Graduation season is well on its way and once again, Latinas are stepping up to the stage to prove once again that great success can be achieved by anyone who puts the work in. From ones embracing their parents’ immigration stories to others celebrating their parents for their own hard work, there’s no doubt Latinas know how vital their parents are to motivating them to reach for brighter, more informed futures. Recently, one Latina grad crossed the stage towards a future twice as radiant and positive then she might have guessed 12 years ago.
A mom and daughter both graduated from the William Paterson University in New Jersey.
The duo — Sandra Murillo a 46-year-old single mom to Katherinn Lopez-Murillo, 25 — graduated in 2019 class with degrees in public health and criminology, respectively.
Sandra first came to the U.S. from Colombia in 1996 but had to leave her then 2-year-old daughter, Katherinn, behind due to a custody battle.
Sandra said she arrived in the U.S. with $1,000, a suitcase, and didn’t know anyone.
“I just came here with hope that life would be easier…I never thought that coming here, I’d encounter so many challenges,” Sandra said to her university publication. “I was so alone, and I was so discouraged, and I felt like it was going to take me 20 years to graduate.”
In 2006, when Katherinn was 12-years-old, she was finally able to join her mom in the U.S.
Her mom instilled in her from day one that education would be her key to success.
“Unless I was sick, or something terrible was happening, I was going to school,” Katherinn told NBC News. “She told me if you don’t educate yourself, life is going to be so much harder for you.”
Both women enrolled at the school and now plan to relocate to Florida for new job opportunities.
“People like us,” Sandra said to her school publication about the struggles of immigrants, “we need to study, or we’ll never get ahead in life. We women especially, we have to be empowered. If you have money and no needs, you probably won’t want to go to school as an adult while working full time, because it’s hard; it’s very hard. But when you want to do it, and when you come to the end – when you finish and accomplish that goal – you have no idea how it feels. “I am so grateful. I thank God every day for giving me the strength, and for giving me this wonderful daughter who was there with me through the hard times, and for making this more special because she’s graduating with me.”
More than 30,000 women auditioned for the role of Maria in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of “West Side Story.” The casting directors held auditions in Puerto Rico, just to be sure they looked at everyone that would be perfect for this coveted part. Rachel Zegler, a 17-year-old New Jersey high school student, was one of those who auditioned and she nailed it. While her name might not be familiar, the teenager has a long history of performing on stage, just not the professional one.
“When I played Maria on stage a few summers ago, I never could have imagined that I’d be taking on the role again in Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story,'” Zegler wrote on Instagram. “I send a huge thank you to everyone who helped make this incredible dream a reality — I never could’ve done it alone. I am so honored to join the legendary Rita Moreno, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, and Josh Andrés Rivera. As a Colombian-American woman growing up in this day and age, strong roles like Maria are so important. To be able to bring that role to life— a role that means so much to the Hispanic community— is so humbling. I hope you’re all as excited as I am.”
So who is this talented beauty? Here’s how Zegler got the role of a lifetime, and some pivotal moments that lead up to it.
The 17-year-old high school senior from New Jersey went viral last month after she posted a video of herself singing “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born.”
This isn’t how she won the role of Maria, but it certainly didn’t hurt because everyone heard her incredible voice. Film producers, including the director, saw her audition which included two songs from “West Side Story,” “Tonight” and “Me Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”).
She is humbled and thrilled to play the part of Maria because it represents so much.
“I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast,” Zegler told The Hollywood Reporter. “‘West Side Story’ was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.”
The big casting announcement also included the names of three other Latinos tapped for lead roles.
Ariana DeBose will play Anita, David Alvarez will be Bernardo, and Josh Andrés Rivera will be Chino.
We’re really excited to see the chemistry between her and leading actor Ansel Elgort, who will play Tony.
You may remember Elgort from his films “Baby Driver,” “Divergent,” and “The Fault in Our Stars.”
She has played countless roles at her school including Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.”
Zegler said playing Ariel was a blessing and she looks absolutely adorable in the role.
She’s also portrayed the lead in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
She’s a true professional, even though she’s still in high school. There is no denying that Zegler is meant to be on stage and in front of the camera. She can sing, dance, and act.
She is a theater junky who can’t get enough of Broadway.
Her social media is filled with singing videos, and portraits like this one above, in which she goes on and on about her life as a performer. She captioned this picture with: “what to expect if you go on vacation with a theatre person.”
Do you think she has what it takes to portray the new Maria?
While Natalie Wood did a good job in the role, people are over the moon that there will be a Latina playing the role of Maria. Spielberg made it clear that when they were casting they wanted to make sure to include Latino talent in the Latino roles for authenticity.
Her family is supportive of her ambitions.
In a recent post, Zegler thanked her mom for all of her support. “These past few months have been absolutely insane and there’s no one I’d rather have by my side through it all,” she posted. “I love you most, mom. always.”
Her sister is a singer too.
Some of her favorite actors and singers are praising Zegler’s casting and her voice.
Within 24 hours of the news that Zegler was cast as Maria, a ton of Broadway celebs reached out to her congratulating her over the casting. She was clearly ecstatic. Talk about a life-changing moment.
Zegler’s acting abilities are also versatile.
Here she is giving us her best Robert Downey Jr. Pretty solid reproduction of the actor’s facial hair.
Her social media is filled with videos of herself singing on camera.
She sings in the bathroom, empty theaters, her room, just about anywhere. No matter where she is singing, one thing is clear, the girl has talent. No wonder she was cast to play Maria.
But if you’re curious about her incredible voice, just visit her YouTube page.
It’s insanely good! She sings just about every song you can think of. Her covers give the songs new life and her voice is truly worthy of adding to one of the most iconic musicals of all time.
Her favorite though has to be Freddie Mercury.
Her YouTube page features so amazing renditions of Queen songs from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Don’t Stop Me Now.” They are all worth a listen if you have the time.
See…everything she does is for Freddie.
Yes, she plays the piano too. And the ukulele. Who knows where her career in entertainment will take her. Her talent seems endless right now and that is just part of that Latina excellence.
She also loves Disney-everything.
Disney World is one of her favorite places on the planet. Then again, who doesn’t love to visit a Disney park and spend the day eating great food and riding every ride you can.
Zegler isn’t just good at singing and acting. She definitely will be modeling in no time.
She’s so photogenic…simply gorgeous. Designers are probably already waiting for the chance to dress her.
She’s also already a huge influencer.
Less than 24 hours since news broke that she would be playing Maria, people have been flocking to her social media, and her fashion sense is already popular.
Of course, people have already started creating fan pages for the new entertainer.
People move fast. That’s the magic of the internet, right?
Zegler has been training for this moment since she was a little girl!
She was literally born to be a star. “West Side Story” is set to begin filming this summer. We couldn’t be happier for Zegler. It is stories like this that keep smiles on people’s faces as they navigate this world. Good luck, chica! You’re going to be great. In the meantime, follow her on social and get to know her before she really blows up.