Selenis Leyva Explains How Disney+ Series Combats Stereotypes and How “We’re Not All Scarface”

Lead Photo: Photo by Disney/Christopher Willard
Photo by Disney/Christopher Willard
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Growing up in the Bronx during the 1970s and 80s, actress Selenis Leyva (Orange is the New Black) doesn’t remember seeing many people that looked like her when she turned on the television. Back then, a TV series featuring a majority-Latino cast was only a pipe dream.

“For me, seeing myself [on TV] at that time would’ve been amazing,” Leyva told Remezcla during a recent interview. “Seeing myself might’ve saved me a lot of angst and self-doubt. Seeing yourself in a positive way is crucial. I say this not only as a woman of color, but as a mother of a young woman.”

Today, representation is one of the main reasons Leyva is so proud of her Disney+ series Diary of a Future President. The show follows Elena Cañero-Reed (Tess Romero), a confident Cuban American girl who aspires to one day become the President of the United States.

Through flash-forwards, actress Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) plays an adult Elena, who has met her goal to become POTUS. Leyva plays young Elena’s widowed mother Gabi, a lawyer who lives her life for her children. Leyva said that although there is still a lot of room for improvement in the film and TV industry, the series is a “true celebration” of how far Hollywood has come over the years.

“Rarely, do we see Latino representation period, and when we do see it, it’s catered to a very specific situation and circumstance,” Leyva said. “It’s always about the struggle or a drug dealer or something that is embedded in the stereotypes that we seem to be attached to when it comes to certain groups of people. But in Diary of a Future President, we’re saying to a young Latina or a young Latino that they could become President of the United States.”

Along with the diversity on the show, Leyva is also proud that the series is sharing Latine culture with viewers who may not be familiar with Cuban Americans in general. “We’re not all Scarface,” Leyva said before adding, “The beauty of this show is the positive representation that we are showing others about our community. We’re educated. We have families just like everyone else.”

Not only is the mother and daughter relationship a crucial aspect of the series, but it’s also one that Leyva said imitates reality. It starts with the fact that Leyva’s real-life, 18-year-old daughter is named Alina – very similar to her TV daughter Elena.

“It’s bizarre how my world and Gabi’s world seem to be parallel,” Leyva explained. “I kid you not, every script I read I could say, “Yup, I’ve had that experience.” or “I’ve felt that.” or “I’ve said these things to my daughter.”

Because of this, Leyva believes the narratives behind Diary of a Future President are “truthful” and “very authentic.” During her 22-year acting career, she’s loved playing a host of characters like a prisoner, political ambassador, and detective. But in Diary of a Future President, it’s been a pleasure to portray a woman who feels like an extension of herself.

“It’s been a great joy to play a role that is coming out of my own pages – my own life,” she said. “If I’m feeling that as an actor and as a mother, I know that we are touching families everywhere with our stories.”

Diary of a Future President Season 2 debuts on Disney+ on August 18.