Melissa Barrera in "Abigail" Is Proof We Need More Latines in Horror

Bernard Walsh/Universal Pictures/Photo illustration by Becky Jiras
Bernard Walsh/Universal Pictures/Photo illustration by Becky Jiras

The lack of Latine representation in film today is disappointing when you consider Latines accounted for 29 percent of moviegoers in the States in 2020. And here's a fun fact you probably didn't know: Latines also represent 26 percent of horror movie audiences, compared with 20 percent for other genres, according to a recent survey. Still, there's a marked lack of Latine actors starring in horror films. But Melissa Barrera's career has been challenging that. The horror and suspense queen has starred in several films within the genre in just the past few years, including "Scream," "Scream IV," "Bed Rest," and "Your Monster."

Her latest role is as Joey in "Abigail," a gory vampire film released April 19 about a group of criminals assigned to kidnap the 12-year-old daughter of a crooked millionaire. Like a lot of Barrera's roles, Joey isn't your typical in-your-face Latina character. She's a war veteran with a dream to reunite with her son; she's a character who could have been played by any actor regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender but whom Barrera beautifully made her own.

"I've always thought that movies should be an accurate reflection of what the world looks like, and so I think as a community we've kind of been missing in that regard," Barrera says of the lack of Latine representation in Hollywood films. "We've kind of been pushed to the side and relegated to smaller roles in all genres but specifically in the horror genre, too. . . . So, it's nice for me as a Mexican woman to be able to get roles that weren't necessarily written for somebody like me, but they believed in me enough and gave me the opportunity. It's my favorite kind of representation, honestly."

Before diving into suspense, drama, and horror movies, and after her early career days in Mexican telenovelas, Barrera starred in films and shows that were heavily marketed as Latine projects, like her roles as Lyn in the Starz drama series "Vida," created by Tanya Saracho, and Vanessa in Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights."

But those films, she says, were difficult to get off the ground. "Movies that have all Latino leads don't necessarily do well at the box office all the time. It's always been a conundrum of: what is the thing we have to figure out?" she says. "When something is marketed as the Latino thing that everybody should watch and support, it does two things, in my opinion: It turns off a lot of people. Because it's like you don't tell me what to do. You don't tell me what to watch or support. And then it also puts a lot of pressure on the project to represent the entirety of the community — which is impossible to do."

It wasn't until Barrera started taking on roles in films and series that weren't marketed as Latine projects that she really started to see her career take off. We have started to see more Latine stars take on roles in horror films, like Jenna Ortega in Netflix's "Wednesday," Justina Machado in "The Horror of Dolores Roach," and Jaden Michael in "Harlan Coben's Shelter" and "Vampires vs. the Bronx." Barrera's characters stand apart, though, as she's often the lone survivor who makes it in the end.

"I think audiences really appreciate that kind of representation. It's an honor for me to be able to do that and fight for those kinds of roles," she says. "I usually gravitate and am attracted to roles that don't say 'Latina' in parentheses."

A perfect example of this was Barrera's role in "Scream" and "Scream IV," where she played Sam Carpenter, a character who wasn't originally Latina but was reimagined that way once she signed on.

"The father of my character is white. But they were like, why not? She could have a white dad. Her mom could be Latina. Why couldn't she be Latina? And so, I appreciate creatives that have a vision and can look further out and outside of the box," she says. "I think that's lacking in the industry, but fortunately there are people like Matt [Bettinelli-Olpin] and Tyler [Gillett] that give opportunities to people like me. I feel very fortunate, and I feel very honored, and I'm happy to represent. And I will continue to fight for more spaces for us and bring people with me."

Unfortunately, the Scream franchise fired Barrera last year after she made headlines for calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, which has so far killed over 33,000 Palestinians and 1,139 Israelis.

But the proud Mexican actress has refused to let the situation hinder her focus or her desire to advocate for others. Since the dismissal, Barrera has not only stood her ground in speaking out against what's happening in Gaza but also remained committed to her craft, landing lead roles and creating the type of representation she herself has always wanted to see in film and television.

"Even though Joey wasn't written as a Latina, I'm glad I got to play her, and I'm glad that I got to play a veteran, because there are so many Latinos in the Army, and so it's important to illustrate that reality as well," she says. "I do feel very lucky that I get to play these roles and I get to create more space for more people like us, because that is the goal for me. There are roles that are going to be written for Latinos, but if we just stick to the roles that someone has decided are going to be the only roles for us, then things are never going to change."

Johanna Ferreira is the content director for POPSUGAR Juntos. With more than 10 years of experience, Johanna focuses on how intersectional identities are a central part of Latine culture. Previously, she spent close to three years as the deputy editor at HipLatina, and she has freelanced for numerous outlets including Refinery29, O Magazine, Allure, InStyle, and Well+Good. She has also moderated and spoken on numerous panels on Latine identity.