Suni Reyes has heard it all. She’s been asked by casting directors to straighten her hair to conform the white European look they presumed all Latinas had; she submitted an audition tape for “Saturday Night Live” but knew that since they’d already cast one Latina they probably weren’t looking to add more; and after paying her dues for over a decade she’s still called and offered roles like maids and, famously, Delivery Driver No. 2.
But the Puerto Rico-born and raised actress and comedian hasn’t let any of that discourage her. In fact, she’s utilized that as fire to go viral and leave a greater impact than she thought possible. On top of her acting career, where Reyes has popped up most recently in the series “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens,” Reyes has been regularly posting videos looking at political events, social issues, and even Hilaria Baldwin being exposed as a non-Latina. The videos, and the response to them on social media, has done a lot to give Reyes hope after a tough year of could-have-beens.
Reyes said 2019 left her thinking her time had finally come, and 2020 would be even better. She’d recently appeared in both a national commercial for IKEA and as headhunter Nancy Saltz on the Showtime series “Billions.” She flew to Los Angeles to do pilot season, where the hope was she’d be working on a project with Topher Grace, and was scheduled to perform in the 2020 Women in Comedy Festival. Then, the pandemic hit. “For someone that has been working so hard with no money, no big agent, no name, no connections that was truly devastating because now you are back to zero. You are literally back to ‘Who is she again?'” Reyes told IndieWire.
With no work but a bevy of talent, it wasn’t hard for Reyes to settle into a depression. “The news is depressing, people are depressed,” she said. “I cannot go onstage and do these characters, and do stand-up. I have a phone.” It was that phone which became Reyes’ lifeline. “The things that made me mad were my fuel. Whenever I got mad about something I was like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna process this with a character or a video,” she said. It was from there that Reyes turned to creating biting, incisive videos about the things she was seeing, whether that be angry Trump supporters, portraying Kimberly Guilfoyle, or Baldwin.
It was the Hilaria video that threw Reyes into viral stardom, including getting her quoted in the L.A. Times. In reality, this was Reyes’ second time being noticed for exposing the hypocrisy of white consumers and the Latino world. In 2018, fresh off the announcement that Steven Spielberg was planning to remake “West Side Story,” Reyes created a hilariously vicious video — tuned to the “West Side Story” song “America” — criticizing the 1961 movie musical based off the 1957 Broadway production for its use of non-Latino actors to portray Puerto Ricans.
Reyes said, in the case of the “America” video, she knew the video would go viral. “We’re talking about the holy grail,” she said. And she understands the appreciation people have for the movie — it gave us Puerto Rican trailblazer Rita Moreno, after all. But Reyes said she couldn’t just pretend the material doesn’t have problems. “My people are still fighting colonialism, more than 121 years of colonialism,” she said. Reyes especially wanted to discuss Puerto Rico in the wake of former President Donald. J. Trump visiting the island nation in the wake of Hurricane Maria and infamously throwing out paper towels. “The video was a story to tell our struggle, how we are hurting, and how this [“West Side Story”] was not really helpful for our people on a human level and artistic level,” she said. That’s not to say she won’t see Spielberg’s finished product but she wants it to be couched as part of a bigger issue.
That bigger issue is the need to cast more Latinos, as well as elevate them to positions of power. As Reyes said, Latinos are still too often cast to check a box. “This is a problem we have in Hollywood,” she said. “They think they got a Puerto Rican, so we don’t need anymore Puerto Ricans. Hollywood doesn’t go ‘We have the white person, so there’s no more [need for] white people.'” The talent is there and the desire to see them is definitely there. In 2019 Reyes was a part of a Christmas show at El Museo del Barrio in New York, the largest Latino museum in the city. “We sold out a 600-seat theater,” she said. But, more importantly, the need for greater Latino inclusion doesn’t just aid performers, it aids those interested in furthering themselves.
Reyes is frank about the struggles she’s had trying to break into the industry, let alone maintain a foothold. When Reyes moved to New York and started to break into Broadway she immediately came up against the realization that Latinas were relegated to just a few roles. “There’s only so many Anitas and ‘West Side Story’ productions that are out there for the 20 Latinos auditioning,” she said. And to break into Broadway Reyes realized she needed theater credits, both regional and Broadway, as well as a musical theater education just to get into the room. “I quickly realized I have to create my own material, create my own stuff because no one, unfortunately, will give me that shot,” she said.
She said trying to find her niche was like cracking a code, because as one opportunity presented itself a whole host of challenges followed. When she wanted to enter the improv scene, like the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, she discovered it wasn’t cheap to attend. “I found out they had scholarships but you had to audition, so I started creating solo shows to be able to submit,” she said. All of this invention out of necessity made Reyes a literal jack-of-all-trades, but she said that’s the strength of minority performers — that they have to tackle everything to be seen above their white peers.
But because of how few opportunities there are for Latinos, there’s a distinct lack of mentorship. “You meet your hero and they’re just scared of someone coming in and dethroning them,” she said. She won’t name names, but says there’s definitely a distancing that happens between young up-and-comers hoping to build a rapport with other minority performers and established stars. “I feel like other groups have these mentors that keep bringing them up or fostering their voices, but with Latinx talent that [culture of mentorship] doesn’t exist,” she said.
That’s why Reyes hopes her videos are doing the elevating themselves. “When I do these characters I always try to punch up,” she said. “Elevate the voices of the people who are not usually being heard or given the importance they should be given.” Reyes is hopeful that 2021 will be a better year, not just for her but for Hollywood to focus on putting their money where their mouth is and continuing to foster Latino voices, both in front of and behind the camera.