‘Celebrating Latinx Heritage Month: Navigating Hollywood & The Stage’ event welcomes TV star Maria Canals-Barrera to campus
AU Students for Change hosts conversation with ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’ actress to discuss her experiences in Hollywood as a Latina woman
Maria Canals-Barrera, known for her acting roles on Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “Camp Rock,” joined the AU community for a conversation on navigating Hollywood as a Latina actress on Oct. 6.
The event was hosted by AU Students for Change and co-sponsored by Latinos En Acción, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Kennedy Political Union. It was moderated by Carly Olmo, the treasurer of LULAC and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Affairs.
Born and raised in Miami and of Cuban heritage, Canals-Barrera said she always had a passion for acting and that she participated in theater in high school. She received a theatrical scholarship at the University of Miami and graduated with a degree in theater arts.
Canals-Barrera described the TV and film industry as “tortuous and wonderful.” She said she is grateful for all of the experiences she’s had, especially on “Wizards of Waverly Place.”
“Part of it is getting to be part of some shows that are so lasting and that make such a difference,” Canals-Barrera said. “And that you guys still remember and love and you brought me here and that’s just awesome.”
“Wizards of Waverly Place,” starring Selena Gomez, ran on Disney Channel from 2007 to 2012 and followed a wizard family with three teenagers in New York City. The series finale racked in almost 10 million viewers, making it the most viewed Disney Channel finale of all time.
Canals-Barrera said she considers her character Theresa Russo from “Wizards of Waverly Place” to be her most impactful role.
“(It was) very rare that there was a woman who was the mom on a show who happened to be of Mexican heritage, where it was part of her but not like, let’s do everything about that,” Canals-Barrera said.
She discussed issues in the industry, where many roles are solely focused on the character’s minority identity and not on other aspects of their person.
“But (TV and film) hasn’t been like… here’s an American story about an American hospital or American law company… where a lot of the cast happens to be people that are of a minority background without it being a focus,” Canals-Barrera said.
While Latinx Heritage Month is celebrated annually from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Canals-Barrera said, “I celebrate (Latinx heritage) every day of my life.”
As a Latina actress, Canals-Barrera discussed the challenges faced by many people of minority backgrounds trying to succeed in the business.
“If (casting directors) didn’t think of this character being somebody who happens to be of Latin heritage, then they won’t even think of bringing you on… It’s unfortunate because a lot of great actors didn’t get seen for a lot of stuff,” she said. “It's an industry that puts people in boxes to begin with.”
However, Canals-Barrera said this aspect of the industry is in the process of changing and becoming more inclusive as representation improves. She hopes for casting based on 90 percent talent and 10 percent what someone looks like.
“I would love if the door was wide open for all kinds of people to do their thing and if they convince you, they should get the part,” she said.
Canals-Barrera ended the evening with advice on how to advocate for oneself in spaces where others may not be listening to your voice as much.
“The way, in my opinion, that true change happens and understanding between people is to operate with integrity and honesty and excellence . . . Who you are in your behavior and in your values and how you treat people,” she said. “That’s what’s going to make somebody respect you for real.”