Q&A: Marlene Forte on Stereotypes and Representation

Marlene Forte, a Cuban-born matriarch, started acting at the age of 30—a late start for most occupations, and rarely heard of in Hollywood. However, Forte is living proof of how women can “make it” in Hollywood on their own terms.

Forte currently co-stars in Fox’s upcoming drama series APB as well as Netflix’s Altered Carbon. These are two top shows in which the second protagonist in the cast list are young Latina actors, and Forte plays both of their mothers.

Forte took some time to chat with Ms. about her take on Latino/a stereotypes, representation, gender diversity and motherhood.

You’re proving Hollywood wrong by continuing to break through—how does that feel?

I think I’m very lucky to be around or have done 20 years of work of being at the right time, at the right place. I think we’re in a place in our lifetime, in American history, where we are starting to be weaved into the fabric of America. Not just a Latino/a show. APB is not a Latin show, but the number two girl is a Latina, and that’s where I talk about being weaved into the fabric of it, where it’s not just categorized or put into a compartment of a Latin show. I’m a mother of a very strong person on TV now, not a victim of something. Right now is a great time for that, but I think that even when I was playing those grieving mothers I always try to find dignity in these people. There’s not just one layer to these people that you see, they have hopes, families and aspirations. They’re here in this country for a reason, and I try to incorporate all that.

Who empowers or inspires you in this industry?

All the women who came before me, the Rita Morenos. All these actresses that have been laying the ground work for us, and not only in my culture, not just Latinos, older women in television—you know Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore—women that are just working and not giving in to the fact ‘okay now I’m 50 and that means I can no longer work.’ The fact is that women, in this country, Latinas, Blacks, whatever it is, women, female, you saw the march, we are big part of this world. Any strong female lead always makes me proud, it doesn’t matter the color of.

What’s it like playing a mother in both “APB” (Fox’s upcoming series) and Altered Carbon?

Well, I’ve been a mother more than I haven’t been. I have one daughter, I had her very young. I was a teenage mama, married my high school sweetheart, had one kid. Her name is Giselle Rodriguez, she is my best production to date. I think the coolest thing about what’s happening right now is I’m heading out to Vancouver right now to play another mom, another Latina actress on Altered Carbon. In my 21 years of acting I don’t recall ever being in three shows on air at the same time where the one or number two person on the cast list is a female Latina, and I am their mother. I feel like I’m a mother to the stars. I just booked a small recurring role in [NBC’s] Superstore where I play America Ferrera’s mom and that just picked up for another season.

What’s it like to play America Ferrera’s mother on NBC’s Superstore?

America and I have worked together on “Real Women Have Curves” so I’ve known her and I’ve watched her [for a long time]. Another thing about playing or working with these young Latina women for the last 21 years is that I do, whether I play their mothers or not, have kind of adopted them as children. The success of them makes me very proud even from afar. My husband went to USC, she was a USC graduate, so we stayed in each other’s radar. To be her mother the day before she headed out to Washington, to be part of this march, she’s inspiring in so many ways to me. She asked me if I was going to march, and I have been so heartbroken because of this election, and it goes even deeper for me. I said this to her, “I don’t know if in my lifetime I will see another woman as qualified as Hillary Clinton.” The day before the march she said, “you have to march” and I said “of course I have to march, now I play your mother, how could I say no.” And then I heard her speech the next day and I texted her and said, “I was wrong, maybe there will be a female president in my lifetime, and I swear I will vote for her.” She just brought my head out of the sand.

How does it feel to represent Latina mothers? 

It feels great, because I’m actually extremely proud of my one and only daughter so I feel like the Florence Henderson of Latina television. I am the Florence Henderson Latina mama.

Are you inspired by your kids?

I was 19 when I had my daughter and we grew up together, she’s saved my life many, many, times just by existing in my life, and I think that’s the reason I’ve been playing this role for a long time. I have been a mother on this planet more than anything else, that’s been the one job I’ve done more than anything else in my entire life.

Do you think Latinas are being represented enough?

I never think it’s enough. I think we are in a much better place than we were 20 years ago when I started, when I was still married to Giselle’s dad. There was no Gina Rodriguez, no Jennifer Lopez. My surname is Machado and even Machado was too Latin 21 years ago. The fact that now there are all these Latin surnames, now they are all over the place and nobody blinks, nobody seems to be insulted. We’re not insulting anybody’s sensibility. I think that it has changed, but I always say that we need more  producers, we need our own channel, we need our own station, our own Oprah, our own Tyler Perry, and I know that we have a lot of people that are in the public eye, but I’m talking about an international recognition where not only Latino/as are recognized but everybody, every race, every color, and until that happens we have not gotten there yet. We have arrived, but we have a lot of work to do.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

That word can be contorted in such a bad way, but yes, I am a feminist. I am a person who believes everybody, every human being, deserves equal treatment. I don’t care who you love, or what color you are, who you worship, if you are a human being you are a creature of God. I believe that everybody is equal and we must work together to elevate each other and never ever bring each other down.

Meliss Arteaga is an editorial intern at Ms. She studied at California State University Northridge and has a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minor in gender and women studies.

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Meliss Arteaga studied at California State University Northridge and has a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minor in gender and women studies.