America Ferrera is sitting in a golf cart, touring the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles where she tapes her NBC comedy Superstore, and having a full-circle moment: Her very first movie gig happened here two decades ago. (She was an uncredited extra in the direct-to-video film Casper: A Spirited Beginning.) “They put extras in the house across the street,” says Ferrera, 34. “I sat all day inside the house, waiting to be called on camera, and never was.”
Needless to say, she has since been called, many times, for breakthrough roles in film (Real Women Have Curves) and on TV (Ugly Betty). She’s also a new mom to 4-month-old Sebastian, her son with director husband Ryan Piers Williams.
Now she’s adding “author” to her résumé. Ferrera edited and contributed to American Like Me, which was inspired by the 2016 election and features essays by artists and activists about navigating life as first-generation Americans.
And Ferrera has a lot to say, particularly about code switching — how she shifted the way she expressed herself to suit her surroundings. “Let me put on my best assimilated, educated, American-girl voice because that’s the way that I’ll be accepted in this room,” says Ferrera. “[Then] let me put on my most Latina voice and attitude so I’m good enough for this crowd.”
It’s a common thread that runs through the book. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, for instance, recounts her experience as a Hindu child who attended Catholic school in Queens. “[My mother] enrolled me in Catholic elementary school in Queens…. [She] marched right into the principal’s office at drop-off to explain that… they were to exempt me from as much of the biblical religiosity as possible,” she writes. “I was relegated to sitting in ‘Siberia’ — at the back of the church — as my classmates rehearsed for their First Communion.”
Or consider Insecure star Issa Rae, whose father is from Senegal, on her relationship to Ramadan: “When it comes to Ramadan, you can’t eat, drink, have sex, or even think ungenerous thoughts for an entire month. You also have to pray a lot. Which I didn’t do, outside of ‘I pray they don’t serve Domino’s for lunch, Lord Allah, because I may be tempted.’”
One of Ferrera’s most honest passages: “I may have been a whitewashed gringa in Latino groups, but I was downright exotic to my white friends; especially to their parents, who were always treating me like a rare and precious zoo animal.”
Ferrera confesses that while identity struggles never cease, she finally feels wholly, unapologetically patriotic: “The challenge of assimilating to the American way [while] inextricably being a part of where you come from… I always felt like that made me more American.”
American Like Me is now available for purchase.