Selene Luna is best known as the voice of Tia Rosita in Disney Pixar's Coco. She is an established presence in Hollywood with multiple roles in movies and TV shows, including Margaret Cho's "The Cho Show. " The Mexican American actress, who lives with a physical disability, has also broken ground as a featured burlesque dancer in five national tours of the undisputed queen of burlesque Deeta Von Teese. She is also an advocate for people living with disabilities including a 2019 trip to DC to meet with legislators and speak at a rally on Capitol Hill.
More about Selene.
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Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. Today's episode is Part 2 of a two-part interview with Selene Luna, best known as the voice of Tia Rosita in Disney Pixar's Coco. Selene is an established presence in Hollywood with multiple roles in movies and TV shows, including Margaret Cho's "The Cho Show. " The Mexican American actress, who lives with a physical disability, has also broken ground as a featured burlesque dancer in five national tours of the undisputed queen of burlesque Deeta Von Teese.
In 2019, Selena went to Washington DC to meet with legislators like US Representative Maxine Waters at the 2019 Conference on Independent Living to advocate for disability rights and spoke at a rally on Capitol Hill alongside US Senator Chuck Schumer.
And it's not too late to get your tickets for tonight's event. Chronically Funny: A Comedy Revolution Featuring an All-Disabled Lineup of Women. This virtual comedy show will be followed by a round table discussion with the performers.
So please welcome to the show Selene Luna.
In 2017, you voiced the character of Tia Rosita in the Academy Award and Golden Globe winning film "Coco." So talk about that experience and how did that come about and how did you feel about doing that movie?
Selene: It was such an unbelievable experience for me personally. It was validating not only am I a disabled woman working under the Pixar brand, but I'm a Brown person, you know, a Mexican doing, you know, Disney Pixar. So that was, I couldn't believe it was happening in my lifetime. And that had everything to do with the team at Pixar and Disney. They went through great, great measures to make sure this film was not whitewashed. And so what was very special about it is that it's the very first film in major studio history to have an all Latino cast. And so I feel like I'm part of history and that film means the world to me. And also because they told the story in such a beautiful way, that absolutely honored my Mexican culture. And so for the first time in my life, I had family relatives who were in like so deeply engaged and proud and just having my family and extended family proud that I was in something that finally represented our people in a positive, beautiful light.
Passionistas: I love that it explained to other people beyond the Mexican culture, what the day of the dead symbolizes.
Selene: I even know my friend's kid, you know, they're white and, but the little kid, an altar, you know, he has a little day of the dead altar and it just those little things that, like, it means a lot to reach someone from a different culture and to be embraced for the beauty that your culture brings. Yeah. It's been really giving film in so many ways, like on so many levels.
Passionistas: What kind of doors has that movie opened up for you professionally and as an advocate?
Selene: It really has opened doors for me. As far as advocacy goes. Right around the same time that the film came out, that's when I started to have a real awakening about disability justice. The timing kind of just really sinked up. And the reason was that I didn't become involved with disability justice until that movie came out. It's only been a few years. And I'll be brutally honest is because up until that point, I was really riddled with self-loathing ableism. Like I was, I, I was not okay with who I was, even though throughout, you know, my entertainment career. It may appear, it may have appeared that I was great. I was totally fine. I embraced who I was, it was all fake. It's not true. I hated myself. It didn't I didn't feel accepted by, you know, most communities ,by anybody really.
And it was very painful for me, but I just happened to believe, well, it's not a belief what actually happens. It's just my level of maturity and finding myself as a complete woman. It all just kind of happened at that time in my life. And it all just kind of came together. So "Coco" had a lot to do with it because at the time I was attending a lot of events you know, you do a big film suddenly everybody's interested. So I kept getting invited to various events. I was receiving recognitions and awards from various Latino communities and organizations. And through there I was connected with with the wonderful organization, which I, which has mentioned in my intro. It's SCRS-IL, a big long acronym for Southern California Resource for Independent Living. It is a disability advocacy group that serves the state of California and mainly Los Angeles County.
They're the largest disability rights organization in Southern California. I became involved with them mainly because they serve the population that I grew in the the Latino population. And through them, I began to learn about what's wrong with this world and how, and what we need to do. And the more I learned the angrier I became and decided I need to do something. And I took advantage of having this platform of the media attention I was getting because of "Coco." So I thought I better take advantage of this opportunity because in showbiz, I mean, you're hot one minute cold the next, and that's real for everybody. So I married the two.
Passionistas: Tell us about the trip you took in 2019 to Washington.
Selene: Well, the trip I took out was to Washington was specifically with SCRS. I became, I, I became involved by being on their board of directors. So as a member of the board of directors, I was invited to travel with them to Washington DC for the Nickel Conference, which is the National Council of Independent Living, which is the, the disability rights movement that started just over 30 years ago. So every year in June, they have a conference on Capitol Hill, along with a week-long of activism. There's a huge March a parade we take over DC. And so with them, with SCRS, I had the privilege of participating and it was life-changing for me. It was the first time in my life that I was in an environment where it was all disabled people, as far as I could see of all variations, all different conditions.
And it was the most powerful feeling of like, wow, this is the first time in my life where I'm not the only one. And it was so... Talk about Passionista and everybody there was like so much fire in their belly, such a, I felt so much passion and pride for who I am and, and really, really, it resonated for the first time in my life. Like we deserve as much as anyone else. And so that was an incredible experience for me. So as part of the week long events, I gave a talk on Capitol Hill about education discrimination against individuals with disability. I focused on education because of my personal experience. Throughout my entire childhood. Growing up in the Los Angeles public school system, I was cheated from getting the equal education that other kids got simply because of my condition ha it had nothing to do with my IQ or my mental ability.
So, I spoke about that and then throughout the week we had meetings, individual meetings with various legislators to talk about what SCRS does as far as they advocate for STEM education for children with disabilities. And so we went to go and meet with legislators to secure funding.
Passionistas: So what can people do that did not have a disability? How can we be better allies?
Selene: To be a better ally... Here's a great example. You, you and not you guys, but you weren't one enabled bodied or just an abled person is not an ally by simply posting something on Instagram, like a guy in a wheelchair, lifting weight, lifting weights, and claiming to be inspired by this individual. We don't care for you to be inspired. The true definition of being inspired means that you were moved to take action. So if you're actually inspired, if you actually want to help, we need you to take real action.
And that starts at the ground level. That starts at your local community, make sure that every building in your town and every sidewalk is accessible. For example, a huge issue in big cities right now is we have a homeless epidemic in this country and which is heartbreaking and horrific. And as a result, a lot of the sidewalks in major metropolitan areas are packed with homeless encampments. So I don't know what the solution is because I don't know where the homeless are supposed to go. I don't have that answer, but just imagine being an individual with a physical disability that has to get to the bus stop in a wheelchair, but there's nowhere on the sidewalk to wheel up to the bus stop. How are you going to get to work? So it's those simple everyday things, you know, talk to your local government, get involved in trying to figure out what the solution is, provide a path. Simple things, daily things help provide paths and accessibility for disabled people who need to get on that sidewalk that are packed with homeless encampments. So it's that kind of thing. Really just take action in your own local community.
Passionistas: Is there a question that we should be asking that we're not asking?
Selene: Yes. The question is for me, and I think for a lot of people in my shoes, why is it legal in 38 States to pay disabled people less than minimum wage for the same work executed by abled individuals? I have a lot of there aren't many laws in place set up against individuals with disability. It's overwhelming to try to list all the problems, but here's another example that people don't realize and it's in our faces. It connects to Black Lives Matter more than 50% of Black individuals who are murdered by police are disabled. So not only are they Black, they're disabled on top of it, nobody addresses that the Sable population being murdered under the Black Lives movement.
And why isn't anyone talking about this? Not only are they black, they're disabled, and these kinds of things need to come to light. I'm guessing it's probably attributed to individuals with mental illness because they're not able to communicate with the police. Also, if you're a deaf Black man, you are a dead immediately, dead. Police officers are not trained to deal with anyone who's deaf or has a hearing impairment. So if a deaf individual is at gunpoint, how are they going to sign? How are they going to motion? How are they going to communicate? Hold on. I can't hear you. And then they get shot. People really need to realize the social injustices against disabled people. It's something relevant to all of us.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. And you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Selene Luna. To learn more about Selene visit her website, SeleneLuna.com. Now here's more of our interview with Selene.
I know you've had a podcast, but have you ever considered doing a podcast about these issues?
Selene: I did start to do one, but I put it on the side. The podcast that I started was called "Little Woman, Big Crimes." And I was going to focus on crimes against individuals with disabilities. Here's another statistic. God, I can't remember the specific numbers, but it's something like a disabled individual is murdered every hour, every day by a caretaker usually. And the media does not report on this because sympathy is directed towards the person who murdered the disabled individual because disabled individuals by society are considered a burden and they, a journalist will always find the angle where, well, you kind of can't blame the murderer. The murderer tends to be the caretaker.
There, a wonderful website, that is a Memorial to all individuals throughout the entire. It's an international list of individuals who have been murdered by their caretakers. And the stories are devastating, brutal, gut wrenching. They're not covered by anybody. And I went as far as recording four episodes, but the stories are so horrific. I didn't have the stomach to continue. And so I kind of shelved that project. I just, I couldn't do it. It made me sick inside. I was having nightmares and these stories are horrific.
I mean, for example, I don't know if you want to hear it now, but one of the stories that covered was a woman in Russia who was a paraplegic, was boiled alive by her daughter-in-law her daughter-in-law was her caretaker and boiled her alive just cause she was sick of taking care of her. There was a, a father who, and this is a very tragic example. There was a father here in America, the father had mental illness. He was schizophrenic and he was off his medications. He had an eight year old son who used a wheelchair. The father was having an episode where he thought his son in the wheelchair was not human and decapitated him too, because he thought the son was a robot and he wanted to rewire him. So and this isn't like 20 years ago, this story was like, you know kind of I think maybe 10 years ago. So there was a lot of horrific violence against individuals with disabilities. The numbers are staggering and it's something, no one addresses media won't cover it rarely, rarely is a caregiver ever prosecuted at all. Everybody just feels sorry for them cause they were burdened with the caretaking task.
Passionistas: What about coming to terms with your own feelings about yourself and what a struggle that seemed to be for you for such a long time? What advice do you have for someone who maybe hasn't come to that place yet?
Selene: That's a really good question because growing up, I always wished that there was somebody like that in my life. It would have made all the difference in the world. It would have changed me as an individual. But I think at this point, the wisdom I can offer to anyone struggling to live, not so much live in their body, but to navigate through the blatant discrimination we experience on a daily basis is to just do not let all these messages develop the opinion of yourself. That sounds hypocritical because that's what I did. I was told that I was, I was not told directly, I was taught that I was not worth. I was not a complete human, barely human, and that I should remain invisible. So when I started to vocalize who I am and pride in myself, that really changed my paradigm. So all I can say is use your voice. Don't back down. Don't allow yourself to be denied anything just because society says so. Do what you have to do is fight, scream, be angry. Let people know you are a complete person and you have, you are entitled to access, to equal access that everyone else in society has. It is your entitlement. You are not invisible. Don't stay quiet, speak up for yourself.
Passionistas: And you said that when you got into the entertainment business, your hope was that you could change the story being told. So do you think that the story has changed and do you feel like you've had a part in that?
Selene: I don't know that I had a part in it on a grand scale, but I know, I, I believe that I have had a part in changing people's perspectives towards someone like me simply because I've had the privilege of performing to thousands of people live and they saw me, they heard me, so I know I've made an impact. And but I think Hollywood is starting to change. Things are going in the right direction, but it's, I think we have a long way to go. And until images of individuals with disability are changed in the media, then culture will not follow anything. The media sets the sets, the stage sets the tone for our culture. And so until that happens, we won't see it, but it is happening.
I mean, look at us, we're talking about it five years ago. I wasn't talking about it with anybody. Nobody cared two years ago, nobody cared, but I think that's kind of the silver lining about this COVID situation, where now forced to take inventory and reflect all of us. Everybody able, not abled everybody. We are all now sitting at home taking inventory on what matters, what does it matter? You know, everything we've taken for granted, we are now confronted with. So I really see this as the silver lining in the disability movement. So because for the first time in my life, I'm talking about it. People are want to hear people want to learn. So I'm very excited about that. I never imagined, never in a million years than I imagined anybody would care about disability and disabled justice in my lifetime. And I have to add, I gotta, I gotta cut Hollywood some Slack this year alone through COVID I'm now getting auditions for like real human beings. You know, I'm getting like legitimate human auditions. In fact, I just had one yesterday for HBO, you know, that never happened in my life ever. So that's very exciting.
Passionistas: And do you attribute that to COVID or do you think there's a bigger movement?
Selene: I attribute it to the Black Lives Matter movement that has opened and I'm grateful. Black Lives Matter has opened the flood Gates to the injustices in this world. And now people are starting to speak up. People are now saying, Hey, you know what, me too. I understand. I, I, you know, my people w we, we get the short end of the stick too. And also because of social media being on lockdown, there's so much information now being thrown at us. And so it's kind of been a great opportunity. People are now listening.
Passionistas: Looking at back on your journey, what do you think was the most courageous decision that you made that changed your path?
Selene: The most courageous, just decision I made, I think, and I still benefit from it is to stop caring about what people think and just commit to creating my own narrative, no matter how painful it is, no matter how difficult. And I'm actually a very shy individual. I really am. I, I don't like unnecessary attention because of how I grew up. I was always, I never went a day without being laughed at, stared at, it was really brutal. And then people ask, well, then why did you go into show business? You're going to get nothing but attention, but it's on my terms. When I say I'm doing it when I want, you're going to look at me and you're going to laugh when I say it's okay.
But outside of being on stage on camera, I'm a complete introvert. And I just like being quiet and alone. It's a protection thing. And so, but building up the courage to just stop caring and just be free to live, to just be myself and just, pardon my French. Just a case of the fuck-its.
Passionistas: Do you have a mantra that you live by?
Selene: It's really silly and a little bit vulgar, but I stole it from Judy Garland. You know, there was a, an, which I thought for many years was an urban legend, but it turns out it was confirmed. Before getting on stage, Judy Garland would stand behind the curtain and just say to herself, "fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em." And that would give her the courage to go on. And I w I heard that throughout my life, and I just thought it was urban legend.
And but I started doing it myself before going on stage. And it's really empowering. It shakes off the nerves. It shakes off the anxiety. And later in my career, I became friends was this great producer. And she wants, worked on the Bob Hope show and confirmed that she saw Judy Garland do that. So it's true. And I don't know, you know, and, and I implemented it into my life. And even my internal dialogue, I still have triggers, you know, go to the store. It's like, Oh God, here's a mob of people staring at me. You know, just things like that. And I just go in my head, what would Judt do? "Fuck 'em, Fuck 'em, fuck 'em." It gets me through the day. It gets me through some tough times. It's so simple, but it feels so good.
Passionistas: What's your definition of success?
Selene: My definition of success is having the love and respect of my family and friends.
Passionistas: What's your secret to a rewarding life?
Selene: My secret to a rewarding life is to be kind, I have found because I was very angry, very resentful, very resentful. And so in aging and just growing up as a woman, I realized that kindness goes a long way because anytime you're kind to someone you're really being kind to yourself, it cuts the edge. I know it's really simple, but I have found that it has helped me to heal in many ways. And so the more kindness and generosity that comes from out of me that I share with people, and that has also developed in my advocacy for disability, for disabled justice. The ability to speak for others who are not able to speak up for themselves and to have compassion, to do it compassionately, not angrily, although I can't help it, sometimes I'm very angry a lot, but when I have an element of kindness to anything that I'm doing, I find it very comforting and very personal personally rewarding. And that's all really, it goes a long way.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Selene Luna. To learn more about Selene, visit her website, SeleneLuna.com.
And find out more about Chronically Funny: A Comedy Revolution, Featuring an All-Disabled Lineup of Women on October 28th at 8:00 PM Eastern | 5:00 PM Pacific at thepassionistasproject.com.
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