Press Room

Nine Latinx Women Changing the World


rachel zegler wears a chenille suit with a black bow at her neck and her hair blowing to the side

Nathan Johnson

For Colombian American Rachel Zegler, landing the role of Maria in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a tale for the ages, but more precisely, one for this tech-saturated moment. Four years ago, when Zegler was 16, she learned via Twitter about an open casting call for the leads of the film, which comes out this December. “Musical theater has always meant expression to me. It makes me sit back in my seat and say, ‘How did they put all of that into words?’ ” says the 20-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist (piano, sax, guitar, and ukulele), whose self-written, recorded, and produced first single, “Let Me Try,” dropped this spring. Zegler was invited to audition IRL—her tape of herself singing “I Feel Pretty” and “Tonight” stood out among 30,000 submissions. It’s a milestone for Zegler and for the role—the 1957 Broadway production and the 1961 movie featured white actresses as the Puerto Rican lead. The significance isn’t lost on the proud Latina, who next stars as the title character in Disney’s live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and in 2023’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods, making her one of the few Latinas to appear in the superhero cinema canon. “We are not just the quirky side character who occasionally says a word in Spanish,” Zegler says. “We are the main character.”


an image of karla cornejo villavicencio in black and white with yellow contrast and a smaller mirror image of her in the corner


“The workers think there are people along the chain of command who are watching out for them, but melanin and accents are ineffective binding substances,” writes Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, 32, in her 2020 nonfiction debut The Undocumented Americans, which captures the interior struggles of undocumented immigrants, from day laborers in New York to families facing the Flint water crisis in Michigan. The book’s stories of quotidian indignities and deaths by a thousand cuts give much-needed depth to the pervasive one-note immigrant narratives: the frictionless achievement of the American Dream; kids in cages; stereotype-transmitting GIFs (Latin moms threatening corporal punishment with a chancla, or sandal, is a go-to). “There is hunger for acknowledgment of our experience that isn’t meme-ified,” explains Villavicencio, who sought to write about “experiences we don’t usually talk about that make us feel uncomfortable or angry, or that are funny or strange; and about healing from the problems of immigration.” Like the subjects in her book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Villavicencio, who was born in Ecuador, was undocumented for a time before ultimately receiving her green card in the fall of 2020. She navigated her upbringing in pan-Latin Queens, New York, in fear of discovery and deportation. And while she has less anxiety now, the unease remains: “It feels great and it also feels the same, because my parents are still undocumented. I still have the same heavy load.” As a former music writer—who aimed for her literary debut to be the equivalent of “Arctic Monkeys performing at Glastonbury” (Editor’s note: Nailed it)—she’s inspired by Jonathan Franzen, sure, but also truth-teller artists like Jay-Z. “He talks about the rags-to-riches story, but also says, ‘I’m in Paris getting fucked up because I have all these nightmares about the life I escaped.’ ” It is true that many immigrants come to the United States seeking refuge for themselves and their children from unspeakable suffering and insecurity in their home countries, but what Villavicencio knows firsthand is that life here is hopefully less lethal, but potentially harmful nonetheless.


elena rose is shown with blond, wavy hair, her head turned to the side wearing gold hoop earrings, a black turtleneck and gold necklaces

Prince & Jacob

Like her genre-bending music—from rap to ballads, in Spanish and English—singer-songwriter and performer Elena Rose is an unapologetic style shapeshifter. In the video for “Fenomenal,” she channels Marilyn Monroe with platinum waves and arched brows; in “No Voy a Cambiar,” she pays homage to Bad Bunny in vibrant prints and androgynous silhouettes. It’s rare for any artist to occupy multiple musical genres, but Rose, who cowrites and releases her own songs while co-producing and co-songwriting for others, knows no other way. “If I am breaking any barriers, it’s because I’m being myself,” says the 26-year-old.“ That’s the hardest thing to do in this industry, because everybody wants to tell you what to be and what to do.” It’s paid off for the Miami-born artist, who grew up in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Videos for her own songs attract millions of views, as do her hits for chart-spanning artists like Selena Gomez, Daddy Yankee, and J.Lo. “Historically, there have been very few Latina songwriters and even fewer producers,” says Leila Cobo, author of Decoding “Despacito”: An Oral History of Latin Music. “For years, the norm was to turn to men to write songs. That’s changing, and it’s because of women like Elena.”


a photo illustration shows silvia vásquez lavado climbing a mountain

Lisa Kristine

In 2016, 24-year-old Habló Rodriguez Diaz spent three weeks trekking from Kathmandu to base camp at Mount Everest with other survivors of childhood sexual abuse and trafficking, as part of a trip organized by the San Francisco nonprofit Courageous Girls. Leading the group up the 17,500-foot slope was the organization’s founder, Silvia Vásquez-Lavado, 46, an entrepreneur and former eBay executive turned part-time mountaineer, who two years earlier made a promise to help women and girls heal from sexual and physical violence through mountain climbing. For Rodriguez Diaz, 29, who identifies as nonbinary, the experience was life-changing. “It showed me that I am my own pillar of strength,” they say. When Vásquez-Lavado set out to be surrounded by mountains 16 years ago —inspired by a vision during an ayahuasca ceremony—the intention was to heal from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse she suffered growing up in Peru. Within two months, in 2005, she made her first hike to Everest base camp, and she’s since become the first openly gay woman to ascend the Seven Summits—the highest mountains on each continent—and the first Peruvian woman to scaleMount Everest. “I’m not the strongest nor the fastest, but the mountains have revealed my resiliency,” says Vásquez-Lavado, whose memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain, comes out in February 2022 (and will become a film starring Selena Gomez). “The book and film will unmask the great pain and shame that was inflicted on me by sexual abuse, and how it created self-destructive behavior that hurt me and others,” she explains. “This is a powerful story about reclaiming our voices.”


yelaine rodriguez in a white lace dress with black flowers, against a pink backdrop

Elia Alba

a still from 'ebbó' shows one a person in gold leggings wearing wings and a mask embracing a person with a feathered mask wearing a beaded and diaphanous gown, standing in sand in front of the water

Courtesy of the artist

Hanging on the wall where the New York– and Amsterdam-based artist Yelaine Rodriguez sits for her Zoom calls is a cream-colored crochet tapestry. “See that? My great-great-grand-mother, who was born in 1901, made that,” she says. “I’d watch her crochet for hours. It was her way of doing art.” Rodriguez, 30, grew up between the Dominican Republic and the Bronx; an older sister would take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I loved the larger-than-life statues in the Greek and Roman galleries, even though I didn’t see my people in them,” she says. Today, Rodriguez’s sought-after work—wearable art, video installations, performance, and photography—has been featured at the American Museum of Natural History and in the first national large-scale survey of Latinx contemporary art at New York’s El Museo del Barrio. It centers on Afro-Caribbean and Black American experiences—as seen in her installations, which include performers wearing clothing hand-sewn by Rodriguez (who studied fashion design), inspired by the colors and symbolism of santería and voodoo. “I gravitate to those religions because I feel they were acts of resistance by enslaved Africans,” Rodriguez says. Her experience of “unbelonging” in the U.S.—where she is seen as an immigrant despite being born here—and the discrimination she witnessed in the Dominican Republic against Haitians also informs her work.“Yelaine uncovers truths while inviting viewers into her world, expressing her narrative about being an Afro-Latina from the Bronx,” says curator, art adviser, and author Maria Brito. “Growing up, I always asked myself, why is it so bad to be Black, to be a person of color? We’re so beautiful, we have so much culture, and yet we are so oppressed,” Rodriguez says. Which is why she is committed to “using my platform to bring historic narratives forward in a new way while still carrying them with me.”


a photo of denice frohman shows the poet with dark, short curly hair, wearing one earring, a white t shirt and an unbuttoned short sleeve shirt with white pants

David Evan McDowell

“It didn’t matter that I married the game / or slept with a ball under my arm, Mom said / Girls don’t hoop, they wear hoops.” That is the first line in Puerto Rican–Jewish poet Denice Frohman’s poem “Lady Jordan,” which recounts her experiences playing basketball as a child on New York City’s pick-up courts. (She was so good she earned the poem’s title as a nickname from her street-ball peers and later played professionally in Puerto Rico.) “Poetry found me at a time when I was questioning my sexuality and pushing back against really narrow notions of womanhood and cultural identity,” says Frohman, 35, a 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, who has performed on some of the biggest stages, including the Obama White House, the Apollo Theater, and Lincoln Center. “Spoken word and poetry was a harbor for me to discover who I was and then stand unapologetically in that truth.” In high school, Frohman wasn’t exposed to Latinx poets (“I graduated with a dangerous misconception that Latinx people didn’t write poetry”), but she was drawn to the power of performance thanks to Grammy winner Tito Puente, whom her father, a Latin jazz musician, gigged with for 30 years. “I’d sit in awe of how an artist could captivate a room,” she re-calls. When she was 17, she went to the famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe on New York’s Lower East Side, and “a whole new world opened up—I heard poetry that sounded like the guys on the corner that I would pass walking to school.” It wasn’t just the poetry that drew her in. It was also what she found in “the community that holds you up.” She later came out at age 19 at the cafe in a poem she performed—one of the proudest moments of her life.“Language is what gives our experiences a kind of home, and there was something inside of me that needed an outlet,” Frohman says. “We know there is a power in expressing ourselves, especially for marginalized communities to bear witness to each other’s experiences.”


jessica alba

Dia DipasupilGetty Images

This year, Jessica Alba joined rare air—as a woman, and especially as a Latina—when she took her nine-year-old consumer goods business, The HonestCompany, public with an IPO that reportedly raised $412.8 million for a valuation of $1.44 billion. The idea to create a company around reducing toxicity in household, beauty, and baby products is more commonplace now than it was 13 years ago, when the actress first considered it. Back then, “there was nothing but hurdles,” says Alba, 40, reflecting on her company’s origins just a few hours after ringing the NASDAQ bell inNew York City. “The difference between entrepreneurs and everyone else is that you always find another way—a door closes, so you slam through a

ime to tell him how much she admired his fighting spirit as a “survivor of segregation, racism, and poverty. The way he and my grandmother—who is still alive—persevered and pushed through allowed me to be who I am today. I thanked him.”


a photo illustration shows two mirror images of congressman escobar

By MJ Calixtro

“I feel about El Paso the same way I feel about the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island,” says Representative Veronica Escobar, a third-generation Mexican American and the first woman elected to represent Texas’s Sixteenth Congressional District.“El Paso is one of the most American, patriotic spaces in our country. We are a community of love, and we lead with love,” says Escobar, 52, who took office in 2019, after winning the seat vacated by Beto O’Rourke. She was the first of two Latinas from Texas to be elected to Congress. For more than 25 years, Escobar has served El Paso as an educator, volunteer, and public servant, with a focus on equitable health care, gun violence prevention, and compassionate immigration. She now advocates for those same issues in Congress, working on legislation to “reenvision the border and re-instill humanity in our processes there,”she says, while aiming to “uplift the familial, historic, educational, and economic ties of the region.” Her experience navigating the El Paso–Juárez region, home of the largest bilingual, binational work-force in the Western Hemisphere—not to mention her time as an English-lit professor—has benefited her in DC, where agendas are often advanced through connective narratives. “Representative Escobar has a special ability to unite colleagues of different ideologies around shared values,” says Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. “When she speaks, people listen.”


gloria calderón kellett is shown wearing a red blazer, white blouse, black pants and black tie

Luz Gallardo

Here’s how the EGOT-winning legend Rita Moreno describes Gloria Calderón Kellett, the first-generation Cuban American show-runner of the critically acclaimed One Day at a Time reboot that ran for four seasons (starring Moreno): “Gloria is one of those stubborn, strong, opinionated women who has decided if she has to do it on her own, then she will do it on her own. For that she has my deepest affection and admiration.” Calderón Kellett has also earned the admiration of thousands of followers on Twitter, where she offers—as her “Tia Glo” persona—late-night advice and pep talks to creators on the come-up. It’s also where she holds the powers-that-be in the industry accountable for the lack of inclusive representation. “I always try to conduct myself with honesty and kindness, and I’m not trying to take anyone down,” says Calderón Kellett, 46, who, along with cowriter Natasha Rothwell, sold her first feature film, We Were There, Too, to HBO Max last year. “I’m just saying, ‘If you are committed to change—because you say you are—I’m going to let you know some things you can do.’ ” She’s doing the work, too, first with the historic Latinx reboot of One Day at a Time, and now with her new movie and a slate of forthcoming series and features focused on narratives that elevate the traditionally marginalized. It’s a drive partly fueled by her parents’ journey to the U.S. from Cuba. They were sent as children through a refugee program started by the U.S. State Department and the Catholic Church called Operation Pedro Pan. “To see on TV a version of our community that I don’t know to be true, it’s like, I can’t allow it,” Calderón Kellett explains. “Not with the sacrifice that my family made to flee a country that was being devastated so that I could be here today to speak freely.”

This article appears in the September 2021 issue of ELLE.


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