“OITNB” Star Selenis Leyva Empowers WPU Latinx Students


“OINTB” star Selenis Leyva speaks power words during Latinx celebration week.

Rebecca Lorenzo, Copy Editor

With Orange is the New Black (OITNB) star Selenis Leyva, what you see is what you get and what you get is more than enough.

Her story, “Untold Stories: A New Beginning in Promoting Intercultural Competence, Social Change and Inclusion” was part of a weeklong Latinx Heritage Celebration. 

Leyva empowered the Shea Auditorium with lessons about racial divide, acceptance and the significance of voting on Tuesday, Oct. 23.

The Cuban-Dominican actress is renowned for her role as Gloria Mendoza – the no-holds, tough-cut kitchen manager on Netflix’s hit series. Still, as an Afro-Latina, her journey to stardom was no overnight success.

Her heritage became a hurdle

In a Telenovela world of blond, light-skinned actresses, she was often cast as the maid.

“There was a message I was getting very early on. That people who looked like me could not be leads. That people who looked like me somehow weren’t considered beautiful.”

An aspiring actress, the Bronx native applied to the famous Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts. There, her counselor told her that students “like her” do not make it there.

Still, she applied – and is today a graduate.

“I had to be taught from a very, very young age that I was not enough,” she said. “To this day I fight every day to remind myself that I am enough.”

Succeeding for her family

By the time she became a mother, Leyva was ready to throw in the towel on maid castings. The struggle nearly shunned her from acting for good – until OITNB called her back.
Suddenly, she was surrounded by “amazing women”- including mothers and sisters who were “flawed” and “linear.”

Subsequently, Leyva cried with her parents over the phone about the wonderful news. As a daughter of immigrant parents, she always felt she could not fail. Her parents, she said, now knew she was going to be alright.

“My parents didn’t not give up so much for me to fail. My parents gave up so that [me, my daughter and siblings] could be better.”

The racism continues

She still struggles every day to show directors she is worthy of the lead, she said. Unfortunately, she is one of many under oppression.

“If you think that today’s attack on the transgender community… brown children of immigrants…on black men and poor people don’t affect you, then maybe it’s because you are part of the problem,” she said.

Latinx defies the odds

Yordin Peña, president of the Organization of Latin American Students, introduced Pena to the room. As a board member alongside his family, he exercises exactly what Leyva advised.

Like Leyva, his success gave him newfound confidence – he conquered his public speaking fear.

“Your mindset is what limits you the most. Putting what other people think of you in mind is really what it anchors you and doesn’t allow you to move on and flourish,” he said. “[My role] is such a blessing…I really cherish it.”

Peña joined the board alongside his brother and sister in 2016 – just two years after the university was named a “Hispanic Serving Institution” (HIS). In 2014, Hispanic student enrollment reached 25 percent.

Today, WPU has reached 31 percent enrollment.

An audience shook to the core

Leyva’s power words stuck to the melting pot audience even after curtains closed.

“You need to be the one to make that choice to tell other people to look into it and advocate with you in order to get that result that you want,” said Matthew Castro, president of the public speaking club ATMUS.

The star summed up her performance with a strong call-to-action – everyone must vote in the upcoming elections.

“What we are seeing now will affect us for many, many decades to come. “November 6 is around the corner… everybody vote!”

The room rose in a standing ovation – Leyva’s powerhouse speech about unity, discrimination and the need to vote shook the house.