When actress Gina Rodriguez was a kid growing up in Chicago, she would turn on the TV and wonder: “Why does no one look like me?”
The youngest of three daughters of Puerto Rican parents, she asked her mom, “When did Puerto Ricans come about? When were we born?” She didn’t see herself in the movies and shows that she loved. She had “no concept of any kind of discrimination or any kind of limitation in the industry. I had no idea,” she said by phone from Los Angeles last month in the middle of a day of filming her CW breakout hit, “Jane the Virgin.” “I just thought: We must not have been around. My parents must have started the Puerto Rican race!”
She watched “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World,” and “Family Matters,” because at least they featured characters of color. Even though they didn’t have brown skin quite like hers, “That was the closest I came to seeing anyone like me represented on screen in a positive light,” she said. “When I watched ‘Full House,’ I never existed. I was never portrayed. And when I did see us, we always had a very inferior position in life.”
“That lack of visibility, that lack of relatability, really made me feel kind of alone in this world,” she said. “It really made me feel a certain way about myself, about beauty, what I could and could not be.”
If she had only known then what she knows now: that, at age 31, she would be the star of “Jane the Virgin,” the critically adored show entering its second season this fall; that she would win a Golden Globe for her performance as Jane and give an instantly-viral acceptance speech touching on the idea of representation; that she see her face on Barbie-bright billboards all over L.A. and have a massive platform from which to speak out about diversity and acceptance.
Here’s what she did know: She wanted to act. She wanted to change the way Latinos were represented in pop culture. She wanted to do her part to make sure that little girls — the next generation of Ginas — would have role models on TV who looked like them.
She describes herself as a “pretty faithful person,” and religion has centered her. It has “made me realize that with great blessings come great responsibility. You cannot separate the two.”
After Rodriguez went from unknown to one-to-watch with her performance in “Filly Brown,” a hit at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, she had what, on paper, seemed like a dream opportunity: a role in Lifetime’s “Devious Maids.”
She turned it down.
Her family wasn’t so sure. They asked her, “Why are you trying to be a sacrificial lamb?” And sometimes even Rodriguez wasn’t so sure. She had “those moments of, ‘Oh Gina, you better be freaking right about this! You know you did the right thing; did you do the right thing?’ ”
“Listen,” she said to her family then. “I’m not trying to be Jesus! I don’t think I’m the Second Coming. But I know this isn’t my journey. I believe it so hard. I just knew that that wasn’t my path, because it didn’t feel right.”
But “Jane” felt right, right away. “I was five pages in” to the pilot script, Rodriguez said, when she knew, “I have to be Jane.”
In Jane, Rodriguez found a determined, funny, type-A, compassionate woman who could be described by a bunch of buzzwords — Latina, Catholic, virgin — but was not wholly defined by those traits. The nuances of the Latino American experience were accurately and lovingly portrayed. These three generations of women (Jane, her mother and her grandmother) talked and behaved in a way that Rodriguez understood; Jane’s grandmother spoke Spanish, and Jane responded in English, just like Rodriguez did with her own grandparents.
“It’s so fluidly graceful on this show, about Jane being American but having Latino roots, her not being afraid of who she is,” said Rodriguez. “The world Jane lives in is so accepting.”
The show is a twist on a telenovela, which might sound gimmicky on paper: “The pregnant virgin!” But the axis of the “Jane” universe is the bond among the Villanueva women. Everything revolves around those authentic relationships.
Absurdity abounds: Jane’s father, whose identity she never knew, turns out to be — gasp! — the star of one of Jane’s favorite telenovelas, and the father of Jane’s baby is not only the handsome, impossibly wealthy owner of the hotel where Jane works but also — it can’t be! — the stepson of Sin Rostro, a vicious drug lord, who — Dios mio! — was having an affair with her own stepdaughter, who — there’s no way! — is the doctor who, distraught after catching her wife in bed with another woman, fails to give Jane a routine pap smear and — oh, no! — inseminates her instead.
And this is all before we get into the underground plastic-surgery clinic, the homicides at the hotel, the faked death, the secret twins, the multiple proposals of marriage, and the character who pretends to be paralyzed but rises from her wheelchair to shove Jane’s grandmother down a flight of stairs.
“Jane” creator and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman had anticipated “a very long search” for her heroine, but Rodriguez was the third person to audition. “She was just amazing,” Urman said by phone. “I remember rushing home and showing my husband the tape, asking, ‘Could we have found Jane so quickly?’ ”
Urman is still dazzled by Rodriguez’s willingness to say no to “Devious Maids” and hold out for a role like Jane. (The ABC-produced “Maids” just started its fourth season airing on Lifetime.) “It takes a tremendous amount of courage to turn that down when you’re in that mode, and you’re hustling and you’re trying to get that break. To say no, you have to have an extraordinary sense of self and confidence and belief that it will eventually will work out. It’s stunning.”
Rodriguez started making headlines for speaking out about Latino representation during the 2014 Television Critics Association summer press tour, when an answer to a fairly routine question about why she picked “Jane” over “Devious Maids” became, on the spot, something more like a mission statement.
“I found it limiting that that was the one that was available to me,” she told the reporter about the “Maids” role. “I found it limiting for the stories that Latinos have.”
The Latino Media Gap (a report recently commissioned by Columbia University, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers) found that the statistics bear out Rodriguez’s perception. In movies and on TV, Latinos “continue to be represented primarily as criminals, law enforcers, and cheap labor.” Since 1996, 69 percent of maids in film and television have been Latina; in reality, only 44.3 percent of maids and house cleaners are Latino. The problem isn’t just inaccurate visibility but gaining visibility at all: from 2012 to 2013, nearly half of all Latino-coded TV characters didn’t even have credits or names.
Though “being a maid is fantastic,” Rodriguez said at the TCAs, “there are other stories that need to be told.”
“That might have been the first time the press heard it,” Urman said. “It wasn’t new to me. That’s what Gina had been talking about all along.”
That’s why, though Rodriguez swears she did not write her Golden Globes speech in advance — “I probably wrote, like, 7,000 in my head” — eloquence under pressure came naturally to her.
“It’s hard to come up with something when Oprah and Meryl are staring at you,” she said. But in that moment, “God spoke for me. I was as shocked as can be, and I don’t know if I could have written it better than my heart said it for me.”
“She knows that she was given this platform to do good with it,” said Justin Baldoni, who plays Rafael, Jane’s baby-daddy. “I think she wants to be the woman that walks the walk. . . . She’s making sure that she’s not going to disappoint, and not only make it about herself.”
Rodriguez is not the only one. Just weeks ago, Viola Davis scooped up her Emmy for “How to Get Away With Murder,” making her the first black woman to take home the trophy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series. She, too, used her acceptance speech as a rallying cry for representation on-screen: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
“I didn’t realize, myself, until I did the show, how critical it is to see people that look like you, because I’m white,” said Urman. “I didn’t realize until I did ‘Jane’ how important that was, and Gina has really helped me see that.”
“Jane” does, on occasion, venture into explicitly political territory; in one instance, the hashtag #ImmigrationReform was literally stamped across the screen. When “Jane” goes there, Urman said, “Gina is at the table read going, ‘Yes! Yes!’ ”
“I’m constantly thinking about what she says about representation, what she wants to see. [She’s] made me more conscious of that. I’m grateful to her for it,” said Urman. “When I get e-mails and tweets from younger girls who are so happy to see themselves on screen, and see this really driven heroine that they feel like they can relate to, that’s an incredible feeling, and I really credit Gina. She inspires me, too.”
“I really admire Gina,” said Andrea Navedo, who plays Jane’s mother. “She has taken this opportunity, using it as a platform, to speak” about the issues that matter to her. “She’s using the blessings that she’s received [and] is turning that around to the benefit of others.”
Navedo is also of Puerto Rican descent and shares Rodriguez’s exhaustion with “not seeing myself represented that much, or in a positive light” on television. “I think it’s been brewing, and I think the dam broke. . . .And I’d like to think that ‘Jane’ had something to do with it.”
Rodriguez knows this is a heated time to be a prominent advocate for diversity, particularly as the topic of immigration dominates presidential primary headlines.
“I’ve already gotten backlash and controversy for being outspoken when it comes to Latino stereotypes and taking roles,” said Rodriguez. “I’ve gotten it from other Latinos.”
This summer, Rodriguez gave an interview to People en Español in Spanish. She isn’t fluent, though, and when she shared the cover on her Instagram, criticism rolled in: followers mocked her grammatical errors and questioned if she was “really” Latina.
That exposure to “interracial Latino racism” was “eye-opening,” she said at the time, and she wrote a follow-up post imploring readers to be kinder: “I was blown away at the immediate hate projected on my page.”
“I’m a human being who also f---s up and trips all over the place, but I’m trying,” she said. “And I am going to fail, and I am going to annoy some people by speaking up, and that just is what it is.”
“She feels a lot of social responsibility, which is incredibly admirable, and she has an artistic sense of responsibility, and she’s really merged those two,” said Urman. “When she says something, a lot of times, I want to clap. It’s a really rare quality, to be that confident in what you believe, and confident enough to say it out loud and not hold yourself back, because you think other people might not like what you’re saying, or [you’ll] get backlash.”
“If people are mad at her for saying something, chances are, it’s because she’s saying the truth,” said Baldoni. “And I don’t think she’s going to shy away from that.”
Rodriguez said her dad always told her that “anybody that created change pissed people off.” “You’re always going to piss some people off because you’re taking action,” she said. “Because you’re speaking up for the voiceless.”
“It was ingrained in me,” she said. “It’s how I was born. I don’t apologize for being outspoken about trying to create change. I don’t.”
Jane the Virgin, airing Monday nights at 9 p.m. on the CW, has its season premiere Oct. 12.