For many Americans, Longoria is still best known for playing the pampered Gabrielle Solis on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” or educating us about the skin care benefits of hy-a-lu-ron-ic acid in commercials for L’Oreal. It’s easy to forget that she had just a handful of credits (including a stint on “Young and the Restless”) before she was cast as Wisteria Lane’s most self-possessed resident. “Housewives,” which played to upward of 30 million viewers in its heyday, made her a household name. But for Longoria, a ninth-generation Texan who grew up in Corpus Christi, Tex. — and never planned on being an actor — the role is perhaps most significant because of what it enabled her to do next.
In the years following her breakout, Longoria, 45, has emerged as a fierce and productive advocate for women and Latinos. There is a clear line from her journey in Hollywood — from acting to producing and directing — to the advocacy efforts that have put her on three consecutive Democratic National Convention stages. Amid a pivotal election year and a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Latinos and other people of color, Longoria has amplified her efforts, mobilizing voters and co-founding organizations that seek to effect systemic change.
“You can’t change policy until you change culture,” Longoria says in an interview with The Washington Post, citing a quote from artist-activist Favianna Rodriguez. “The biggest way you can change culture is through media. And so I’m in a position in which I can influence what people think of our community but also how our community thinks of ourselves.”
“I started producing and directing … so that I could tell stories from my community,” she says. “So that people could see us as heroes, too, and see us as part of the fabric of this country.”
An unconventional film school
Gaby Solis didn’t completely defy stereotypes; as a model turned housewife, the character embodied the hot Latina trope when “Desperate Housewives” debuted in 2004. But the Solises were wealthy and ambitious, with Longoria’s character launching her own successful business by the time the drama ended in 2012. Longoria’s Golden Globe-nominated role, opposite veterans Felicity Huffman, Teri Hatcher and Marcia Cross, made her one of few Latinas playing lead characters on prime-time TV in the early-to-mid aughts.
Longoria says the set of “Desperate Housewives,” created by Marc Cherry, was effectively her film school. She later signed on as an executive producer to Cherry’s follow-up project, “Devious Maids,” which shared the dark humor and mystery of “Housewives.” The Lifetime series, which premiered in 2013, was notably led by an ensemble cast of four Latina actresses: Judy Reyes, Dania Ramirez, Roselyn Sanchez and Ana Ortiz. (Reyes and Ramirez are both Dominican American and identify as Afro-Latina; Sanchez and Ortiz are Puerto Rican.)
Longoria was, by all accounts, involved in every aspect of “Devious Maids” production, including casting, and made her directorial debut on the Season 2 premiere. She fielded strong criticism around the characters’ occupation — a long-standing trope — while emphasizing that the maids held the power on the show.
A guest appearance in the show’s Season 4 premiere gave Longoria a chance to poke fun at those critics. She played an exaggerated version of herself, acting in a movie that was based on a book by former maid Marisol (Ortiz). “This story isn’t about you. It’s about the maids. It’s about Latina empowerment,” Marisol tells a White actress who tries to beef up her own part in the movie. “Back me up here, Eva.”
Longoria’s character pauses. “Hmm, I don’t know,” she says. “Do all the maids have to be Latina? Seems kind of racist.”
Longoria “does everything 100 percent,” says Nina Lederman, who was then head of scripted development at Lifetime and jumped at the chance to pick up “Devious Maids” when ABC passed on the dramedy. The two quickly became friends. “I loved her energy,” says Lederman, now executive vice president of global scripted development and programming at Sony Pictures Television. “She’s got a wonderful sense of humor and she is so not a diva in any way.”
It was Lederman who persuaded Longoria to try her hand at directing. “She’s hungry to learn, and she’s got such a charming and wonderful and smart way that she learns and she asks and she studies,” Lederman says. “She really works hard to get it right.”
Longoria has since directed for shows known for placing underrepresented groups at the center of stories, including “Jane the Virgin,” “Blackish,” and two of her own regrettably short-lived projects: NBC’s “Telenovela,” and ABC’s “Grand Hotel.” She is currently set to direct three big-screen projects, one of which will mark her feature directorial debut: She will direct and star in “Spa Day,” an action-comedy, and will also pull double duty on “24-7,” co-starring Kerry Washington. The other is “Flamin’ Hot,” a biopic about the Mexican American janitor turned businessman who created the cult-favorite variety of Cheetos.
Longoria now thinks of herself as “a producer-director that fell into acting.”
“Once I got to Hollywood, I was fascinated by how things were put together, and I was fascinated by the business side,” she says. “I felt like, as an actor, I wasn’t using my full potential. I was just going to work, standing on a mark, saying my lines and going home. And when I was producing and directing, it was like I was firing on all cylinders.”
Harnessing her power
While her film school was metaphorical, Longoria actually was a student during the last few seasons of “Desperate Housewives”; a year after the show wrapped, she graduated with a master’s degree in Chicana/o studies from California State University at Northridge. She wrote her thesis on the value of increasing opportunities for Latinas in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which is also one focus of the nonprofit organization she founded in 2012.
Latinas, Longoria says, are “one of the most powerful groups that this country has.” Last month, she announced the creation of She Se Puede, a digital lifestyle community she launched with actress America Ferrera and other Latina activists. The nonprofit initiative’s name is a play on the slogan coined by famed activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta, who Longoria says has been a mentor to her since her pre-fame days.
“There are so many studies that showed we don’t even know we have buying power, political power,” Longoria says. “We’re trying to make sure that Latinas know that they have this power."
Philanthropy and political activism (not to mention digital lifestyle efforts) aren’t uncommon in Hollywood. But few actors have launched political action committees, as Longoria did in 2014. She co-founded the liberal Latino Victory Fund with Henry R. Muñoz III, a designer and businessman who was then the finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee.
Muñoz and Longoria became friends after being appointed to a bipartisan commission to study the possibility of a Latino museum on the Mall. They bonded over their shared Texas roots, says Muñoz, a San Antonio native, and a desire to galvanize the Latino community to “organize and lead ourselves.”
Longoria lends much more than her name and money to these causes, Muñoz says. “She’s not just going to go to a rally, say a few words, and stand up there and then leave. She’s really, honestly involved in the policy discussions and the design of these moments and these movements.”
As President Obama prepared to run for his second term, Longoria and Muñoz teamed with lawyer Andrés W. López to organize a fund that raised more than $30 million for his reelection campaign. Latino Victory was born out of wanting to harness that momentum, Muñoz says.
A pivotal election
The group has raised millions toward its goal of increasing Latino political power, counting Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar — both Democrats and, paradoxically, the first Latinas elected to Congress from heavily Latino Texas — and dozens of other candidates across all levels of government among its success stories. Latino Victory has also gotten attention for aggressive ad campaigns, including a controversial stand against a Virginia gubernatorial candidate who ran ads attempting to associate illegal immigration with gang violence. This year, the group is backing former vice president Joe Biden in the presidential election (after endorsing former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro ahead of the primaries).
In July, Muñoz and Longoria launched Momento Latino, a coalition uniting more than 130 organizations toward the goal of systemic change in health care, the economy and education. They were spurred in large part by the coronavirus pandemic, which has been devastating for Latino communities across the U.S., and particularly in their home state of Texas. As The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández reported last month, more than 36,500 Latinos have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Many Latinos are essential workers, putting them further at risk.
The Momento Latino effort required reaching out to dozens of activists and nonprofit organizations. Longoria, Muñoz says, “was on every single call.”
Momento Latino will take on a bigger stage on Oct. 26 when Longoria co-hosts the organization’s CBS special “Essential Heroes,” celebrating essential workers and Latino culture, alongside Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan.
Longoria “understands the power of her voice,” says Tina Tchen, president and CEO of Time’s Up, which counts the actress among its founding members.
“She has an incredible talent of being warm and personable and tapping into that image that people may have of her as an actress, and then … use that very well to drive home a serious point,” says Tchen, a former chief of staff to Michelle Obama.
Part of Longoria’s appeal stems from her willingness to be “personally vulnerable” when discussing issues, Tchen adds, whether she’s talking about the challenges she’s faced in the entertainment industry or in being a working mom (Longoria shares 2-year-old Santiago with her husband of four years, José Bastón.)
“Having a Latinx woman do that from a position of success and power, but still deeply connected and rooted to her community is incredibly powerful,” says Tchen. “I think that’s why she’s so effective in reaching people and educating them about things like the importance of voting.”
In many ways, Longoria’s first speech at the Democratic National Convention eight years ago served as a primer on her advocacy efforts and how they are influenced by her upbringing.
“I’m the youngest of four girls, including my oldest sister Liza, who has special needs,” she told the crowd at a Charlotte arena. Her mother was a special-education teacher; her father worked on an Army base. “In my family there was one cardinal priority: education,” Longoria said, detailing the various jobs she took on to pay for college, including a stint at Wendy’s.
While her speech was grounded in her humble Texas roots, Longoria rebutted any illusion that she would try to present herself as an everywoman. “The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy’s flipping burgers, she needed a tax break,” the actress said, referencing Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s tax plan. “But the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets does not.”
Longoria was one of the few Latinos who spoke at this year’s Democratic convention, bringing more visibility both to her leadership and some of the very issues that have inspired her political advocacy. She pays the naysayers no mind. “None of that really fazes me,” she says. “I didn’t show up there as a celebrity or as an actress. I showed up as an American and as a patriot.”
“The greatest myth is that you have to be a politician to be political,” Longoria says.