During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy, and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic and Latino trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos, and specials throughout the month of September and October. For more, head here.
When Isabella Gomez was growing up in Colombia with a dream of becoming an actor, she didn't immediately notice a lack of Latinx representation in Hollywood.
"I had a bit of an interesting situation. I am white passing and I grew up in Colombia, where all the shows were dubbed into Spanish, so people on TV looked and sounded somewhat like me for the most part," Gomez, 23, told TODAY. "It’s when I started seeing families on TV switching into Spanish or listening to the music I grew up on or eating the food I loved that I realized what I had been missing."
In 2017, Gomez became a breakout star for her portrayal of Elena Alvarez, a gay, Latina teenager on the reboot of the sitcom "One Day at a Time."
As an ally to the LGBTQ community, Gomez said she was aware this would likely be the first time many Latinx, LGBTQ youth saw someone on a popular show who represented them.
"Portraying Elena always felt more like a huge honor than a responsibility," she said. "Having so many LGBTQ people have a hand in her story, from the people she’s based on to our writers to our incredible fans, made it so that I mostly just had to listen and be malleable, which is really just my job both as an actor and as an ally."
"One Day at a Time" follows Elena's coming out story in a way that many LGBTQ youth can relate to, from getting immediate love and acceptance from some family members, to navigating discrimination from others who don't approve.
"From what I hear, Elena has totally challenged traditional beliefs and her existence has been the catalyst for a lot of tough conversations that maybe wouldn’t have happened without her," Gomez said. "A little bit of imposter syndrome was normal for me while I listened to people tell me such vulnerable stories about what she meant to them or their own journeys because I didn’t create her, but man, do I feel lucky I got to take that ride with her and with everyone that allowed me to have a peek into their lives."
While landing the role of Elena was a dream opportunity for Gomez, the job also came with another perk: working with Oscar winner Rita Moreno, who plays her grandmother.
"Working with Rita was a dream, but not because she was a legend. Okay fine, that was pretty cool too," Gomez said. "But the thing about Rita is that she’s not just a legend. She’s deliciously goofy, she flows from childlike to the wisest person in the room effortlessly, she’s wildly generous with her time and knowledge, she’s bold, funny and affectionate. She’s so much more than what people know about her and I am so grateful I got to spend half a decade in her wonderful presence."
Gomez said she feels representation is improving, but said there's still "a lot of room for growth" when it comes to creating parts for Latinx actors that don't revolve around stereotypes.
"I'd love to see a world in which Colombia is not immediately or solely associated with drugs. Clearly I’m biased, but Colombia is one of my favorite places in the world!" she said. "The food is insane, the people are kind, the sense of community is strong, the biodiversity is the second highest in the world, the music will get you to get up and dance si o si! I could go on forever."
"Go to la Feria de las Flores, jump on a horse for a cabalgata and then have a good bandeja paisa," she said. "I guarantee you’ll fall in love."