Tomando Acción

Actress, writer, and entrepreneur, Julissa Calderón talks about breaking the glass ceiling, the importance of latinx representation and how to be the main character of your story.

NB: How, as a Latina, has your background played into your work?

JC: I don’t think about it much, to be honest, because this is just who I am. The same way that I walk around in my skin color with my curly hair every single day. 

I was born in New York in Washington Heights, the land of the Dominicans, como decimos nosotros and contrary to most people’s beliefs I was actually raised in Miami. Vengo de padres dominicanos and I always say it doesn’t matter que yo no nací allá.

I feel like my childhood was really interesting. The environment that I grew up in was very Black and Latino; I did not see any white people until I went to college. I grew up in a place where everybody was caribeño, Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, etc. It was a little melting pot of all of the Caribbean and South America. 

So I don’t really think about me being Latina. It is just me, just exactly who I am. 

NB: How do you use your work as a vehicle to bring about change in our community?

JC: You know what? I think that everything I’ve done, subconsciously, I’ve done it for the community. Let’s talk about the creation of my journal brand, for example. Journaling has been such a self-care thing for me. It’s been my little therapy for years before I even knew that that was a part of my therapy. And I created this brand because I wanted my girls, all my people, to be able to have something that’ll help them. After I figured that out, then it was conscious. 

For the Manifest Like a Jefa Tour, we made sure that all the bookstores we reached out to were Brown and Black-owned; that’s what I specifically wanted. And I sold out at The Lip Bar, one of the biggest bookstores in the country right now, right in the middle of the Bronx, where everybody around is of color. And when I pulled up, there was a line of people waiting for me, people were crying. These were girls and women that I felt I was them and they were me. 

So I cater to my people because I don’t remember cool girls that had some type of platform looking out for me when I was growing up. And as much as I know that I’m doing a great job and everything that I’m doing is purposeful, I don’t get tired of seeing those things. It allows me to continue to dream. It allows me to have the wisdom to dream even bigger. 

Now, with everything that I do consciously, I think about my community. Before, I wasn’t thinking about it because I was just talking to my people because, who else am I going to be talking to? I’m only talking from my experience and my experience is being a Dominicanita from Miami, from New York, an Afro-Latina, all of these different things. It was never a conscious thing, but now that I move forward, everything that I do is to represent my people and to make sure that another little Latina somewhere out there thinks ‘I could do it, too.’ 

NB: What was your ‘ponte las pilas’ moment?

JC: I was working in a restaurant here in L.A. I came from Miami, and I was supposed to be doing all of this acting and everything that I came for. But I was focused on money, and I was working at a really good job that was keeping me comfortable – and then I got fired from this job. And it rocked my world. It changed everything, it made me uncomfortable, which is good, right? Because what does comfort bring you? Nothing. And so I had to put on my big girl panties y me puse las pilas and I started auditioning.

That’s when I got a job at Buzzfeed and when I accelerated to 100. I said to myself: ‘Okay, what do you do with this platform? Every video that you bring out, you have to kill it. You have to nail it. It has to be THE video, so you can continue to accelerate and accelerate,’ and that’s exactly what happened. I gave everything I had in those two years, and then I was able to leave and go focus on my acting in Hollywood. It all came from the moment of God shaking me y diciéndome ‘ponte las pilas’ because I wasn’t doing it, I was comfortable.  

NB: ¿Suerte o sudor? Do you attribute your success in terms of luck versus hard work?

JC: I say both. Son los dos, 50 – 50. You put in your sudor, and you put in your effort, but there’s something about being in the right place at the right time. You could call it luck, algunos dicen suerte, algunos dicen Dios, algunos dicen el universo, all of those things to me fall under the same umbrella. For me, it’s God’s favor. I’m favored, and because I put in my sudor, it comes together and I’m able to do all of these amazing things. 

I’d be lying to you if I said that I congratulate myself or that I say I’m proud of myself regularly, but we need to do that more often. With every accomplishment, you should be proud of yourself. Sometimes I lose myself wanting so much more, and that’s okay, but I have to always remember that coming from where I come from, people doing what I am doing is not the average.

I always say you have to pick up the little gems that life throws at you and that you don’t pay attention to. But if you are present, you could pick the gems up, and continue to move forward. To say I’m proud of myself and congratulate myself is one of those gems, and it gives me more validation to keep going and to do bigger and better things.

NB: Who is your atrevida/o/e preferida/o/e?

JC: Besides me being my personal favorite atrevida, I would say my tía Normandía Maldonado. She came from the Dominican Republic in the ‘60s and decided to be a community activist in New York. Growing up, I didn’t know much and didn’t think too much about it but now, as a woman, understanding all the things that she did as an immigrant amazes me.

The reason why there’s a desfile dominicano in New York every year is because of my aunt. There’s a Juan Pablo Duarte statue in the middle of New York City and that is because of my aunt. She has a post office named after her. She has a street named after her. She did so much for the Dominican community when she got to New York and did it by herself. That takes a lot of being atrevida.

NB: Whose work right now do you find really exciting?

JC: The We All Grow Summit inspired me. They put on this major event of all of these Latinas that were empowering themselves and each other. That to me was amazing and I had never seen something like that. 

But honestly, I would say any Brown and Black woman right now who’s doing what they’re supposed to do, living in their truth, being a vessel, and knowing what their purpose is, they’re inspiring me whether I know them or not, because that work is helping me and so many others. 

When we talk about Hollywood, we can talk about the Ava DuVernays and the Quinta Brunsons of the world. These women are really doing what they have to do; they’re owning their stuff and they’re creating platforms for people, but also they’re doing it authentically. And it inspires me to continue to do my things authentically. 

Sheryl Lee Ralph, who won an Emmy for “Abbott Elementary,” gave a beautiful speech and talked about how it’s taken her so long. This woman is in her sixties and has been doing television for many years, and she talked about just never giving up and never stopping believing in yourself even when others do. And to me, that is inspiring. That is what it’s all about.

I think we get lost in believing that sometimes we have no purpose. But you’re waking up, and there’s a reason why you are waking up. What is that reason? I think it’s for you to find out, but never to underestimate yourself or think of things that you cannot do. 

I always say I am just a little dominicanita from Carol City, Florida, and I was dealt some interesting cards in life. I come from a single-parent household. I come from an immigrant family. Like LeBron James says, I’m not supposed to be here, but I am. 

All of these people that you see on different platforms and make you think ‘oh my God, they made it’, we’re all just like you. We have the same 24 hours, we were all dealt interesting cards that we didn’t know what to do with but we shuffled them and we figured it out, and we organized them according to how we wanted to play them. And so, how do you want to play your cards? Are you gonna just fold or are you gonna rise to the occasion and flush it all out? It’s up to you. It’s up to you to figure it out. But I believe in you, and you should believe in you way more than anyone else in this world because I promise you, you can do it.

NB: Is there any piece of advice you want to give someone who wants to be an Atrevid/a/o/e and make it?

JC: Get out of your comfort zone. When you are comfortable in life, you need to shake yourself up, make a couple of moves so that you can do what you have to do to get right. The best things come from being uncomfortable.