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Wilmer Valderrama Wants to Be a Voice for America's Immigrants

We chatted with the 'NCIS' actor and former 'That '70s Show' star about immigrating to the United States as a child and his current role as an activist.
Photo courtesy of Keep Walking America

Last month, actor Wilmer Valderrama left his Los Angeles home for Brownsville, Texas. The Mexican border town sits just opposite the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and has a population that is more than 90 percent Latino.

"I felt like I was seeing the future," Valderrama said of the experience when I caught up with him last week. "With Brownsville, you can see how both cultures—American and Mexican—influence each other, and how they've created this hybrid culture that's infused with both flavors. That is what the future of our national community culture is going to be like—influences coming together to create one common vision."


Born in Miami to a Colombian father and a Venezuelan mother in 1980, the That 70s Show star spent most of his childhood living between his parents' two home countries. In 1993, his family sold everything they owned, packed up, and moved to the US. Here, Wilmer and his sister enrolled in public school, took ESL classes, and got jobs, instilling a work ethic that he credits for his Hollywood successes.

With this in mind, Valderrama has spent the past ten years advocating for US immigrants on issues ranging from workers' rights to legislative reform. Leading up to the presidential election, he was hard at work with Voto Latino, a national nonprofit that seeks to educate and empower Latinos to get involved politically. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump's win, the NCIS newcomer is stressing the importance of unification.

VICE: What made you want to visit Brownsville?
Wilmer Valderrama: I started the campaign with the idea that we could start fueling the positivity behind the word "immigration." I think it's important that we're at the very least disarming the conversation, so that we're able to get to more positive outcomes with whatever discussion we have next. The idea was to remind ourselves of who we are and what is beautiful about that, and what is beautiful about having a multicultural country, and what the strengths are behind that.

What surprised you about the people living down there?
It actually really reminded me of who I am. I was raised in Venezuela—my mother is Colombian, my father is Venezuelan—and Colombia and Venezuela share a border together, so I grew up with that same perspective. We were all so close to one another, so I could completely see the influence that both my mother and my father's cultures had on our household, and how I became so bi-country. When I went to Brownsville, I could see how both America and Mexico influence each other, and it was really inspiring. I feel like we live so separated from one another. Even in the same country, I feel like people stay in their lane, and going down there I really started to realize that.


You were 13 when your family immigrated. What do you remember from that time?
I didn't know how to speak English—I couldn't even count to three—but I learned how to speak it fairly quickly because we realized that my sister and I needed to be the first ones to speak English in our family. When I got here, I was an adult at 14 years old. I'd had my childhood and I was a clown and I was silly and I was fun, but I also had a very mature perspective on things. We knew when we sold everything we had in Venezuela that we were coming to America to work. That was a fact. I remember my dad saying, "We didn't come here to go to Universal Studios and Disneyland." We did do those things, but those were rewards, and that my dad made very clear.

It's not exactly an easy age to make a transition like that. Did you deal with bullying?
I mean, yes. Kids can be super cruel, and I grew up in a time in our country where there was very little representation and very little awareness of other cultures, not only in media, but in entertainment. Entertainment in the 90s was the dictator of what we considered normal. When you had an accent, you were considered uneducated. I was constantly dismissed because, "Oh, he doesn't understand." That was my experience in school, but it fueled the fire for me to learn English. It pushed me to get the tools I needed to survive. From the beginning, our culture feeds us this story that minorities were really, truly minorities, and I had a tough time feeling like I was really part of the national community. I think we've definitely seen the evolution of that, and the acceptance, and the platform that has been extended for all cultures to do extraordinary things out loud and have the world hear it.


How did that reality factor in when you decided to pursue acting?
You know, it really didn't, and I think that was one of my biggest assets. I was so naïve about the whole situation and that kind of made me look the other way. I honestly believe that was my biggest advantage. To not live through anyone else's eyes, and not take anyone else's horror story as something that would possibly parallel my experience was the best thing I ever did.

Looking back, I think that not knowing how crazy the industry could be—how twisted it could be, how dark it could be, how lonely it could be—really helped me. The moment things got a little sad I just turned the music louder, because that is what Latinos do. Things get bad, we turn up the volume and start fucking dancing.

Was there something in particular that inspired you to get involved on the activism side?
It was when I worked on Fast Food Nation with Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser. I played an immigrant who crossed the border and took a job at a slaughterhouse alongside his wife. At the time, and probably still today, the job was considered one of the most dangerous jobs in America. That was the first time I really got the perspective that comes with playing an individual who is alive, who breathes, who is out there working his ass off from 4:30 in the morning till 9 at night and going to bed and waking up and doing it all over again. I felt there was a certain sense of ownership and responsibility that came with that part, and I really started thinking hard about what I said to the media. Richard and Eric were really my mentors as an activist. They taught me that if you speak up on a personal level, and if your story and what you speak about and what you stand for is organically rooted in who you are, then no one can really disagree with it. They taught me that what you're passionate about will always be true.

Now you're involved with Voto Latino.
Yes, as a chairman. Eleven years ago the organization sought to get as many minorities as possible enrolled in the census, and when we saw the numbers, we thought, imagine if they all registered to vote and imagine what that could do. That's how it started, and then it kind of progressed into the human issues. Speaking on these things became a huge part of my heart, and a huge part of who I am. Reminding people that it's OK to be different, and it's OK to be from somewhere else, and it's also OK to consider this your home. A lot of immigrants consider themselves guests here, but if America is your home, you have to take charge of it. You have the right to be in control of it, and you have to do what's right for you and your family.

Donald Trump's platform has instilled a newfound sense of fear in a lot of immigrants. Where do we go from here?
In times like this, I feel like we have to remind ourselves what's really, truly important—what we really do have. We have to come together and remember who we are as a community and as people in this country. I think that now more than ever we need to continue to bring hope, to fuel positivity, because it is a really hard time for people who have immigrated here. That to me is the next phase of this moment we're living in.