Rachel Zegler on Responsibility and Privilege as a White Latina in Hollywood

Rachel Zegler, the young actress who plays Maria in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, has become what many would consider the biggest breakout star of the year. Not only has she captured audiences with her acting range and impressive singing skills, but she's already working on her next project playing the title role in Disney's live-action adaptation of Snow White. If Zegler is nominated for best actress, she could become the youngest Latina nominee in Academy Award history. With that said, Zegler hasn't been embraced by everyone in the community. In fact, there are quite a few critics who don't believe Zegler is "Latina enough" to have been given this role at all. In a recent interview on Variety's Awards Circuit Podcast, the actress chatted with Variety's Film Awards Editor Clayton Davis on taking on the iconic role of Maria and the privileges that come with being a white Latina in Hollywood.

Toward the later half of the interview, Davis goes on to address a lot of the controversy around Zegler landing the role of Maria, as she is half Colombian and half white. He poses the question to her about why there still seems to be such a lack of understanding when it comes to what a Latinx is. Zegler takes this moment to not only address the narrow view and understanding folks still have surrounding Latinidad, but also to own up about her white Latina privilege and the responsibilities that come with that.

"People find comfort in boxes, is really what I've learned, and people found comfort in the bubbles they were filling out for standardized tests. And I don't understand it, because they made me uncomfortable," Zelger says. "Because I'm a white Latina, I hold a lot of privilege, and if that's the conversation people want to have, about my privilege in this industry, then I am absolutely welcome to have that conversation. Because yeah, it falls on my shoulders to open up the doors for the people who aren't — or they are disenfranchised in this industry. Having Ariana [DeBose] at the forefront of a beautiful film this season is an incredible thing and hopefully not the last of its kind for a long time. Where we have to have this conversation of, oh, an Afro-Latina as a lead for the first time since Ariana DeBose. I don't want that conversation to ever take place again. It's pointless to box people and say that you're not this enough or you're not that enough. What dictates that? Who dictates that?"

Regarding Zegler's biracial and bicultural identity, the actress admits that she's grown to resent constantly being referred to as half and half. She believes that her identity is her own.

"You know, yeah, my dad is white — he's American. His family has been in this country for many, many, many years. And the same can't be said for my other side of the family. I'm more immersed in my Colombian culture than I've ever been immersed in my American culture, so why does someone else get to tell me what I am?" she asks. "I don't know, I grew up in a house that spoke the language. It was never really taught to me, because there was this idea from my abuelita since my mom was a kid and when I was a kid, that you will be American. You will speak English. You will go to an American school and you will get a good job and make money and have a family. And that's the life that's set up for you before you're born."

Zegler talks about the importance of being able to carve out your own identity while also making it clear that she's well aware of the privileges that come with being a Latina who looks like her — especially in Hollywood, an industry that still to this day prefers to give leading roles to white Latinas as opposed to Black or Indigenous Latinas.

"And I just don't really understand why people think that certain facets of your life dictate your identity. You know, the thing about my identity is that it's my own. And this is the way that I navigate through the world, and nobody knows my day-to-day struggle," she says. "Like I said, I'm a white Latina. I don't get stopped on the street for the way that I look. That's my privilege, but when I speak Spanish on the subway, I've been spit on. I've been told to go back to where I came from, even when I was born in suburban New Jersey. It doesn't matter to these people. But they're the same people that will hide behind a profile on Twitter and tell me that because my dad is American or because my mom wasn't born in Colombia or because I wasn't born in Colombia that my identity is invalid."

The 20-year-old actress believes that there's no point in fighting with folks who obviously already made up their minds about how they choose to perceive people. Her advice to young Latinx folks is to focus on how you feel about yourself, the way you navigate your own identity, and how you advocate for yourself and others.

"And like I said, I'm a white Latina in an industry that is not necessarily kind to Latinas but definitely more kind to white Latinas than anything, and so it becomes my job to make sure that those doors are open to other Latinos who are not necessarily — you know, they don't fix the box," she adds.

While we hear a lot of white women these days acknowledging their privileges and making efforts to pass the mic to women of color, we don't necessarily hear enough white Latinas — particularly in Hollywood — publicly acknowledging the privileges that come with being white Latinx while also owning up to the responsibilities that come with that. According to a recent Pew Research study, Latinxs with darker skin report more experiences of discrimination than Latinxs with lighter skin color. This isn't anything we didn't already know. And yet the white Latinx conversation still tends to be missing the mark when it comes to responsibility.

The truth is that while being white Latinx could come with constantly having your identity and heritage questioned, it also comes with privilege — that privilege being not facing the systemic racism that Black Latinxs do. They don't get stopped in the street because of the color of their skin. They are the first ones considered for Hollywood roles, and they still meet a lot of the Eurocentric beauty standards placed on women. This is why so many folks were furious when Selena Gomez landed the cover for Elle's Latinx Heritage Month issue because it just felt like more of the same. And while Ariana DeBose playing Anita in West Side Story has been major, the truth is if she were given the role of Maria, a lot of racist people would have been pissed. We're clearly still not there yet. But it's refreshing to see a young actress like Zegler understanding the responsibility in using her platform to open doors for others. Simply acknowledging your privilege isn't enough anymore. We should be past that by now, and in 2022, it just sounds like bragging. It's the work that needs to be done after acknowledging privilege that matters, and Zegler seems to be prepared to do that. You can't make a public statement like that without expecting the community to eventually hold you accountable. So, trust that they will!