Before she was Rachel, she was Raquel.
That name, printed on my mom’s birth certificate, didn’t travel much further in the paper trails of her life. Teachers struggled with its rolled R and softened Q, and as one of the only dark-skinned Afro-Latinas in a predominantly White Bronx community in the 1970s, my mom felt like an outsider.
As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, I’ve been thinking about my mother’s story.
When she joined the military in 1982, she realized many others had little understanding of her culture and heritage. They questioned how her darker skin tone could mean she was Latina. And her maiden name, Lopez, led some people to assume she married someone Hispanic.
Replaced by Rachel, Raquel now only ever reemerges in safe spaces and conversations with other Latinos.
Realizing how her story shaped my life has inspired me to learn more about how people of color think about self-identity and visibility, particularly as Hollywood faces renewed calls for more representation and diversity — from the writers room to the big screen. Many consider the upcoming film, “Encanto,” a step in the right direction for its presence of dark-skinned Afro-Latino characters. Co-directed and co-wrote by Charise Castro Smith, it’s the first Disney animated feature to include a Latina directing credit.
Actress Yaya DaCosta has long observed a shift in animation storytelling, crediting films such as “Coco” and “Soul” and the upcoming “Encanto” for branching out the genre to focus on themes of culture and family. As the star of Fox’s new drama, “Our Kind of People,” DaCosta’s character finds herself on her own journey of identity and acceptance as a single mother who sets out to reclaim her family’s name.
So one Sunday morning, I introduced DaCosta and Smith over a Zoom call and listened in as the two Latina storytellers reflected on their careers — from learning to advocate for themselves in Hollywood to the personal passions that inform the projects they pursue.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Yaya DaCosta: Hi Charise!
Charise Castro Smith: Yaya, good morning. Is it good morning for you or good afternoon?
Yaya DaCosta: It’s a little bit of both. I’m in Central time so it’s technically morning. How are you?
Charise Castro Smith: I’m doing really well.
Yaya DaCosta: Have we met? I feel like we have.
Charise Castro Smith: You know, as I was thinking about this, I remembered that we have a connection that is beyond Brown [University] that is like kind of funny, which is that back when I was an actor, I was in an episode of this show called “Body of Proof,” and I think your character killed my character.
Yaya DaCosta: Oh my gosh, that’s so right, I remember! I remember training to use the gun. I remember looking absolutely insane. And I’m so sorry that that happened.
Charise Castro Smith: You know what, it’s all good. I forgot about this. This was like 10 years ago or something like that. But anyway, oh my God, you’ve done so many incredible, amazing things.
Yaya DaCosta: Thank you, so have you. How are you feeling right now with your new movie about to come out? What was the process? Because I actually love animated films, and the trailer for this looks amazing.
Charise Castro Smith: This meeting came through my agents to meet with Disney Animation, and I thought it was just going to be sort of a ... “Hey, we like you, you like us” kind of meeting, but it was not.
It was Byron [Howard] and Jared [Bush] who were the two people I worked with who had this idea to make a movie that was kind of inspired by Colombia, and it was about a girl who lives in a magical house and she was the only person in her family who sort of didn’t have any kind of cool, extraordinary gift.
And so I just got on board and I started out as a writer, and then they invited me to direct as well. It just became like a three-year passion project. But I’m just really proud, and I’m excited for little kids to be able to see themselves in this movie and feel seen.
Yaya DaCosta:. There’s a balance as an artist who freelances, as an actor especially, between feeling like other people determine your schedule, your life — and then having autonomy and in a position of power to say yes to this and no to that and realizing what I want my next month to look like or my next five years.
And it’s tough because so many of us just kind of go along with this question mark over our heads of like, “What’s next?”
Charise Castro Smith: Right, I sometimes am like, “Is this next job going to be the last job?”
Yaya DaCosta: Yeah, it’s this question “what will be next?” And will there even be something? And if there will, then when? Do I need to budget for a few months? Am I in a position if I weren’t going to work for a year or so, am I okay?
Like, how many times can one be discovered, you know?
Charise Castro Smith: Right, right.
Yaya DaCosta: The language of the business can tend to make so much about a project, about a specific job. And then when it doesn’t necessarily change every single thing in your life, that's disappointing.
Charise Castro Smith: Yeah, I hear you.
Yaya DaCosta: I don’t feel like I can just work anymore. I want to do things that feel aligned, that feel like I’m not compromising in any way when it comes to integrity and what images of us I want to support. And so often we compromise because it’s just a role.
Charise Castro Smith: I started working on this Disney movie three years ago, and at the time, my daughter was six months old and I was living in New York, and there was just a lot of travel at that point back and forth to L.A.
I was like, “I can stay in this nice hotel room, but I need two bedrooms because my mom is coming with me. And so is my daughter.”
Yaya DaCosta: Absolutely, and it took me seeing other people do it to know what was even possible. Like, “Wait a minute, this person has an entire other trailer for their kid and their day care.”
And that’s also what’s so beautiful about your film — it’s about kids just seeing what’s possible.
Charise Castro Smith: One of my playwriting mentors, Paula Vogel, gave me this piece of advice that honestly, I think I want to take forward with me on everything that I work on now. She said, “Write something that you would want your daughter to watch.”
I’m happy to have my daughter watch this movie. I can say that.
Charise Castro Smith: I started working in TV as a writer, I think like eight years ago or something like that, and I’m beginning to see the way that stories are told begin to shift from the White male gaze that we completely take for granted.
Yaya DaCosta: What we also don't realize is how much of that we've ingested and digested and taken as our own.
And so on one hand, as writers, being in those rooms is not enough if we’re not examining ourselves and taking it upon ourselves to actually be authentic and, you know, listen more to our ancestors than to a third-grade teacher who might’ve confused us about who we were.
Yaya DaCosta: In the trailer for “Our Kind of People,” we have L. Scott [Caldwell], who plays Morris Chestnut’s mother, say about my character, “That woman is a disruptor.” It’s my favorite line.
Charise Castro Smith: I would say just from this conversation, you are a disruptor in the best possible way as well.
Yaya DaCosta: Yeah, I mean what’s wrong with that word? There are things that need to be disrupted.
It’s an exciting time. I think there’s so many freer thinkers now and people who are feeling confident about saying what we really think and feel and showing up in integrity and having the courage to say, ‘I’m willing to walk away from this because I’m trusting that it’s not about this particular project. It’s bigger than that.”
Charise Castro Smith: I have been thinking about a lot of the same things you’re bringing up, about how to listen to those ancestors and really kind of have the courage to tap into the stories that I really feel passionately about telling and that maybe take a little courage and push against what’s expected. And, you know, I feel like this movie has a lot of that in it.
Yaya DaCosta: Well, I am just so excited for you, for your movie and so proud of us doing the things, doing all the things.