Julissa Calderon Brings Afro-Latinidad to the Fore on 'Gentefied'
The Dominican American star is on a mission to prove to girls who look like her that anything is possible.
Julissa had different plans. The Miami native intended to become a nurse, but after two semesters at the University of Florida, she realized she wasn't on the right path. "I look at my childhood pictures and I'm like, 'Who is that little girl? She knows what she wants,'" Julissa says. She wanted to act, so she switched to a double major in theater and telecommunications and eventually bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. "I have a lot of pride," she says. "That allowed me to be like, 'You will figure it out because you're that strong.'"
Now she's starring on Gentefied, one of Netflix's biggest new hits. Co–executive produced by America Ferrera, the dramedy follows a Mexican American family attempting to keep their taco shop afloat in rapidly gentrifying East L.A. Julissa plays Yessika, the girlfriend of Ana (one of the family's younger members). "There's so much of me that relates to Yessika," she says. "There are going to be so many brown girls who are going to be able to look at her and be like, 'I get her. I love her. She's honest.' She is a beautiful, unapologetic, queer Dominican girl."
Yessika was originally supposed to be Mexican, but that didn't stop Julissa from auditioning. "I did get passed on twice because I was very Dominican, but they kept calling me back. They ended up rewriting the character to be a Dominican girl from New York."
Having grown up with scant Afro-Latina representation on TV, Julissa is happy to be making an impact with Gentefied. "I definitely don't feel like I saw myself," she says. "I didn't see a brown girl with coarse, curly hair and big lips. I don't feel like I could connect with any particular person because no one looked like me." That changed once she was movies starring Rosie Perez. "Seeing her be so real and happy in her skin allowed me to understand that I could be exactly who I am and make it as far as she did." If Rosie could do it, she thought, then why couldn't she?
Before Gentefied, Julissa worked at Pero Like, BuzzFeed's Latinx channel. In 2017, she'd been auditioning for a different project at the company when someone introduced her to a Pero Like staffer. "I had no idea what BuzzFeed was," she says. "I was like, 'OK, sure.' I gave them my resume and headshot, and they called me a couple of weeks later."
For the next two years, she was simultaneously a producer, editor, director, and actress. Her videos gained a ton of traction for their relatability and authenticity. "My first video was called 'Pelo Bueno, Pelo Malo,' and it talked about our history with our hair," she says. "I honestly didn't think about it like, 'I'm going to do something for the community.' I was just speaking my truth."
The video got picked up by outlets like HuffPost and Vibe, so Julissa stuck to her instincts. "My first four videos were all very Dominican, where all the girls in it were brown girls, and it talked about my Latinidad and my truth. It allowed people to get a better understanding of what it is to be an Afro-Latino."
Though her viral video days are over, she has no plans to stop speaking her mind. "I have things that I want to produce, to write. [I want] little brown girls and black girls everywhere to see that you can do it as well. I'm going to work my ass off until my name is really a household name — not just within the Latinx community but within all communities. Everyone is going to know my name."