl next door,” she says. “I was worried that there wasn’t a place for me in the industry. I kept getting notes saying, ‘Not urban enough.’”
Mendes was born in Virginia but has Brazilian heritage. She speaks fluent Portuguese, and still feels a strong connection to the country. But she’s never had a chance to play a Brazilian on screen. “It’s a massive country that takes up so much of South America, and yet there’s so little representation of Brazilian culture in Hollywood,” she says. “When you see a Latin character written, they’re never Brazilian.”
Although Mendes says she would love to play a Portuguese-speaking part, the demand “is just non-existent” currently. (Ironically, she’s been asked to play women who speak Spanish: “Many people assume Brazilians speak it.”)
But Mendes is quick to point out that Brazil is a huge, enthusiastic market. “They’re so supportive — they’re the most loyal fanbase on our show. If you look at any post on Instagram, Brazilians are there, cheering me on.”
Mendes also stars in the Sundance hit “Palm Springs” and the Netflix thriller “Windfall.”
“The whole point of being an actor is wanting to do a million kinds of roles,” she says. “I never want to settle on one type of movie.”
— Calum Marsh
Bad Bunny’s “x100pre”
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Marco Masís — better known as Tainy — began working in a production studio at the age of 14. By the time he was 15, he was producing alongside the duo Luny Tunes and aspiring to create beats for some of the biggest stars in the world of reggaeton.
“Timbaland, Scott Storch, Dr. Dre — those were the guys that I wanted to listen to and bring a little bit of their music into what I was doing,” says Tainy, who spent a portion of his childhood in Connecticut before returning to Puerto Rico in the early 2000s.
“I think that a combination of those two worlds is just what modeled my sound, and it became who I am,” he says.
At 18, Tainy won a Latin Grammy for producing the hit song “Abusadora” by Wisin y Yandel. He followed that up with 16 years of continued success collaborating with big names in the Latin and Anglo markets. He produced bangers such as Cardi B and Bad Bunny’s “I Like It,” both featured on Bad Bunny’s album “x100pre,” as well as tracks on J. Balvin’s “Vibras” album. Tainy has also produced songs for Maroon 5 and Jessie Reyez.
“It’s been a journey to get to this point, but it’s been amazing to learn from the best,” says Tainy.
From Neon16, his studio located in Miami that he co-founded with Lex Borrero, Tainy has co-signed a new stream of talent across various genres while also working on his debut EP titled “The Kids That Grew Up On Reggaeton.”
“I’m down to listen to everybody and see how and if in any way we can help,” says Tainy.
— Cata Balzano
10 Latinxs to Watch in 2020