Comic and Actor Selene Luna Creates Her Own Narrative in Hollywood
On the biggest pleasures we got from producing the Women’s Equality Summit this summer was meeting so many incredible women with such diverse stories of equality. One of the women had the good fortune to connect with along the way is Selene Luna. Her most prominent credit is her work voicing Tia Rosita in the Disney Pixar animated film Coco. But perhaps her most important work is being an advocate for people living with disabilities, including a 2019 visit to Washington to DC to meet with legislators Maxine Waters Speak at a rally on Capitol Hill alongside US Senator Chuck Schumer.
Selene participated in our storyteller event during the summit and her presentation was powerful, we needed to know more. Her interview was so moving we couldn’t edit out a word of it. So we decided to make it into two parts. She talks about her life as a stand-up comic and actress as well as her work fighting for disability justice. But what we found most compelling was her story of growing up with a disability and her determination to creative her own narrative in her entertainment career and get life in general.
We also, knew Selene had so much more to share that we asked her to help us produce our first Passionistas Project Equality Exchange event. And so, next Wednesday, October 28, Selene and five other performers will be coming together for the first ever virtual line-up of all female performers with disabilities. The comedy event will be followed by a roundtable where we can continue the conversation about the challenges faced by women in the community. Find out more here.
The following is an excerpt from our conversation with Selene.
Passionistas: What are you most passionate about?
Selene: What I am most passionate about is disability justice. And I guess you could call me an advocate for disabled justice. And it's not necessarily a fire in my belly that I must do this. It's a necessity that I have to do with, I have better things to do with my time. Being an advocate for social injustice is really exhausting. And it's an absolute shame to me that we have to go to such measures just to be heard. And so that is why I am an advocate for disability justice because it impacts my life personally and those and those around me, people in my life. As early as I could remember, as a little child, nothing got under my skin, then things that were not fair. Unfairness drove me nuts and it still does. And so, I'm very passionate about injustice and it's driven by my own personal challenges in a society that openly discriminates against people with disabilities. So, it's not a joyful passion. It's just a necessity in my life.
Passionistas: So, take us back to when you were a young girl and what your childhood was like.
Selene: My childhood was I'm riddled with adversity. I'm a Mexican immigrant. So, my parents brought our family to the to the United States from Mexico when I was three years old. I don't really have a memory of that, but the challenges we faced were a lot of racism and bigotry because we were Mexican, we were new to the country.
And I was the only person who with a disability in my family. Actually correction. My father is actually disabled as well, but he wasn't born with a disability. He was in a horrific accident when he was 18 and he lost his entire right arm. He's an amputee. But I forget honestly, because the way we grew up was never really talking too much about it. I grew up in the seventies, my parents are old school. You just suck it up and you get on with life. So that was great for me in many ways, but it also was not good for me because then I felt very isolated. No one in my family was a little person and nobody really had a disability that was addressed directly. Everyone's needs were met, but there wasn't a conversation about disability at all. And my dad was busy working two jobs. We just don't even talk about feelings.
So, my upbringing as a disabled little girl, it was very isolating. It was very dark. I felt very alone. I was never immersed in any type of support network. I was never exposed to a disabled community. And my only point of references were disabled people being ridiculed on television. And I grew up watching Billy Barty, the Buggaloos, things like where the creatures on television were, little people in costumes. It was very dehumanizing. And the irony is, and I grew up to do that myself, but as a child that had a lot of internalized shame, enablism, it's the only images I identified with, were the dehumanizing images of little people on television and movies, including the Wizard of Oz that brought up a lot of anxiety for me.
I didn't feel human. I felt like I'm not a human being like my siblings or my parents, like I'm something different and it must be really shameful cause we don't talk about it. So, it was really awful, no gentle way to say this. But grew up old school, you just bare and grin it and you chug along and you don't complain. And so that's where the funny comes in.
At a very young age, I think around the age of five, I think that's about when you start having a little self-awareness, maybe five, six. I remember really in first grade that's when it really hit me that I was not like the others. And when I started to have this self-awareness as a defense mechanism, I was really joking all the time and never serious. And it was really a distraction. It was really to help me survive. I was a clown. I was always using humor as I just figured if I can make them laugh, they'll forget about what I look like.
Passionistas: You had these experiences seeing these images on television and in movies, and yet you chose to go into the entertainment industry. So, what drew you to that in as a career?
Selene: What drew me to it is while I was having this realization when I was very young realizing what I was, I didn't understand what I was, but I knew I was different and in a shameful way, not like cute different. I grew up in Los Angeles. So Hollywood was very much on the radar, socially. And, so as a little kid, I thought, well, if I can make them laugh and I figured I can go into showbiz because I thought I could be the one who changes the images that make me feel ashamed. And also, it would be an opportunity to be in control of the dialogue. I figured if people were gonna laugh and point at me, it would be on my terms. And so that's how I saw that platform. On top of having no real education —and I'm not implying that you don't need an education to get into entertainment — but I just thought my talent would be to entertain people and make them see me the way I want to be seen and heard. And, once I did it, it was a very different reality.
Passionistas: So, tell us about that reality.
Selene: Well, the reality was a pretty harsh in the sense where, I had my mind made up that it's going to be up to me to create a new image for people like me, but I didn't really realize that I wouldn't have the actual platform to execute my plan. I'm 20 years into this career to this day. I can tell you easily, maybe 98% of my auditions or opportunities are to play a creature or a monster of faceless character to this day. Things are actually literally just changing now. I mean this year, there are new roles now, but that we never had. So that was sobering for me.
Around the mid-nineties, I took a workshop class, summer workshop of how to write, standup comedy at the world, famous Hollywood Improv. And so, I took like a summer kind of workshop and I fell in love with it. I was like, this is it. I have a microphone. And people just have to sit and listen ‘til I'm done. And, um, and it went really well.
I started performing at the improv, but I was riddled with so much shame and self- loathing and so insecure and not fully developed as a person. Then I was easily intimidated. It was still very much a man's world, the comedy club. And, I just felt really scared and intimidated being around all these funny men.
So, I wasn't ready. I didn't have the skin. I quit. I quit like an idiot. I threw in the towel. It was so scary. It was never fun for me. I practically wanted to cry after every show. But flash forward, about 10 years after that, I went back into it, ready to go. I was much saltier
Passionistas: What experience did you have in that 10-year period that made you so salty?
Selene: I had a very interesting experience that really helped me to develop as a performer. And it was one of those things that it was something I needed that I didn't know I needed. Literally two weeks after quitting the Improv, I found myself at a party. And at this party I met some women who are still great friends of mine. Some of my closest friends is this group of girlfriends and they were all doing a dance troupe called the Velvet Hammer Burlesque.
And when I was introduced to this, I wrap my head around what they were doing. I didn't totally get it, other than having seen maybe some burlesque and like old-timey movies, but I didn't quite understand what they were doing. And it was very punk rock. And, uh, so they invited me to perform with them. And next thing I know, I ended up performing and developing as a burlesque dancer for about 11 years. And I got to tour the country a little bit of Europe. And that's where I really found my footing as a stage performer. And, and it's not that I was like excited about stripping in front of anybody. To this day, I get dressed in the dark But I have a very confrontational attitude about what I do because my entire life I've been told what I cannot do because of what I look like.
Passionistas: Do you think the fact that this was women who were supporting each other and surrounding each other with positive energy, do you think that helped you overcome not liking to be undressed in front of people?
Selene: 100%? Absolutely. It was like a different planet compared to the comedy clubs. There was no male energy. Uh, not that I don't enjoy male energy, but, um, and also there were men involved in the show, but they, they were like feminist guys, you, they were like really cool creative dudes. I learned a lot from them. And the, the women in the show made me feel like I was part of a sisterhood. They were very nurturing about it. They embraced me, everyone supported each other.
Passionistas: What do you think was the most important thing you learned about yourself from that time in the burlesque show?
Selene: That's a great question. I think what I learned about myself is that I am in fact, a complete woman and, um, and I deserve and have the right to be as feminine as I want to be and claim my sexuality. It made me feel like essential individual. And it gave me the permission to do that.
Passionistas: What's the most rewarding part of your career?
Selene: The most rewarding part of my career, I would have to say, is people respecting my narrative. I created a certain image. I've done certain works and have been respected by my fellow artists and also audiences. And that's been incredibly validating. And it's made me feel like a whole, a complete person.
Learn more about Selene at her website.
Find out more about Chronically Funny: A Comedy Revolution, Featuring an All-Disabled Lineup of Women on October 28th here.
Listen to Selene’s interview on The Passionistas Project Podcast here.