Mainstream recognition has come at a slow pace for Puerto Rican actress Sol Miranda, whose work ethic follows her father’s unwavering stick-to-it attitude. Longtime commitment to the craft, especially in theater, eventually landed her a path-altering role as the astute Donna Maria in the Netflix comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
From her days in Catholic school in San Juan, where she would often pretend to be in a trance and speak in tongues as a performance to amuse her classmates, Miranda knew the dramatic arts beckoned her. At the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, she started her training with a mostly Eurocentric curriculum. It was later, far from home, at UC San Diego that her cultural horizons expanded, as did her experience with injustice.
Studying under Chicano scholar Jorge Huerta Miranda understood how sheltered she was in the island where, despite its own racial and socioeconomic issues, there was a sense everyone belonged to the same group. In the mainland, however, she was told she couldn’t do Shakespeare because of her accent and that certain parts weren’t for her. She was enraged, but then she came across the spaces Latinos there had built for themselves.
“Before I went there I was not really aware of the struggle of Latinos in the United States and the political activism through theater in Teatro Campesino, El Teatro de la Esperanza, Puerto Rican Traveling Theater or Repertorio Español. Learning about them was a gift to me,” she explained.
Out of grad school in the early 90s, Miranda’s first professional play was Real Women Have Curves in Seattle, where she would hone her skills for several years before moving east. In New York City she found her tribe of Caribbean Latino artists — including Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz — and eventually decided to step away from the stage to teach acting at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx.
Armed with an agent for the first time in her career, Miranda returned to auditions in the late 2000s and started booking several bit parts in television shows that weren’t doing much for her resume. That changed with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a show where she played Donna Maria, one of the so-called “mole women” who spent 15 years kidnapped in a bunker with the title character and who, upon returning to society, became an astute entrepreneur who calls out white privilege. Donna Maria was the voice of reason over four seasons of the Tina Fey and Robert Carlock created project, and more recently in the interactive special Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs the Reverend.
“It was a one-line audition in Spanish: ‘Pero estas pendejas no aprendieron español.’ That was it. What the hell do you do with just one line? That’s when you really have to dig in with your training,” recalled Miranda. “I thought, ‘The only way I can do this is if it’s anchored in a gesture.’ More than the delivery of the line it was what I was doing physically when I was delivering the line. I think that’s why I got it. Anybody could have gotten it. The room was full of wonderful Latina women.”
Miranda imbued Dona Maria with personality beyond the one-liners on the script, drawing inspiration from her mother and tías, women who would not let anyone walk over them. Always portrayed as the smartest person among the odd cast of characters, Donna Maria thrives after the ordeal and capitalizes on the fame to become the ultimate businesswoman.
“She is street smart and she has her moments of delusion. That’s the kind of satire that Tina and Robert create. Yet, through that delusion, and the realities of the characters psyche, truths are revealed. She is no martyr. If anything she would be the first one to, in a positive way, take advantage of her situation. She is bigger than life to demonstrate that she is no victim, and that part I absolutely enjoyed.”
Over the past few, yet storied years, Miranda also entered the feature film arena with independent projects like Daniel Poliner’s debut Jack, Jules, Esther & Me. Based on that collaboration, Poliner set out to write his next film with her in mind for the lead, which later evolved into a mother-daughter story.
In Come Find Me, what she describes as “a universal story tailored to two very accomplished Latina women,” Miranda plays Gloria, a school principal and widow about to retire and whose daughter, Christina (Victoria Cartagena), must prove herself as a person of color in a highly competitive field. Their dynamic raises questions about identity, loss, and damaged communication between two people who love each other but struggle to reconcile their differences.
“This is not just another Latina victim of her circumstances. But she is a pioneer and no matter what’s thrown at her, she makes a point of driving the car of her own life,” noted Miranda about Gloria’s personal narrative. Come Find Me is still in post-production, but expects to hit festivals in upcoming months, all things permitting. Once it’s out there for people to see, it’ll serve not only as a new reminder of Miranda’s still unexploited talent, but more importantly that Latinas on screen deserved to be flawed and emotionally layered.
“The entertainment industry, as liberal as it is, still wants to portray us as the helpers, the sufferers, the best friends with great intentions,” explained the actress, who would happily play a complex culprit in Mindhunter. “But no, we Latinos are more than that. We show you mande, and when you turn around we are going to say tenga.”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend is now streaming on Netflix.