Contrary to popular belief, America Ferrera — star of the feature films “Real Women Have Curves” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and the NBC series “Superstore” — is not named for the United States of America. She is named after her mother, América Griselda Ayes, and the holiday, Día de Las Américas. Despite her first name, her parents’ Honduran roots give rise to the misconception that she is not fully American. In the new anthology she edited, “American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures” (Simon & Schuster, 309 pp., $26) Ferrera provides space and visibility to voices often erased in this history of the United States.
The book’s 31 essays relay the challenges and barriers that immigrants, children of immigrants and indigenous people confront when asserting their American identity. Star of HBO’s “Insecure” Issa Rae contemplates fasting for Ramadan to honor the Senegalese side of her family. Trans beauty queen Geena Rocero leaves the Philippines for San Francisco, where she finds another community happy to support her ambitions. After finding success in Hollywood, actor Martin Sensmeier, who says he is a member of the Tlingit tribe in Yakutat, Alaska, learns to reconnect with the people of his small fishing village.
Ferrera spoke about the book with Newsday by telephone; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is it important to tell these kinds of stories?
The more our stories are attacked and dehumanized, the more urgent it becomes for us to tell them. The more we fight for this space in the culture, the more inevitable it is that pockets of people will be threatened by us. Too many young people feel that their invisibility in the media means they are not valued or worthy enough to create and become whatever they want to be the world. As a woman of color [and] Latina woman who doesn’t fit in any of society’s molds, I know how damaging it can be to never see yourself in dignified and powerful positions in the world.
You write about how Honduras feels like a phantom limb. Do you think part of the emotional journey for children of immigrants is to understand the loss of living far away from their parents’ homeland?
In 2012, two years after I lost my father, I visited my parents’ homeland for the first time in my life. I was hit with incredibly unexpected feelings. Children of immigrants are taught to be grateful for our opportunities in the U.S., but we’re not allowed to mourn the fact that it’s difficult for us to stay connected to our ancestral lands. We’re lucky, yes, but we should also be allowed to grieve. This sentiment is expressed best by the indigenous writers in the book. They are deemed “foreign” on a land that was stolen from their ancestors. My ancestors, too, have lived on this continent for generations — yet I’m also “foreign.”
Several essays explore how fluency in a family language shapes identity. What are your thoughts on this?
I wasn’t required to speak Spanish at home. I deeply regret this because language is so much a part of belonging to a culture. Though I’m not fluent, when I do speak Spanish, different parts of my personality come through. I can feel and hear my mother, grandmother and aunt in my gestures and words. I feel as if I’m physically a part of them.
Uzo Aduba’s essay expresses how immigrant children don’t ever get to see their immigrant parents be vulnerable. Was this your experience?
Absolutely. And this is why so much of our family histories gets lost — because immigrant parents don’t share their struggles with their U.S.-born children. Our parents have escaped the worst and sacrificed everything so that their children could thrive. When they don’t tell us what they went through, we lose the stories of their migration. Their trauma gets buried.
You haven’t returned to Honduras since your second trip in 2014. Do you think you’ll go back and take your son with you?
I’d love to go back to Honduras and give him more of a connection to his roots than what my parents were able to give me. My journey and my struggle, the totality of who I am — this is what I’d love to give to my son.