Eva Longoria is one of Hollywood’s most recognizable, admired and successful Latina actresses. This multi-faceted woman of substance has long since transcended her 2004 star-making debut role as sexy Gaby Solis on TV’s enormously popular “Desperate Housewives” show; to evolve into someone deeply involved in making the lives of people worldwide better through her philanthropic and humanitarian efforts, as well as her work as a social activist.
Add the titles of successful Hollywood producer, director, businesswoman and more to that already impressive resume; and it’s no wonder that Harvard University’s Harvard Foundation recently named Longoria as its 2015 Artist of the Year during its recent Cultural Rhythms Festival.
Longoria’s reputation as a petite yet powerful engine for change, empowerment and advocacy for those in need has grown by leaps and bounds, from that early Desperate Housewives springboard; making her one of Hollywood’s most respected and active Latina role models.
In being named the Harvard Foundation’s Artist of the Year, she joins a long list of prestigious honorees that includes other Latino performing icons such as Ruben Blades, Salma Hayek, Andy Garcia, George Lopez and Shakira. For Longoria, 39, being added to this list of Harvard honorees was something she never dreamed possible.
“When I got the call that I was getting this award, I almost fell over with excitement”, said Longoria, “because I remember the word “Harvard” as being this unattainable, far-reaching thing that wasn’t for me. It was for those other people. As a little Mexican-American girl growing up in Texas, it ( seemed ) just so far out of reach for me.”
However, Longoria’s eventual path to Harvard recognition isn’t that surprising, given her family’s emphasis on the need for education.
“I come from a large family of educators”, said Longoria to a huge audience at the award ceremony. “Everybody in my family is a teacher or a professor including my sisters and my mom. I also come from a family of strong women. I have three sisters, nine aunts and God knows how many female cousins and they’re all educated, so I come from a large family where college was a must.”
However, Longoria adds that the road to success in Hollywood, business and philanthropy had very humble beginnings in her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. In speaking to the students at Harvard, she recalled the brief trips she, as a child, would take with her father across the border into Mexico and learning an important life lesson.
“One time, I remember we were coming back from Mexico and we were in the really short line”, said Longoria, “and, I saw this other really long line and I heard my dad say ‘Don’t forget to say you’re an American citizen’. ( As a child ) I thought they were magic words. I was thinking to myself, “We know the passwords. I wondered why the people in the long line didn’t know the magic words and why don’t they say them too… and my dad said ( they can’t ) because they were born on the other side. I asked my dad “Why were we born on this side?” Her father said it was luck.
Longoria never forgot her father’s words and how important it was to be an American. But as she grew older while being bussed to a nearby school in a richer and whiter neighborhood than her own, Longoria also began to realize the importance of her Hispanic roots and that other non-Latinos would see her as different.
“I’ve sort of lived my life straddling the hyphen of being Mexican-American”, said Longoria. “I got to sit on that hyphen both loving enchiladas and apple pie. Loving Mariachi music and Britney Spears. There’s been so many moments of my life that were memorable to being a hybrid, of being a hyphen.”
Despite her wide ranging success, Longoria jokingly describes herself as the underachiever in her family. “I was the last person in my family to get a Masters Degree. When I was on Desperate Housewives and it was the number one show in the world and I was ranked really high on the Forbes list… and I said, ‘Mom, look !… and she said, right, but when are you getting your Masters?”
Eventually, Longoria earned her Masters in Chicano studies from California State University in Northridge in 2013. “It was important for me to understand the experiences of other Hispanics”, said Longoria, “and how they navigated the conflicts of identity and how they navigate being American and ( also ) holding on to your culture.”
Longoria continues to serve the Hispanic community and beyond via the groups she’s founded, Eva’s Heroes and The Eva Longoria Foundation, which help Latinas build better futures for themselves through education and entrepreneurship. The groups also enable many young people to be the first in their families to attend college or even graduate high school.
“The work we do with the Eva Longoria Foundation is really magical”, said Longoria. “We try to recognize those outside forces that create poverty, that create inequality and we try to uncover the reasons for exploitation and we try to assist people to change those conditions in their own lives. Whether I’m advocating for farm worker rights or immigration rights or women’s rights or kids with special needs; what I’ve learned the most is to listen and to listen carefully to all those groups that have long been oppressed.
Longoria emotionally credits her mentally disabled older sister as being her early inspiration to make the world a better place through education, empowerment and compassion.
“My older sister Lisa is mentally disabled but she’s the light of our family”, said Longoria. “My mom became a special education teacher because of her. My sister went through the ( special ) school system but in high school had to be integrated into a regular high school so she wouldn’t be sheltered from ( a normal life ).
“One day, my sister came home from school and I was about 10-years old, and someone had stolen her lettermen’s jacket”, Longoria continued. “I remember being so mad that I couldn’t even process the anger. Who would steal a special needs student’s lettermen jacket? So, my mom asked Lisa “Who stole your jacket?”
“…. And, Lisa said, “It must have been someone who was cold.”
“And, that was the first time I learned compassion”, said Longoria. “(My sister) Lisa had immediately put herself in someone else’s shoes and she thought that they needed ( the jacket ) more than she did. She didn’t think they were a bully, she didn’t think they were mean. Instead she thought, something must have happened in their lives that caused them to do that. And, from that moment on, I carried that lesson on to today.”
Despite her immense success in Hollywood, it’s clear Eva Longoria has not forgotten her personal and cultural roots and life experience in her mission to help others.
“The people who know how to break the chains of oppression”, said Longoria, “are usually the ones who know what those chains felt like.”
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Tim Estiloz is an Emmy winning entertainment journalist and member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association.
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