Latinx Heritage Month: Julissa Calderon on acting, opportunity

Noah Pasley

Far different from the mediums of years past, El Centro, in partnership with the Black/African American Cultural Center, welcomed Julissa Calderon over Zoom as this year’s Latinx Heritage Month keynote speaker. And, while attendees watched from hundreds of miles away, the sense of community was present all the same.

Calderon, an Afro-Latinx actress, writer, producer and director, was the keynote speaker for El Centro’s Latinx Heritage Month Tuesday night. Well-known for her work at BuzzFeed for the “Pero Like” channel, Calderon also starred as Yessika Castillo in “Gentefied,” a TV show that aired in February 2020 about a taco shop in Boyle Heights existing as the neighborhood becomes increasingly more gentrified. Calderon was also named as one of Variety’s “10 Latinxs to Watch” in 2020.


“I am so thankful for everyone on the team of ‘Gentefied’ who  decided to say, ‘let’s rewrite that character … to Yessika Castillo, a Dominican girl on a Mexican show.’ I think that Gentefied is so special, because we are showing how Latinos are not all the same.” -Julissa Calderon, Afro-Latinx actress, writer, producer, and director

Calderon started her speech by talking about her journey to becoming an actress, specifically from her early days as a student at the University of Florida.

“I went to the University of Florida because, at that time, that school was the number one party school in the nation,” Calderon said. “I wanted to have a fabulous and amazing time when I went to UF. I didn’t want to just focus on school; I wanted to have the fun that came with college.”

Calderon said she started off at UF as a pre-med major, hoping to become a nurse or a doctor, but changed her mind after she kept running into trouble with her chemistry class. She first got introduced to the idea of acting after walking past theatre students after having failed her chemistry test. 

After making the announcement to her mom and officially changing majors, she also picked up a second major in telecommunications production because she felt that theatre alone was “too easy” and knew that she’d need the production side of things in her career.

One challenge that Calderon faced throughout college, and even now in her professional career, was coming to terms with her identity as a Dominican woman and an Afro-Latina. She said that many people from less diverse cities, like those in the Midwest, often didn’t see people like her as Latina.

“I grew up saying that I was a Dominican girl, and when I got to UF, I realized that people didn’t know what Dominicans were,” Calderon said. “I got a slap of truth when I got to the University of Florida because everyone would walk up to me when I talk and ask, ‘Where are you from?'”

Calderon said that she also often got turned down for roles because she looked too Black to be cast in a Latinx role or sounded too Latina to be cast in a Black role. She even faced challenges when it came to being cast in “Gentefied” as Yessika Castillo — a character that was originally written to be a Mexican woman named Yessika Flores. Calderon said that the show passed on casting her twice but asked to see her again to go over some notes for the role, including dialing back her accent to fit the character. 

However, she decided to audition once more without dialing back her accent and ended up booking the role anyways. 

“I am so thankful for everyone on the team of ‘Gentefied’ who decided to say, ‘Let’s rewrite that character … to Yessika Castillo, a Dominican girl on a Mexican show,'” Calderon said. “I think that Gentefied is so special because we are showing how Latinos are not all the same.”

Finally, Calderon closed on the importance of her communities working together and expanding on the work previous generations have done.


“We are from generations of guerreros, of guerreras, (or) in English, warriors,” Calderon said. “We have fought to be here, and a lot of people who are Black and come from Black and brown communities, it is 10 times harder for us to get into these colleges … (and) into these rooms. I hope that, from this, … you will understand we are so much more alike than we are different.”

Noah Pasley can be reached at or on Twitter @PasleyNoah