Celebrate Latinx Heritage Month with People CHICA's LatinXcellence series, spotlighting the incredible women who are changing the world through their art and activism. Our first nominee? Selenis Levya, star of Orange Is the New Black and advocate for LGBTQ rights.

By Lena Hansen
September 16, 2019 02:23 PM

Here at People CHICA we celebrate our Latinidad 365 days a year, but during Latinx Heritage Month, we go extra hard. Established in 1988, Latinx Heritage Month recognizes the generations of Latinx Americans who have positively influenced and enhanced our society. All month long, we’ll be celebrating with a series called #LatinXcellence, highlighting women who are making a difference in Latinx culture today through their art, work and activism.

When we think of Latin excellence, we think of Selenis Leyva, the Cuban-born actress of Dominican descent best known for her role as inmate Gloria Mendoza in Orange Is the New Black. Next year, she’ll play the mother of the commander-in-chief of the United States in Diary of a Female President, but in the meantime, she’ll continue to fight for the LGBTQ community and women behind bars.

“You have to use your platform, your voice,” Leyva, 47, told People CHICA earlier this year. “Playing incarcerated women, we were given the opportunity to work with the Women’s Prison Association, and we had a day when we delivered backpacks for the kids of these women for back to school. We spent time with them and had conversations with them. That helps you realize how important it is to tell these stories. This is life — there are people behind bars that are women, that are mothers and have children on the outside, that deserve their stories to be told.”

(Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)

For People CHICA’s Latina Love Project last year, Leyva and her transgender sister, Marizol, opened up about Marizol’s coming out process and transformation. “The reality is that most transgender people continue to struggle with acceptance,” Selenis said in 2015, reflecting on the famous Vanity Fair cover where Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender. “Most will not be celebrated and put on magazine covers. I feel sadness today because the majority of the trans community struggle to simply get decent health care, never mind public acceptance. … Today, I hope we don’t lose sight that this is not the norm for your average transgender person. Let’s continue to move forward. Let’s continue to educate. Let’s continue to have conversations. Let’s not forget how the majority live.”

Getty Images

Besides breaking stereotypes with her diverse roles and showing love to the LGBTQ community and women in prison, the actress is also a fantastic example of self-love in action, speaking openly about celebrating her Afro-Latinidad. “I’m Afro-Latina, and as much as I was made to feel less-than growing up by my own extended family, I am proud of the curves, I’m proud of my wide nose, of my full lips, of my booty,” she says. “I’m proud! Now is the time to celebrate that.”

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