This week, Code Switch takes a look at the past and present of immigrants on TV with video profiles of a quartet of groundbreaking artists who are changing the game for how immigrants are depicted on the small screen. Read the intro essay for this package, "Fresh On The Screen: How TV Is Redefining Whom We Think Of As 'American.'"
"My mom brought me up by herself, so I was a latchkey kid," says actress, singer and activist Sara Ramirez, best known for her portrayal of Dr. Callie Torres on ABC's long-running hit medical drama Grey's Anatomy. "I would walk myself back from school, and spent a lot of time at home alone, watching TV." Ramirez remembers not seeing a lot of people who looked like her onscreen. "There weren't a lot of Latinas — or any women of color. And the ones I saw were usually presented as stereotypes or treated like jokes." She never dreamed she might have the opportunity to change that firsthand.
Born in Mazatlan, Mexico, to a Mexican mother and an Irish-American father, she moved with her mother to San Diego at the age of eight. By 3rd grade, her budding interest in music led her mother to enroll her in a performing arts school. Early in high school, her singing talent was discovered in an audition and she was placed on an accelerated track that ended with her being recommended for a spot at Juilliard. That, in turn, led to her being asked to join the cast of Paul Simon's Broadway musical, The Capeman. She appeared in in The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm, receiving an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for her role, in A Class Act and Dreamgirls, and then was cast as the Lady of the Lake in the Monty Python musical Spamalot, for which she won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
And that led to her meeting Shonda Rhimes, who would offer her the role of her life, as passionate, idealistic Dr. Calliope Torres, whose journey of self-discovery as a bisexual woman would generate some controversy, and even more acclaim. The role also gave Ramirez, long an enthusiastic supporter of LGBT rights, to the attention of the True Colors Fund, which seeks to end homelessness among LGBT youth. She now serves that organization as a boardmember.
"I think, at the end of the day, acting and activism are both about empathy," she says. "You're trying to get people to see other people as real and human. And to care."
Check out the other profiles in this series:
Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi
Comedian and star of HBO's Insecure Yvonne Orji
This special package is made possible by the Vilcek Foundation.