America Ferrera on what she 'never thought' she'd achieve and encouraging young girls to dream big
America Ferrera has long been an advocate for other women both in and out of the film industry, and the "Superstore" actress is continuing to inspire with her latest move.
The actress teamed up with The North Face and Girl Scouts of the USA for the Move Mountains initiative, which is all about expanding young girls' ideas of what is possible for them and making opportunities more accessible to them.
AOL Entertainment caught up with America Ferrera, who is currently expecting her first child, in New York last week to talk about inspiring young women, pushing past her own limits and how she could've given Serena Williams a run for her money. Check out our full conversation below.
You just wrapped up a panel event for The North Face's new Move Mountains initiative. Talk to me about what it's all about.
This campaign that The North Face is doing in partnership with the Girl Scouts called Move Mountains is about shedding light on the incredible adventures and explorations that women are doing every day and have been doing for so long. The campaign is very necessary work and creating more images for young women that make it easier for them to see themselves doing that.
You were a Girl Scout back in the day. Do you see yourself in these young girls that were here today and are part of this campaign?
Absolutely! Especially here in New York City. I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs, but all of my school campuses were concrete surrounded by wire fences. Even where I grew up in California, the ocean felt very inaccessible and the mountains felt really far. Being in nature and exploring was about accessibility, and it wasn’t accessible to me as a "city slash suburb" kid. It wasn’t something that I explored until later, and when I did do that, it opened up so much for me about how I saw myself and how I saw my body as and how appreciative I was of what it was capable of and what it could do. I would think to myself, “I could’ve really used this as a kid.”
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Was there a moment specifically where your eyes were first opened up to that?
I grew up in California, and we’d go to the beach a couple times out of the year, but we’d play in the waves and were never allowed to swim past that. The ocean felt like this big, scary thing. Water sports were scary to me, too, and it seemed crazy that anyone would surf or swim in the ocean. But, when I started training for triathlons, I had to swim in the ocean, so I remember it was, like, 7 in the morning [and I was] in a wetsuit out hundreds of yards with a small group of teammates, and there was a part of me that was terrified and a part of me that couldn’t believe that I was this person. It’s Saturday, it’s 7 am, I’m in the middle of the ocean, and I just never thought I would be that person. I remember that moment feeling like it was possible to expand who I was.
Talk to me about the importance of imparting these messages on girls when they’re young.
Part of it is just seeing what’s possible and seeing women like you doing incredible things to start planting the seed of what’s possible. The other part is creating that accessibility, because we don’t all have that access to sports and nature and exploration. That physical experience of getting on the water, getting in a kayak, hiking a mountain … you start realizing you have everything you need.
And it has a mental effect, as well.
It totally has a mental effect, and I would say that what I learned in using my body in new challenging ways, I’ve applied to everything else in my life. I thought this was my limit, and I thought this was my threshold, but I could actually push so much further, and that’s gone into every aspect of my life. For these young women, those first-hand experiences of being able to do so much more than they could’ve ever imagined can translate into everything else they do.
Part of what makes the Girl Scouts so awesome is that the girls, of course, grow individually, but they also get to work together as teams and seeing you band together with women throughout your career, like at the Golden Globes in January, must really inspire them. Is that part of the message your sending with this initiative?
Absolutely. Sure, there are solitary things that you do out in the world and those things have their own value, but things that you do with other people and as a team are also so important. Like, when I didn’t want to get up and swim at 7 am on a Saturday, it became about, “But my friends are there, they’re waiting for me and, if I don’t show up, then I’m letting my team down.” Even as an adult, that camaraderie makes you feel stronger, because you’re emboldened by the people around you.
Who did you look up to when you were younger? Looking back, do you feel as though something was missing when it came to women you could emulate and see yourself in?
I didn’t see a lot of people that were exactly like me. I didn’t see a lot of women of color, a lot of Latina women or Latina-American women doing the thing that I wanted to be doing. But, what I learned to do for better or for worse, was to translate. I could see myself in so many other people’s journeys, and I could imagine for myself that if it’s possible for them then it could be possible for me. I learned to put myself in other people’s shoes. It wasn’t until later on that I realized, “Wow, you have to have a really strong imagination to go for things that you don’t necessarily see modeled for you.”
I think about how fortunate I am that certain opportunities came my way, but I can also feel for a lot of people that aren't doing the things that they might want to do and how that could really negatively impact how they feel. Also, you sort of see what you’re missing out on. I remember learning about Rosie Casals, who is a tennis Hall of Famer and won several Wimbledon titles and was Billie Jean King’s doubles partner. She was my height, she was Latina-American, her parents were immigrants. Had I known that there was this world-class tennis player that basically was me, I might’ve gone and played tennis!
You could’ve been the next Serena Williams!
[Laughs] I did have to do tennis for a movie role, and I was really good at it, but it was too late to really take it on. Had I read a children’s book about Rosie and thought, “Oh, my gosh! She’s my height, her parents came from Central America and she’s just like me,” then that sport would’ve felt so much more accessible to me. Who knows? Maybe I would’ve taken five classes and stuck my tennis racket in the garage, but maybe Serena would not be the champion and I would be the champion. [Laughs] I guess Serena really lucked out! That’s why it matters, though, that we see ourselves and we see the possibility for ourselves.
What do people say to you when they see you on the street or meet you? Is there a common message that fans bring up to you?
I’ve been so fortunate to play characters that have been empowering to people. Between “Real Women Have Curves,” “Ugly Betty” and the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” movies, they were unfortunately all the first time people were seeing someone like them on-screen. I feel so fortunate that I was in the right place at the right time to have those opportunities, so naturally people gravitate towards those characters that could be representative of their experience. While that feels great and flattering, it also sort of feels like we should be moving past and beyond the one or two movies were people feel seen. It only inspires me to continue to create more possibility and accessibility, because I shouldn’t be one of just a few women doing what I’m doing. There should be so many of us. There are also women across all industries who are doing incredible things, whose stories don’t get told, which is why this campaign is so important. The stories are there. The women are there doing incredible things, and it’s our job to tell those stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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