By Kim Hogstrom
Photos by Todd Williamson
If you think your teen years were difficult, just imagine the lives of Latino and Latina teens growing up today in gritty, unforgiving East Los Angeles. East Los High, the new Hulu Original series that examines these uncharted waters, is currently shooting its third season. Houston actress Vannessa Vasquez—a talented young woman who is making Houston proud—plays one of the series’ lead characters.
Vasquez plays Camila Barrios, a bisexual first-generation Mexican-American teen who falls in love with her best friend, Jocelyn, played by Andrea Sixtos. Among the many groundbreaking subjects tackled, the series takes an honest look at how the sexual orientation of family members affects the traditional Latin household—be they gay, bisexual, or straight. While skillfully written and beautifully shot, it is apparent that nothing is out of bounds in this series.
East Los High is enjoying an overwhelmingly positive response from viewers, academicians, and LGBT organizations across the nation. A recent Adweek.com viewer poll reported that it is the number-one digital series, beating out Orange Is the New Black by 64 percent. It is also one of the most popular shows among teenage youth, singlehandedly attracting more than one million unique views.
Significantly, it also the first series to be shot in English while utilizing all-Latino/a actors, writers, and producers. East Los High has hit a nerve and is ringing true with America’s youth.
As one of the series’ leading actresses, Vasquez’s talent is being noticed. At the Daytime Emmy Award nominations in April, she was nominated as Outstanding Performer in a New Approaches Drama Series for her portrayal of Camila.
We had the opportunity to speak with Vasquez about her life, her relationship to her East Los High character, her impact on American teens, and more.
Kim Hogstrom: Tell us about your background in Texas. How did your upbringing influence the character you play in East Los High?
Vannessa Vasquez: Until I was 10 years old, I lived in Richmond, just southwest of Houston. I grew up in a very Mexican-American, blue-collar working-class family, just like my character Camila.
What are your favorite elements of the character…and your least favorite?
There’s a lot to like about my character. She’s fun, sexy, ambitious, and also free-spirited—she doesn’t want to be held down. She has a tendency to want to always be in control. If not, she rebels.
How much of the character is you?
Maybe 25 percent is me. I’m more easygoing than Camila when it comes to life. However, when it comes to getting what I want, I can be very strong-willed, just like her.
There is so little kindness in Camila’s life and the lives of her friends. They seem to be fending for themselves. Is this an accurate look into the lives of our teens?
I think so. There is a lot of pressure teens have to deal with today. They are battling feeling like adults while the world treats them like children. There’s a lot of pressure, having to do what is morally right in some people’s eyes, [which may conflict with] what they feel is right to do. We don’t give teens enough credit when it comes to that, I feel.
Camila’s sexuality…is she gay, bi? Is this difficult for you? She seems so lost.
To be honest, I’m not sure. She does develop a strong love for her best girlfriend, but she also likes her guy friend. In playing Camila, I would always feel a void, [like she just wants] to know what love is because she never really got it from either of her parents.
What do your friends ask you about playing Camila? How do you handle the sexual aspects of playing a bisexual teen?
They typically ask me if it was hard to kiss another girl. I tell them that “love is love. It doesn’t change from one human being to another.” As an actress, you have to surrender to [whomever] your character needs to love.
Why do you think the show is so successful?
The show is successful because it talks about real-life situations that no one else is shining light on. It’s also the first show of its kind to introduce young Latinos, and especially Latinas, as leading characters—showing what it’s like growing up as a Latin-American.
What are your dreams for the future?
I want to continue to make and tell stories that inspire the masses; to be a voice for those that can’t stand up for themselves. Eventually, I want to play a superhero.
When you come back to Houston, what do you like to do?
I mostly take the time to visit all my family and friends. I have a huge family, and since I don’t get to see them often, it’s important for me to spend quality time. I catch up with the typical “Who’s getting married to whom?” and “Who’s having a baby now?” [Laughs]
I have a great support team with my friends and family, so I love spending all the time I can there. I also go to different schools in the area to speak to the students about following their dreams. I love that I am in a position to inspire others to do what is written in their hearts.
Season One and Two of East Los High is now streaming for free at hulu.com/eastloshigh. Season Three is scheduled to premiere this summer.
Kim Hogstrom is a guest contributor to OutSmart magazine.