"I was seven years old when I started acting," says Paulina Chávez, 18, whose parents regularly drove her from their home in San Antonio to Dallas — a nearly 10-hour round trip — for auditions and acting lessons. "I'd just been auditioning and auditioning and working hard."
After landing a few small parts in TV and short films, the hard work finally paid off last year, when Chávez, then 17, landed the title role in the Netflix series The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia, co-created by Mario Lopez. From the beginning, she was mesmerized by the character of Ashley, a 15-and-a-half-year-old robotics engineer and rocket scientist who moves in with her uncle (played by Jencarlos Canela) so she can work at NASA. "I was immediately captivated by the character," Chávez says. "She is something that you rarely see on TV, so I was excited to do it."
Characters like Ashley are one of the reasons Chávez started acting in the first place. "Ever since I was little I've loved making people feel something, making people happy, and it's a feeling that you get on stage," she explains. "Not only that, but being an actress, you also have a voice and you have to use it for good and what you believe in. So I do want to use my voice for good and represent Latinas. Latinas can do whatever they set their minds to."
To that end, Chávez has also created a scholarship for Latinx students at a San Antonio school. "My mom is an educator, so I believe education is a very important thing," she says. "I just want to help Latinos pursue whatever they want to do. It's just creating opportunities for them and opening the doors for many possibilities."
If that’s not enough to keep her busy, Chávez is also a musician. When her family lived in El Paso (where she was born), they would go to Chihuahua, Mexico, every weekend to visit family and see mariachi bands "singing their hearts out." "When I moved to San Antonio I was so fortunate that my school district had a mariachi program, so I signed up," she recalls. "You have to learn an instrument so I chose the violin, but I mostly signed up so that I could sing and perform. Performing is just something I love to do, and connecting with the audience is top-notch."
When her parents started homeschooling her, she enrolled at the San Antonio Mariachi Academy, whose teachers are so wonderful that Paulina specifically asks to shout them out. "Mr. and Mrs. Campos — they're amazing!" she says. "They know how to play every instrument, I swear to you." She even went back to them for guitar lessons for her upcoming role in Feliz NaviDAD, a Lifetime movie starring Lopez as her father. "I don't know how I did, but the great teacher really got through."
Adam Rose/Netflix "We are a huge family on set," Chávez says of the Ashley Garcia cast and crew. "The cast is incredible. Jencarlos is like a brother. Mario is like a brother that I annoy all the time and he annoys me, and we just have fun, harmless little fights."
She's happy to have been a part of Netflix's recent string of Latinx-focused hits, like Gentefied and On My Block. "It's an honor ... we're a stepping stone to the future," she says. "We need a good balance, and I want to break stereotypes. Stereotypes should not be a thing. Anybody can play whatever they want to play."
A post shared by Paulina Chávez (@paulinafchavez) on Jun 9, 2020 at 7:10pm PDT
In addition to Feliz NaviDAD, she wants to do an EP with her onscreen uncle Canela, work on her own solo music, act in movies, do projects in Spanish, and expand her scholarship. She's also excited to vote for the first time this November — she registered two weeks before her 18th birthday this past spring. "I encourage everyone out there to vote because it's super important," she says. "It's a touchy subject. People believe in what they believe in, but come on, open your eyes and stay open-minded!"
For more with Paulina, look for the new issue of People en Español, on stands now.