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“I’m gonna make myself the star that I know I am.”

Photo: Kevin Estrada/Netflix

Activist Yessika (center, played by COTA alumna Julissa Calderdon) leads the community fight to preserve the Latinx character of Boyle Heights, in East L.A. Her character was inspired by real-life activists in organizations like Defend Boyle Heights.

She is one of Variety’s must-watch Latinx actors of 2020. But Julissa Calderon was initially turned down twice for the Netflix role that has made her famous.

Actor Julissa Calderon’s character on the hit Netflix dramedy “Gentefied” is a force of nature. Calderon plays 23-year-old Dominican activist Yessika Castillo – leader of the fight against the gentrification of a Latinx* neighborhood in East L.A. and girlfriend of Ana Morales, the show’s female lead. With her big hoop earrings, quick wit and unapologetic style, Yessika isn’t afraid to take a stand, and it’s hard to imagine another actor playing the strong-willed Afro-Latina.

But the New York-born Calderon, 31, a graduate of UF’s School of Theatre + Dance and journalism college, was told twice by the producers she wasn’t right for the part.

“I’m what Los Angeles people consider a ‘Blacxican,’ a Black and Mexican girl,” Calderon told MEA WorldWide, explaining that the show’s producers were originally intent on casting a Los Angeles-born actress.

Born in New York to a Dominican family, actor Julissa Calderon (BA theater, BS telecommunications ’11) produced BuzzFeed’s popular show “Pero Like” before landing the breakout role of Yessika in “Gentefied.” A popular speaker, Calderon has given inspirational keynote speeches at Wake Forest, Brandeis, Emory and, of course, UF.

When Calderon — the daughter of Dominican immigrants — came into the audition with her admittedly “strong” New York accent, she was passed over not once, but two times. For her third audition, producers asked her to neutralize her accent, but Calderon decided it would inhibit her acting.

“I went in and was my authentic self,” she told MEA. “I talked to them about why I made that decision, and that night I got a call back.”

They were rewriting the part of Yessika as an East Coast Dominican transplant, just for Calderon.

“This was beyond anything I could have ever imagined,” she said.

The producers’ decision only enriched the bilingual series’ appeal and complexity. “Gentefied”– the term is a play on the word “gentrified”; “gente” is a Spanish word that typically means “our people” – follows three Mexican American cousins as they chase the American Dream while trying to keep their grandfather’s popular taco shop in business amidst rising rents and moneyed non-Latino newcomers. Although she is neither Mexican American nor a lifelong resident, Yessika is fiercely devoted to the neighborhood of Boyle Heights and leads the fight to retain its traditional character.

Yessika spars with the outsiders but struggles with the longtime locals as well, some of whom reject her as “Other” because she is Afro-Latina and queer.

Gentefied’s co-creator Marvin Lemus told media site Remezcla at the 2017 Sundance Festival that his series focuses on Boyle Heights to explore prejudice both within and without Latin culture.

“We wanted to explore how Latinos themselves can discriminate,” said Lemus. “We really wanted to explore those issues of anti-blackness and colorism within the Latinx community.”

Born in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood – the center of Dominican life in New York – and raised in Miami, Calderon initially entered the University of Florida as a nursing major but switched to theatre and telecommunications; in her senior year, she starred in a UF production of “References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot.” After graduating in 2011 with dual degrees, she bravely set off for LA with few connections and only $300 to her name.

In a recent conversation with the College of the Arts, Calderon remembered telling herself then: “I’m gonna do this …. I’m gonna make myself the star that I know I am.”

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Julissa Calderon (“Yessika”), right, with actor Karrie Martin, who plays Ana Morales in “Gentefied.” The couple became a fan favorite starting in episode 1, when Yessika brings her girlfriend tacos in a heart-shaped box.

Calderon waited tables and got a small part on ABC’s “Revenge” series. But her pivotal moment came in 2016 when BuzzFeed hired her to produce and star in content for “Pero Like,” its online channel for the English-speaking Latinx community. Her viral videos led to appearances on the series “Stepford Sidekick” and then to her breakout role as Yessika.

In February, Variety magazine named Calderon one of the must-watch Latinx actors of 2020.

A second season of “Gentefied” has been picked up by Netflix.

About what to expect from future episodes, Calderon recently told People en español: “All I can tell you is that you’ll be seeing Yessika again! I think that the show is a hit because it depicts us correctly. People saw themselves or their family members in it….The creators Marvin [Lemus] and Linda [Yvette Chávez] wrote out of their truths, and truth works every time! People gravitate towards authenticity.”

As an actor and passionate advocate for Dominican culture, Calderon embraces that authenticity, she told UF:

“What’s been at the forefront of my mind is to never sell out and to never, ever think I’m anyone but who I am – and to always remember where I came from.”

Learn about the hit series “Gentefied” on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80198208

Follow Julissa Calderon on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lajulissa/?hl=en

Entering its second season, “Gentefied” follows the Morales cousins in East L.A. who struggle to keep their grandfather’s taco shop afloat as they chase the American Dream.