Litchfield Penitentiary was on fire this past season of Orange Is the New Black, and Miriam Morales’ character Ramona “Pidge” Contreras was on the front lines of the prison-wide rebellion, taking it upon herself to guard the small group of prison guards and employees who were taken hostage by the prisoners during the riot. Throughout the season, Morales was able to showcase the duality of Pidge — from the tough-as-nails hostage guard to the hysterically funny coffee-snorting co-d to Ouija (played by Rosal Colón) — which made Pidge an instant fan favorite.
‘LLERO caught up with the Brentwood, Long Island Nuyorican to chat about her early days in acting, her work on OITNB, her views on the portrayals of Latinos and their stories in Hollywood, and the need for more Afro-Latino representation in media.
‘LL: Tell us a bit about some of the aspects of your life growing up that set the course for your current path.
Miriam Morales: I did a play in church when I was maybe five- or six-years-old, and that was something that I instantly fell in love with. I knew after doing that play that that was something that I wanted to do. I didn’t understand at the time that it was called acting, I just knew that whatever it is that I’m doing here, this is it. Ever since then, I always performed in school plays and church plays—anything that would have to do with the arts, I would do. I would literally look in the back of Newsday or the penny saver, or my local library just to see what they had going on in theatre and arts. Anything that was free is definitely what I did. My first real audition was when I was 13, and it was for the show Ghostwriter. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it.
‘LL: Oh, yes. Yes we have.
Miriam Morales: You’ve heard of that show? Really? [Laughs]. Whenever I tell anyone that story, they’re like, “What are you talking about?” I’ll be like, “Never mind.”
‘LL: I loved that show, actually.
Miriam Morales: Me too! That’s so cool! That was my first real audition, and it’s something that I’ve always done. I’ve always pursued it. After high school, I went to conservatory, which is an acting school, and it was just something that I never stopped.
‘LL: Did you have a mentor while you were on the come up?
Miriam Morales: I didn’t have a single mentor. The teachers that I had throughout the years served as mentors for me during that time. The first person that comes to mind is Herman Chavez. His classes are called “The Mental Game of Auditioning.” I really feel that my time with him really laid the foundation for everything that came after. I would say that he is someone who influenced me professionally not just as an actress but as a person as well during my time with him. There are a few other people, like Heidi Marshall I’ve worked with also in a class setting and one-on-one a lot. Also, there’s Ellen Marshall who is the person I worked with on my audition for Orange Is the New Black.
‘LL: Were there any actors you looked up to when you were starting out?
Miriam Morales: As an Afro-Latina, we are not very visible when it comes to media. There’s no real representation of us that we can see in Hollywood. Afro-Latinas are not the norm. You have your Penelope Cruz and Sofia Vergara, and I think people forget that. I’m not even the darkest of the Afro-Latinas. There are some that are darker than me and have coarser hair. I think that defining as Afro-Latina and not really seeing much of myself on television is one of the reasons why I always admired and respected Gina Torres, Lauren Vélez and Rosie Perez. Of course there are other people that I looked up to, not only Latinas, but just as seeing myself in the media it was those three.
‘LL: When starting to ply your trade as an actor, was being Afro-Latina a challenge for you personally?
Miriam Morales: You know, it’s funny you say that because when I was growing up as a teenager just trying to figure things out, I didn’t make that connection. Looking back on it, I would say yes, because I didn’t look like Hollywood Latinas. I also didn’t wear my hair naturally curly as much as I do now, and I noticed people treating me differently when I wore my hair straight. Most of the rolls that I was cast for in the very beginning of my career weren’t even made or written as Latina characters. They were African American, and they would change the name of the character to reflect the Latina, which I didn’t ask for. I don’t think that it’s necessary, but it has always been that most of my characters weren’t meant to be played by Latina actors, with the exception of Orange. Being Afro-Latina, and looking the way that I do, I still encounter difficulty. I think it’s improving, but I don’t think it’s improving fast enough to reflect the demographics of this country and the demographics of the Latino community.
‘LL: What were some of the roles you played before landing a spot on OITNB?
Miriam Morales: They were indie films like the smaller things that you do for credits, but one of them is actually out there for people to watch. True Story is the feature film, and I play the role of Tamika Torres. That was one role where the director changed the name to fit the actor, which I found interesting. I didn’t even know that he had done that until we finished the project and had a screening and in the credits I noticed that it said Tamika Torres, and I was like, “Oh, you changed the name!” [Laughs].
‘LL: Now, is that something that you see as a negative thing, to change the character based on the race of the actor?
Miriam Morales: No, I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing. Whatever his reasons were for it, I respect it. I don’t think it was necessarily like, “Oh, she’s Latina, and I know that she looks Latina. So, I’m just going to change it.” I feel like from the other perspective, it’s also like I don’t think it’s necessary you can see someone’s name and know what they are because I could be mixed, which is what a lot of people thought when I started acting. No one knew I was Latina. Then, when they would hear my last name, they would be like, “Oh, so you’re Latina.”
Learn how Miriam landed on OITNB, what day one on the set was like and what’s next for Pidge after the jump!