Photo and story by Savannah Meade / Contributing Writer
Selenis Leyva, an actress in the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” came to MTSU to give the women’s history month keynote address in the Tucker Theatre Monday evening.
Leyva started the night by telling the story of what got her started in acting. She said that watching telenovelas with her family as a young girl and acting the scenes out in the mirror later inspired her to pursue acting. Leyva was also inspired by reading the plays of Federico García Lorca.
“Federico García Lorca writes in poetic fashion, and it’s difficult to understand for most adults, let alone a 7-year-old girl,” Leyva said. “But I would lose myself. I would lose myself in those pages, the moon, the bride. Whatever I was able to understand was intoxicating. It was exhilarating, (and) I wanted more.”
Eventually, she realized acting was her passion and something she wanted to pursue seriously. So, she went to her councilor’s office and requested an application to Laguardia High School, a prestigious acting school in the Bronx. Leyva said the counselor instead gave her applications to schools that have “great secretarial programs.” Leyva did not accept this.
“So, I went home,” Leyva said. “I couldn’t sleep that night. I was tossing and turning because I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise so that I could go back into that man’s office and get that application.”
According to Leyva, she was able to do so because of her determination, which is something that she said she saw in the theater full of MTSU students.
“I’m a graduate of Laguardia High School for the Performing Arts,” Leyva said to an audience that erupted in cheers.
Leyva’s biggest piece of advice and her major point of the night was to find something to be passionate about and run with it. Of course, attending Laguardia and pursuing acting was not easy. Leyva said that she worked hard toward her goal, and it paid off.
While all other students had one, Leyva had two scenes in her senior showcase at Laguardia.
“People were pissed,” Leyva said. “I had my locker vandalized, (and) all these nasty words were sprayed painted on. And I realized, ‘Wow, I thought I had been accepted. Clearly, that’s not the feeling here. Oh well. I gotta memorize my lines. I’m in two scenes.’”
However, high school wasn’t the last of her struggles. Leyva recounted to the audience the story of how she was cast as Gloria Mendoza in “Orange is the New Black,” arguably her most recognizable role, six months after she gave up acting.
“I decided not to act anymore because I was a single mom (and) because I was struggling to pay bills,” Leyva said. “I was tired… So, I made a phone call. I said, ‘I don’t want to act anymore,’ and my manager said, ‘No, no, we still have a lot to do.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m tired. My account is in the negatives right now. I’m tired.’ So, I gave up,”
But, it seems life had other plans for Leyva. In those six months, she had multiple instances of “one last job” before she was going to quit acting for good and got a “real job.” Until finally, she got offered a part in “Orange is the New Black” with just one line.
Suddenly, “Orange is the New Black” became a nearly instant success, and Leyva’s single-line role of Gloria Mendoza is now a season regular on the show.
As an Afro-Latina, Leyva said that growing up, she didn’t see anyone who looked like her on TV. And, the people who looked slightly like her in media were maids or prostitutes. They were stereotypes. And, while Leyva said there is nothing wrong with those professions, being told that’s all she could be was disheartening.
Now that Leyva and many other pioneers in movies and TV are starting to appear more and more on the big and small screen, she hopes that she can be what she needed as a child.
To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email email@example.com.
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