When she was in fifth grade, dawning a poodle skirt and a pink scrunchie-wrapped ponytail, Andrea Navedo played Fonzie’s girlfriend in her school play, Happy Days. Despite the zero lines and the role-required fawning over her on-stage boyfriend, with her parents in the audience and her love for acting blossoming, Navedo felt nothing but happiness.
“There was something about being in front of an audience that I loved and it brought out a different side of me because acting for me, in a way, was safe,” Navedo said. “I can be some alter ego and it’s safe because everyone knows you’re acting. It’s not us. The acting was a safe place to express my emotions, anger, sadness, happiness—the whole spectrum and no one was going to put me down for my behavior.”
Although today the actress is best known for her role as Xiomara, or “Xo,” Villanueva in the CW’s American telenovela, Jane the Virgin, it took her some time before becoming the Latina representation she had always wished for and sharing her hidden passion – acting.
EARLY LIFE IN THE BRONX
Living with her single mother and younger sister while also maintaining a close bond with her father, the Puerto Rican-American actress grew up in the Bronx, New York, in the early 1970s. Though Navedo was born with an innate creativity and curiosity for the world around her, becoming fascinated by bugs and nature in the back of her apartment building on Morris Avenue and Fordham Road, for a shy young girl growing up in the Bronx was a challenge.
Ever since she was a young girl, Andrea Navedo has always had a passion for acting, but due to the lack of Latina representation in the media, she kept it a secret.
“Growing up where I did, you had to have cool comebacks and be able to verbally spar or physically spar, and that wasn’t me,” Navedo said. “So, I was kind of soft, and, growing up in that environment, it had toughened me. I had to learn to be tough. Otherwise, I wouldn’t survive. It was challenging, especially with the lack of funds, lack of good education and lack of support.”
The difference between Navedo’s immediate zip code and the faraway oasis she would watch on TV was a stark one, with the beautiful clothes and nice neighborhoods contrasting with her own. Surrounded by drugs and prostitution as she walked to and from school and watching her mother suffer through an abusive relationship while also on welfare, the actress grew a thick skin she carries with her today.
“[In the Bronx], you have to have an extra sixth sense, very aware of your surroundings,” Navedo said. “Always paying attention, always being vigilant. I’m still very much like that now because that’s how I grew up.”
In 1983, Navedo was one of many girls recruited to attend the all-boys-turned-coed Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. The once-famous institution is upheld by notable alumni such as comic book writer and publisher Stan Lee, fashion designer Ralph Lauren and comedian Tracy Morgan.
Since she was a child, Navedo always had difficulty focusing on school, unsure of what she was supposed to pay attention to. Those feelings didn’t fade when she began high school. Entering this new chapter of her life, she carried the same lack of direction and a new fear of rejection from already tightly-knit groups. Showing up every day and simply going through the motions was put to an end when she found someone she could hold onto – a boy.
Falling for the rebellious “too cool for school” type is a memory many people have, and the Bronx native was, unfortunately, not immune. Their relationship ensued for two years, with his skipping school leading to her own truancy, with verbal arguments becoming physical altercations. Seeing her mother experience a similar relationship, it was difficult for Navedo to realize how wrong this kind of love was, but just as her mother chose to live like that herself, she did the same.
“I ended up finding my own way out. I ended up having a wake-up call and realized that I was going nowhere fast if I kept hanging out with this guy,” Navedo said. “I ended up changing my mind and just making a different choice. It really changed the trajectory of my life. My life right now is a reflection of many decisions and choices. But also, my life is a reflection of that decision.”
Missing about a year of school brought her grades down to a level she didn’t think was possible – “Z” for students who stop attending class or completing assignments – but she picked herself up and managed to graduate high school in five years as an honor roll student. Although not many colleges were willing to overlook her absence, a teacher of hers, Mr. Wyles, took note of Navedo’s perseverance and improvement and helped her toward the State University of New York College at Old Westbury.
Pouring her heart out and pleading her case, the future actress wrote a vulnerable application essay, which was the catalyst for not only her college journey but her acting career as well.
The Latina actress’s biggest and best-kept secret since she was a girl has been just that, that she wanted to act. There was always that gut feeling when she would play pretend, that she had found her passion, but she refrained from voicing it due to the lack of positive Latino representation on TV.
Photo Credit: Andrea Navedo 2020 by Manfred Baumann
Since her fifth-grade debut, Navedo hadn’t acted until her freshman year of college, when she stumbled upon an audition sign for the play, The Exception and the Rule by Bertolt Brecht. Despite the nagging feeling she might mess up or fail from lack of experience, she forced herself to attend the audition and ended up being cast as “The Judge.” With the exception of a few mistakes here and there, she was positive that she was right where she was meant to be.
“I was smitten after that first play. I was done,” Navedo said. “There was no other question whatsoever. This was what I wanted to do with my life.”
After graduating in four years with a bachelor of arts in theater arts with a concentration in acting, the then-aspiring actress immediately got to work and booked one of the leads in an NYU senior thesis film. Although she wasn’t paid for her very first acting job, Navedo worked part-time, saving enough to move out on her own, and bulked up her résumé with TV commercials and print modeling.
AN ACTRESS IN THE MAKING
In 1995, Navedo landed her first, legit job as Linda Sotos on the soap opera, One Life to Live, and although it would put her on the map, accepting the role was a difficult decision. What was listed as the “Girl-Next-Door” turned out to be the role of the girlfriend of a gang leader, a gross Latina stereotype that she wasn’t keen on playing.
Hurt and disappointment were an understatement, as the actress had an internal struggle of not wanting to portray Latinas through this negative stereotype but needed to pay the bills. Ultimately taking on the role, Navedo refused to allow her character to be one-dimensional, and Linda, who originally had zero lines and room for growth, became a recurring addition to the show, staying on for 23 episodes.
“It was a stepping stone and gave me a lot of experience,” Navedo said. “I also turned it around and didn’t go in the direction that they were trying to paint her as. The way they wrote it within this stereotype, it was very limited. How far are you gonna go with this unrealistic character? I humanized her.”
Leaving the soap opera in 1997, Navedo went on to star as Theresa Sandoval in the television series, Guiding Light, in 1999, Detective Ana Cordova in Law & Order, Debbie Dominguez in How to Make It in America, and the 2010 film, Remember Me, before taking on her best-known role in the American telenovela, Jane the Virgin, in 2014.
JANE THE VIRGIN
Pilot season, which begins around the end of January and lasts until the end of spring, is when television networks cast for their potential upcoming shows, and prior to landing the role of Jane’s fiery and beautifully-flawed mother, Navedo, in 2014, almost missed it.
Instagram story of the cast from Jane the Virgin – Credit to Justin Baldoni.
After filming finished for Superfast!, a parody of The Fast and the Furious series, in November 2013, the actress returned to New York to spend time with her family before returning to Los Angeles. But with the passing of her father-in-law and the hospitalization of her mother-in-law, she fought the internal battle of staying home with her then-husband and children or getting on that plane.
Following her heart and her gut, she headed to Hollywood and, just three days after landing in L.A., auditioned for the role of Xiomara, was called back for screen tests and booked the role right before her flight back home. Not only did she fear leaving her family during tough times and being scrutinized because of it, but Navedo was also scared of returning empty-handed and putting herself out there.
“I booked Jane the Virgin because I took a bet on myself. I went in spite of my fear. I was leaving my family for a whole month with nothing, with no proof that I’m ever going to come back with anything, but I’m going to take a chance,” Navedo said. “I did not have any confidence that I would book something but I didn’t lack confidence that it wouldn’t happen. I was neutral. Of course, I was hoping on some level, but it wasn’t like I had to book something. I just knew I had to go and let the rest play itself out. I already won just by getting on that plane. It’s amazing that one decision changed my life. It changed my life in such a huge, huge way. Jane the Virgin was a huge time in my life. Such a wonderful, great impact on my life.”
Since landing Jane the Virgin, which aired from 2014 to 2019, Navedo has starred alongside Will Smith in Netflix’s Bright (2017), A Million Little Things (2021-2023), The Royal (2022) and Mrs. America (2020). Additionally, the actress has remained dedicated to various charities, such as A Place Called Home, a multi-service youth and community center providing a safe and nurturing environment with arts and education programs for youth in South Central Los Angeles.
And in 2018, Navedo was invited as a celebrity guest to give the commencement speech at her high school alma mater, which is where the idea for her first-ever book, Our Otherness is Our Strength: Wisdom From the Boogie Down Bronx, grew from.
Seeing limited Latina representation in entertainment growing up kept the Puerto Rican actress from voicing her true passion until later in life. Fast forward to her Jane the Virgin role, where she made space for more authentic characters in the community.
On July 18, when Our Otherness is Our Strength: Wisdom From the Boogie Down Bronx hits bookstores across the U.S., readers will get a glimpse into Navedo’s life, as she shares bits of her childhood, family memories and the triumphs and challenges of her acting career.
Our Otherness is Our Strength: Wisdom From the Boogie Down Bronx releases this summer 2023.
“I just like to humanize myself so that others can also see their own humanity. I think that’s really important,” Navedo said. “Because I know I can be really, really hard on myself. I hold such a high standard for myself that I can barely reach my own standard. And it’s not cool. It’s not a loving thing to do. I’m learning at this age, and I’ve been learning for years, to love myself. This book is part of me loving myself.”