From the stage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse to the set of Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” Maria Canals-Barrera has built a successful career as an American-Latina actress.

This week the University of Miami graduate, hosts the Imagen Awards which honor the ‘positive portrayals of Latinos in the entertainment industry.’  

She sat down to reflect on her career and her contributions with FOX News Latino:

Acting was always a passion. As long as I can remember I always wanted to be in the show. It was a wonderful escape and I loved to make people laugh. I started taking it [acting] seriously in high school. I was cast in the play “The Glass Menagerie.” I played the mother in that play and I channeled my own mother. My mother was the Reina Del Carnaval in 1957 in Holguín, Cuba. I knew this character because she was so close to my mother, this woman who was so dramatic. I got incredible feedback, but I still didn’t know that acting could be something real. When you are not from an acting town it seems like something that is a fantasy, not a real job.

You began your acting career in the early nineties, on shows like “21 Jump Street” and “Murder,She Wrote.” What was that phase of your life like? 

I got “21 Jump Street” while I was still in Miami. I had just graduated college and got to work with Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise.  That was exciting. I knew that I would eventually have to go New York or Los Angeles. I was working commercials and I got [cast in] a telenovela and I really had to practice my Spanish for that. Cubans are particularly proud. You have to speak Spanish at home.  As an adult I made a bigger effort to practice. I am expected to speak Spanish and to know how to salsa dance.

How did you eventually land in Los Angeles?

I met Henry Winkler on the set of a show I was working on in Miami. He asked for my tape and he gave it to an agency. They called me and we had a meeting. It went well and they said that they wanted to represent me. I finished the telenovela and moved to LA in 1993.  

How do you prepare yourself for the ups and downs of an acting career?

If you put your pride in your hard work chances are those results will be positive. As an actor you have to put your heart on a platter and you have to put it out there. Many times the answer is no. Human instinct is to protect yourself after that, but as actors, we can’t do that. So much is out of our hands. When young people ask me ‘what do I have to do to be an actor?’ I say, “You have to train hard, and you have to know whether you really love it and you have to take it seriously. But, what you should not do is let it become your complete identity.” If it is, it is too much. It’s a real psychological dance.

You are raising a family in Los Angeles. What do you do to help them maintain their Latino heritage?

We are American first and foremost. The American culture is my culture, but because I am first generation my roots are very close to me. Because we love our heritage, we want our daughters to speak more Spanish. I have always seen my Cuban as something tasty. It doesn’t define everything that I care about. I see people as individuals first.

How do your daughters react knowing that you work with Selena Gomez?

They grew up knowing Selena as a real person. They didn’t get the whole screaming fans thing. They love Selena because she is sweet to them. They love Jake [Austin] because he is interested in their lives. They love David [Henrie] because he turns them upside down and tickles them. They are not star struck because they know them as people first.
 

You’ve won an ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) Award and an Imagen Award and now you are hosting the 2011 Imagen Awards.  How do you think your career has helped promote opportunities for Latinos in entertainment?

I would like to think that being part of the American landscape and being the Latina lady shows us as being part of this America. Selena Gomez, Antonio Banderas, Andy García are part of that American landscape. It is so great to have a Latina mom on Disney. I hear that on Twitter and it makes me happy and proud because there had not been enough of that.

Cindy Vanegas is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She can be reached at VanegasMargaret@yahoo.com.

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