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“Coco” Actress Selene Luna is a Little Person Who Has Big Things to Say About Discriminating Against the Disabled

“I’ve always had a fire in my belly to fight against discrimination and social injustice to prove to everyone that they were wrong about me, my abilities and anyone else like me.”

She’s only 3’10” tall, but Selene Luna is a little person who is showing the world that big things come in small packages. An established presence in Hollywood with multiple roles in movies and TV shows such as Celebrity Wife Swap, Celebrity Family Feud and Margaret Cho’s The Cho Show, the Mexican-American actress is also a stand-up comedian and burlesque performer who has written and performed six original one-woman shows.

But despite her striking appearance, it’s her voice that you probably recognize best. That’s because Selene (pronounced Suh-leh-neh) is the voice of Tía Rosita in Disney-Pixar’s global animated hit and Oscar-winning movie Coco. This beloved movie became an instant classic with audiences around the world, not to mention a trailblazing success as the first major studio film featuring an all-Latino cast.

While the success of Coco has further propelled Selene’s career, the sharp-witted and outspoken comedian is bracingly honest about the continuing struggles she faces as a little person in the entertainment industry and how she is doing her part to demystify stereotypes and prejudices against people with disabilities.

Thanks so much for chatting with Homegirl Talk. Tell us a bit about yourself. Where were you born?

Tijuana, Mexico. With all the anti-immigrant rhetoric in this country, I feel compelled to clarify that I am a US Citizen, just in case someone feels the need to call ICE after reading my interview!

Lol. And where did you grow up?

When my family first arrived in America we lived in the East LA projects and later moved to the city of Norwalk [a suburb about 25 minutes southeast of Downtown LA].

Let’s start with your role in Coco. This movie was pretty much the biggest thing to come out of 2017. Even better, it was the first major studio big-budget movie to feature an all-Latino cast. How did it feel to be part of this project? Did you have any idea it would be so successful?

Being part of Coco is still very emotional for me; it validated my 20-year struggle and sacrifice as a marginalized artist within the entertainment industry and society as a whole. When I got the part I had no idea the cultural impact this film would have. I was just so grateful for the opportunity to work for Disney-Pixar and their brilliant team of artists and filmmakers.

Selene Luna at work as the voice of Tia Rosita in Coco
Selene Luna at work as the voice of Tia Rosita in Coco

Tell me about the process for getting cast in Coco and doing the voice of Tía Rosita Rivera. Did you base it on anyone in real life? What did you think when you finally saw the movie?

Pixar’s Casting Director reached out to me while I was on a stand-up comedy tour and offered me an audition. Throughout the process, very little was revealed to the voiceover actors about the storyline and characters, which is to be expected from major studios these days—they must take precautions to protect their intellectual property. All I knew was that my character was an older female Mexican family member who exhibited a certain amount of apprehension and anxiety, which was not foreign to me since several older women in my family had nervous personalities, like the type of señora all Latinos have in their families, always persinandosé and praying for the children. I didn’t see the final product until my husband and I attended the Hollywood premiere. I was blown away!  I had no idea how stunning the animation would be and how deeply authentic they would represent the Mexican culture. I especially loved how none of it was whitewashed. Coco is the most honest and compassionate film I’ve ever seen about Mexican culture.

Do you think the success of Coco is a sign of good things to come for Latinos in Hollywood?

Coco has exposed the international community to the heart and beauty of Mexican culture. My hope is that it’ll inspire a demand for more films focusing around Latino-driven characters and story lines, because our visibility matters as much as any other population.

Coco - Photo courtesy of Disney-Pixar
Coco – Photo courtesy of Disney-Pixar

As a fellow Mexican-American, I feel 100% confident saying that Latinos place prime importance on family. What kind of family did you grow up in and how did being a little person impact your family dynamics?

There is no question that my being a little person contributed to my family’s stress and complicated dynamic. I’m not going to sugarcoat it—it was intense, dark and burdensome; we were immigrants with little to no resources trying to survive in a foreign country. My parents sacrificed all their needs and desires to make sure I had medical attention for my disability and they had to fight very hard to make sure my needs were met by the public school system, where I barely received an education. The battles were daily and difficult, but they did everything they could with what they had. I could be angry about the many advantages I missed as an immigrant with a disability, but when compared to others I feel very lucky. I’m in an Oscar-winning Disney-Pixar film, how can I be bitter?!!

You make a funny yet searing comment on your comedy reel where you say, “I’m a woman, I’m disabled and I’m Mexican” and then you joke about being Trump’s kryptonite. But it brings up a very important point, which is that you are giving visibility to each of those aspects just by virtue of you being you! 

My entire life I was discouraged to simply exist because of my size. Regretfully, it was a strong message I got from society, peers and even some family. Perhaps I’m just scrappy, but I’ve always had a fire in my belly that made me want to fight against discrimination and social injustice to prove to everyone that they were wrong about me, my abilities and anyone else like me. This particular adversity is what fuels me to perform stand-up comedy. Comedy is the only platform where people don’t care what you look like as long as you can make them laugh.  Humor is the purest equalizer.

Selena Luna - Photo by Austin Young
Selena Luna – Photo by Austin Young

We’re living in a time when women’s issues are now at the forefront and we’re steadily opening the dialogue about other marginalized groups whether it’s people of color, people of different sizes, LGBTQ and the list goes on. How would you say being a little person fits into all this?

My disability has always taken precedence over being a woman or being Latina. Growing up I was discriminated against by my own Latin community because of my physical disability, only confirming my need to remain vocal for other Latinos with disabilities. It’s frustrating but it gives me purpose; Latinos are no different than every other group that dismisses the existence of people with disabilities.  When you breakdown the “diversity” conversation, people with disabilities are rarely acknowledged as being part of the diversity grouping, or we’re simply at the bottom of the list.  We’re living in a time where government policy is trying to take disabled rights back to the dark ages, so this is my number concern. Being a little person in our society is a daily uphill battle, but it is comforting to know that people are slowly beginning to acknowledge that we are part of the world and have the same basic desires and needs as anyone else.

When it comes to seeing little people in the media, it’s often exploitative—leprechauns, elves, weird characters in music videos who are just there for laughs or a visual goof. (At least, that’s how I see it as someone from the outside looking in.) But then there is someone like Peter Dinklage or even that show “Little People, Big World” that transcend those cliches. How do you feel about little people in the media? Is it a fine line between funny and insulting?

I agree that the media does exploit little people in the name of entertainment, but I put greater accountability on the audience. If viewers rejected the dehumanization of little people in film/TV, the media would not have anything to gain by producing it. Little people seem to be that last acceptable “blackface” in entertainment.

I’m disgusted by the way society views little people, however, the fine line for me is not whether it’s funny or insulting; the fine line is between earning a living or not. Little people who do these demeaning jobs are just trying to pay the rent, myself included. We’ve got bills and families to support just like everyone else. Trust me, I also wish I had a pot of gold!

Our employment options are fewer than your average person. Recently, the Department of Labor reported that the unemployment rate for the general population was 4.6 percent. But for people with disabilities it’s fixed at around 10.5 percent and not declining anytime soon. The stats are very discouraging, especially when studies have proven that people with disabilities make 70% better employees when compared to their able-bodied counterparts. Meanwhile, we’re three times likelier to live in poverty more than any other population. For this reason, how can a little person refuse the ridiculous costume jobs: Trolls, Leprechauns, Gnomes, Hobbits, Elves, Fairies…?  We gotta eat too!

As much as I begrudge some gigs I’ve had to do for survival, it hasn’t been all bad—playing a Christmas elf can actually be a pretty good gig. Like… there’s a choice between getting paid to suck on a candy cane in felt shoes versus sitting in a cubicle for nine hours and being forced to participate in a gross break room potluck! I’d rather be an overpaid holiday clown than look for a straight job. I suck at normal jobs. I’m easily distracted. I don’t work well with others or independently. I require constant supervision.

Lol.

Lastly, I must mention what an incredible, brilliant trailblazer we have in Peter Dinklage, one of my personal heroes. But how sickening is it that the entertainment industry has only allowed room for one man to represent little people as a dignified human being? We’re only allowed ONE guy. Let that sink in.

Selene Luna doing standup - Photo by Devin Smith
Selene Luna doing standup – Photo by Devin Smith

Tell us about the event you’re doing called DON’T LAUGH AT US! A “Special” Comedians Comedy Special. Why was it important to do a stand-up comedy show featuring an all-disabled lineup?

DON’T LAUGH AT US! A “Special” Comedians Comedy Special is a stand-up comedy show I created in response to Trump’s disgraceful and demeaning attitude towards people with disabilities. Americans with disabilities are now facing more uncertainty and outright hostility than at any time in recent memory. What’s most disturbing is that Trump supporters, which include my own family, still voted for him even after he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, only confirming what little regard society has for people with disabilities. It’s ignorant, cruel and cowardly. Seriously, what’s next for Trump supporters? Beating up old ladies?

I felt an intense need to do something so I created DON’T LAUGH AT US! A “Special” Comedians Comedy Special. It’s not just a comedy show, but call to action, one laugh at a time!  It was the first-ever stand-up comedy show with an all-disabled lineup that featured great talents, Greg Walloch, Danielle Perez and me. I’m proud to say we had incredible support and turnout for this show in Los Angeles, so I’m hoping to produce more live dates for DON’T LAUGH AT US! It was a very effective way to break down stereotypes of people with disabilities.  It’s not about hurt feelings; it’s about remaining vocal as disability policy remains threatened in America.

Selene Luna at the premiere of Disney-Pixar's Coco
Selene Luna at the premiere of Disney-Pixar’s Coco

What do you think about the term “differently-abled” instead of “disabled”? Some say it’s more politically correct while others say it further stigmatizes disabled people by discouraging discussion about disability and what it means to be disabled.

In general, I don’t put too much value into labels but the importance in addressing “differently-abled” vs. “disabled” is not lost on me. I only speak for myself: I find the term “differently-abled” to be patronizing and dismissive of reality. Differently-abled implies that my daily life is not riddled with physical challenges; I’m just doing things differently, as if my inabilities to reach the produce bin at the grocery store or the high counters at the bank are a choice to be different.

“Disabled” is not a bad word, it merely describes the fact that a person is living with a medical condition. I’m confronted with physical challenges all day every day and it doesn’t help me or people like me to dance around our reality. I am disabled so there are limits to what I can do. But words have no bearing on what I am able to accomplish. I don’t need my feelings padded with gibberish that doesn’t address my needs.

On your site, you have a blog post that states your “primary purpose is to conquer outdated misconceptions about little people in an effort to humanize our stories.” What have you found to be the biggest misconceptions about little people?

There are many misconceptions about being a little person, in my experience; the greatest misconception is that we are not free-thinking independent adults. People tend to infantile us because of our size and that’s off-the-charts insulting!

Up close & personal with Selene Luna
Up close & personal with Selene Luna

Do you have a favorite quote or motto that you live by?

This quote by former Vice President Biden’s mother is my favorite, especially in Trump world where bigots are no longer ashamed to show us who they are. “No one is better than you. Everyone is your equal, and everyone is equal to you.”— Catherine Biden

Random question: I heard that Margaret Cho is your BFF. Is she as funny in real life as she is on stage? You two are hysterical—I love it!

For many years, Margaret Cho has been a very significant person in my life, from comedy mentor to maid of honor on the most important day of my life. She is very funny, but more important, she is a deep thinker with a very generous soul.

Where can we find you next?

I’m excited to announce that this summer I will be reprising my role as “Dr. Newman” in Jackie Beat’s wildly successful, Golden Girlz Live, August 10-19 in LA. I will also be headlining The Laugh Cellar at The Wine Country Comedy Club in beautiful Sonoma County on September 22.

What do you want to say to all the homegirls out there who could use a word of encouragement?

Don’t look back, you only have today and tomorrow to create your own path.

For more information, check out Selene Luna’s official website.

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Written by Mar Yvette

Mar Yvette is an on-air host, lifestyle expert, writer and editor with 10+ years of experience working with some of the world’s most recognized media companies.