Melissa Barrera: The SAG-AFTRA Strike Has Taught Me How to Prioritize Rest and Self-Care
Melissa Barrera is a Mexican actress who started her career taking roles in telenovelas before moving to New York to study musical theater at New York University's Tish School of the Arts. She is best known for her role as Lynda "Lyn" Hernandez in Starz's "Vida" (2018-2020), and had her first breakout Hollywood role playing Vanessa in Lin-Manuel Miranda's film adaptation of "In The Heights." She has since scored several lead roles, including playing Sam Carpenter in the fifth and sixth "Scream" films. She also starred in Netflix's 2022 "Keep Breathing," played Julie Rivers in "Bed Rest," and had the title role in the film musical "Carmen" alongside Paul Mescal.
For Latine Heritage Month, we asked women we admire how they are prioritizing descansar and restoration amid today's prevailing grind culture. Read Barrera reflect, in her own words, ahead.
It's been around 12 years since I first started working in TV and film. And it's always like, "OK, but what's next?" It's hardly ever been about living in the moment for me. Instead, I'm almost always living in the future. And while it can be exhausting, it's also part of the ambition. I used to struggle with being satisfied and being content with what I had. But at the same time, it's hard to find that balance, because how will you ever get anywhere else if you don't have the ambition to keep moving forward or to keep wanting to move up the ladder?
It's hardly ever been about living in the moment for me. Instead, I'm almost always living in the future.
As Latinos, we have this thing deeply ingrained in us of how do we continue to climb up? How do we better our situation for future generations? It's just nonstop work. We work now, so that we can enjoy life later, which is very much the motto of the United States as a country. It sucks because it means people are working until their late 60s, and in some cases, long into their 70s, until they can finally retire and enjoy life. But by then, you're already old, and that's if you make it to live that long.
While there is something beautiful about grind culture if it's for the betterment of a community, there should always be limits. I'm finding with this SAG-AFTRA strike, that this is the first time in my life that I've been OK with time off. Since the beginning of my career, I've always been very anxious whenever I have time off. I've always felt a lot more comfortable in the grind. I grew up watching my mom work full-time and juggle being a mother of four daughters. I never understood how she managed to do it all and still be present for us. That was my example, so I'm kind of the same way. But I know now that I've always had a problem with resting, because I associated rest with unemployment.
If you have a full-time job like an office job — where you get benefits and you can ask for time off and vacation days and you know you'll have a job to go right back to — that's one thing. That doesn't create the same anxiety as being an actor finishing a job and not actually knowing when you're going to land the next one. It all equates to uncertainty and financial security. And when you don't land the next job, it's easy to see that as a failure, and that's why I've always struggled with time off.
This time off during the SAG-AFTRA strike has felt like forced time off, like what we experienced three years ago when the pandemic first hit. But this time, my mindset is totally different. I feel like for the first time, I'm enjoying having this time to rest. But I'm also embracing that resting for me looks different than it might look for someone else. I'm not using this time off to do nothing or just sit at home and watch movies or binge on a series. It's been more like, I don't know how long this strike is going to last, so I don't know how much time I'll actually have off. It could be another week; it could be another month; it could be months. So, I asked myself, how am I going to use this time and still feel good about it and about myself afterward? I don't necessarily want to feel stagnant.
I feel like for the first time, I'm enjoying having this time to rest. But I'm also embracing that resting for me looks different than it might look for someone else.
I recently came back home to Austin after working in Ireland, and I wanted to get back into my routine. I go to the gym five to six times a week, and I've recently gotten into cryo chambers. I did the cold-water training for a job, and I just felt so good when I was doing it. Then the job ended and, like a lot of things, you move on from whatever you're doing. But I recently have been training so hard that I realized I needed something that's going to help my body recuperate faster. I got a membership at this wellness center that has cryo chambers, red light therapy, and infrared saunas. It also has compression and IVs, and they refer to these kinds of treatments as biohacking, because it's all about your biology. It affects everything from your skin to your circulation. I do the cryo chamber almost every day and the other treatments, like the sauna, at least once a week. It's become my self-care; it's balancing out with my workouts, and I find that it's been great for me during this time.
During this time off, I also decided to take French lessons. I always wanted to learn how to speak French, and I have the time now. I'm also taking guitar lessons. I'm using this time that I don't usually have to do things that I've always wanted to do. I'm able to be present doing these things, because I'm not experiencing the stress and anxiety that I normally would going this long not working, and it's largely due because I'm in a better position economically than I have been in the past. I have financial security right now — something that took me years to get — and I also know that when the strike is over, I have a couple of jobs lined up. I didn't finish the last movie I was shooting. It's allowed me to appreciate and be present with this time, it's allowed me to prioritize rest, and be a little bit more purposeful about the things I'm choosing to do during this time off. I'm even becoming more mindful of how I eat.
I've been learning as I get older that I can't just keep putting sh*it into my body all the time. There must be a balance. It's not like I'm going to cut it completely out of my life — I refuse to be that strict. But I am making sure to be a bit more purposeful about trying to eat healthy, which is the first time in my life I'm really doing this, and I'm 33. My body is my home for this lifetime. I've got to be kind to it, and I've got to take care of it.
This strike is hard for a lot of people. It's a privilege that I have a job to go back to, along with savings.
I know that where I'm at spiritually is also playing a role in why I've been so calm during this time off. The moment everyone on the last film I was working on received the call that we were getting off work because of the strike, I thought to myself, "We could all use a break." I'm speaking very specifically about the last job I was on. We had been shooting for almost three months already, and I was like yeah, I think this is a great time to take a breather and come back reenergized. But I also recognize that not everyone was working and not everyone has a job to go back to. This strike is hard for a lot of people. It's a privilege that I have a job to go back to, along with savings. I know that during this time I'm not going to lose my house or my car. I know that I have money to put food on the table, and I know this is a great privilege.
I have work lined up, but I wouldn't say that's always been the case. I'm also not the most recognizable actress yet, but I don't care anymore. I used to care about being recognized and being seen, and it always just led me to feel heartbroken. I stopped focusing on that, because that's not what motivated me to become an actor in the first place. Regardless of whether I'm on a big project or a much smaller project, the feeling of pride I take in my work is not correlated to its success. It can be the most successful thing and I can be super embarrassed about it. Or it can be a tiny show or film that you're actually very proud of that not a lot of people saw, but when people tell you that they're fans of it, you can tell that it means something to them. That it created the representation they needed to feel seen — that was "Vida" for me. And it still is that for me to this day.
The other day I was on a plane coming back from LA to Austin and I was reading a book, and this stewardess slips me a note on my table and it read, "I love all your work. I loved you on 'Vida.' Thank you for flying with us." That just made my whole day. Those kinds of interactions are why I do what I do and why I am intentional about choosing the right projects that are actually going to impact people in a deep way.
I'm aware that once this strike is over, I'm going to be nonstop working for the next six months or so, and because of that, I'm trying my best to be present. I feel like this time off and this resting period has taught me that I must make a bigger effort to keep this self-care/self-love lifestyle going while I'm at work, because I often have a hard time doing both. I'm either working and focused on that, or I'm resting and focused on self-care. I rarely can make room for both. But I also know that it's doable, so I just have to make a bit more effort in making this a common practice, because my life is better when I do. My quality of life, my mental health, and my physical health are all better when I'm prioritizing self-care. I feel like it will also remind me that I do have a life outside of being an actor.
I'm also learning how important it is to listen to my body. The body is wise. It will tell us when something is wrong. It will tell us when we need to slow down, and when you don't listen to it, that's when it starts acting up. I think for a lot of Latinas, coming from very matriarchal families, we're taught that we have to do it all. I feel as Latinas, we're not taught to rest, so when we do, we often feel guilty about it or punish ourselves for it. There's shame associated with resting, but I think we're finally realizing that our mental health and our well-being depend on it. And so, we're finally taking the time to listen to ourselves, to be a little selfish at times, and to finally put ourselves first. The world is not going to end if I take a day or two off to just focus on myself — it will go on.
Men have always convinced us that we have to be everything for everyone. America Ferrera's monologue in the "Barbie" movie said it best. While her statement was true for all women, I feel that it's especially true for Latinas, which is why it was so perfect that America — a Latina — was the one to deliver it. It's time that we stop feeling shame about putting ourselves first. In the end, it's important to take the time that you need to rest and to reflect so that you can ultimately be OK with yourself.
— As told to Johanna Ferreira