In 2021, Rachel Zegler made a name for herself after scoring the role of ‘Maria’ in West Side Story. As a 20-year old Colombian-American, this was a huge accomplishment for Zegler as there has evidently been a lack of Latina women in Hollywood. Only about 4.5% of speaking roles in Hollywood identify as Latino/a. However, with being a White Latina, Zegler experiences more privilege compared to darker skin Latinas, and this is an issue that she has acknowledged, unlike many other Latina actors. Reflecting on her own identity and childhood roles, Zegler has gained a lot of insight of what it means to be a White Latina in Hollywood and her role in eliciting change.
The 20-year-old actor and singer was a theater kid ever since she was young. After starring in school plays such as Legally Blonde and Beauty and the Beast Zegler eventually went viral in 2018 after posting a video on Twitter of herself singing a cover of “Shallow” from the film A Star is Born. After seeing a casting call on Twitter asking for Latino and Latina actors, Zegler took a leap of faith to audition for Steven Spielberg’s film West Side Story. Shortly after, she excitedly announced that she landed the role of ‘Maria’ on social media. Not only did Zegler gain a massive amount of attention, but audiences were thrilled to see an actual Latina-identifying actor being casted for the role, as previously the American actor Natalie Wood took on the role in the original in 1961. For Zegler, this was an incredible opportunity, especially because she identifies as Latina herself. As she mentioned in an interview with Vogue, “It’s something that’s mattered so much to me, being Latina—singing ‘I Feel Pretty’ and meaning it. I hope that young people everywhere will know that their features are gorgeous and their culture is beautiful.”
Yet, with this life changing opportunity came some hardships for Zegler. For one, she was criticized for being “too White” for the role, as Maria is supposed to be a tanned skinned Puertorriqueña. Instead of ignoring this critique, Zegler spoke up about it in Variety's Awards Circuit Podcast interview and acknowledged her privilege; "Because I'm a white Latina, I hold a lot of privilege…it falls on my shoulders to open up the doors for the people who aren't — or they are disenfranchised in this industry”. She went on to explain the importance of being able to be confident in her identity while also making it clear that she's well aware of the privileges that come with it. Zegler spoke very maturely about the issue of misrepresentation, especially in the Latinx community. It’s never something that is acknowledged in the entertainment industry, as oftentimes when a Latino is casted in a big film, the community celebrates the fact that the actor was casted in the first place. This is where the narrative needs to change, as not only do White looking Latinos exist, as Zegler further explains, “Authenticity in Latin identity comes in so many different shapes and sizes and colors.” With her role as Maria, she hopes to bring an authentic feel to her character, and show that she is more than just a pretty face. This is one of the few times any actress has spoken up about the issue of underrepresentation of darker skinned Latinx actors in the industry so openly.
For me, as a darker skinned Latina myself, it was empowering to hear Zegler speak passionately about the misrepresentation that occurs in Hollywood. Rather than ignore the criticism she received, Zegler instead acknowledged her privilege and offered space to move towards change. I believe Zegler has a bright future ahead of her, especially when it comes to changing the narrative of a dominated-White Hollywood industry.
Feature image sourced from Vouge Magazine.