‘In The Heights’ Actor Stephanie Beatriz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Empanaditas, and Bisexuality
The empanaditas de queso, or “little cheese empanadas,” that Stephanie Beatriz’s mom makes aren’t so much a food as they are a labor of love. And about five minutes before I hopped on the phone with Beatriz to interview her over a dish of empanaditas de queso I was attempting to make myself, I wasn’t sure I was going to have any love to brag about. Because, well, labors of love take time. More time than I had allotted.
But when, in the first couple minutes of our conversation in late May, I tell her that respectfully, her mom’s recipe kicked my ass, she lets out a scream and says, “Oh my God, my mom would say the same thing! We used to beg my mom to make this, but it’s such a pain in the ass that she wouldn’t do it very often!” These little pillow shells of cheesy goodness don’t call for pre-made dough. No, no. If you want to be like Mama Beatriz, you make the dough yourself. You grate the cheese. You work for your little empanadas, okay?
Most people know Beatriz as Detective Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine; she also stars in Jon M. Chu’s summer blockbuster, In the Heights. But that celebrity glamour doesn’t carry weight when she’s back home. Fun fact: Beatriz said she got more attention from her family for being in the audience for an episode of Bachelor in Paradise than she does for her acting work.
Born to a Colombian father and a Bolivian mother, who raised Beatriz and her sister outside Houston after immigrating from Argentina, she is the product of several Latinx cultures, which explains the fare that she came to love growing up. “To this day, Tex-Mex is really my favorite food,” she blurts out. “Anytime I go back home, it’s the first kind of food that I want.” At the top of the Tex-Mex heap is an empanadita de queso, a cheesy treat with a golden crust that’s just slightly sweet.
And the treat was just that—for special occasions. With money tight, Beatriz remembers that most fancy appetizers were meant for guests. But these? These were for her and her sister. I chowed down on a few quite literally fresh from the oven while Beatriz answered my questions about her mom’s recipe, her role in In the Heights, and how she continues to represent all parts of her identity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Justin Kirkland: Okay, but seriously, these empanaditas really did kick my ass.
Stephanie Beatriz: It became a very special dish! I can’t remember the last time she made it. It’s probably been 10 years because it’s such a bitch.
You mentioned that you and your sister used to help out by closing them up. Were you encouraged to be in the kitchen growing up?
We grew up in a two-bedroom apartment right outside of Houston, in this little suburb called Webster. We had a galley kitchen, so it was very thin and really only two people could fit in there comfortably. When the oven was open, you didn’t walk around. It was a really small space, so we wanted to be in there, but most of the time, we were shooed out. There was a lot of déjame en paz, which is “leave me in peace, so I can cook.”
It was a treat to be allowed in there, but it also meant that any mistakes you made were going to be judged as huge mistakes. For example, one time I think Mom was saving a jar of fat from something, and as a kid, I was like, “Ew, this jar looks like it’s full of fat and oil, I’m going to throw it out,” and I did, and I got in huge trouble. Level 20 trouble, when it really should have been level two, but cooking was such high stakes because as you can see, that empanada recipe has a lot of parts to it. If you mess up, that’s however much money wasted. That affects how everybody eats the rest of the week.
I relate to that so much. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot. We had a grease jar, too. You didn’t touch that jar!
I was watching Real Housewives last night. Kyle insists on cooking, and she burns like six filets of salmon, and my heart fell into my stomach, like, Ah! That’s so much money she wasted!
Is there a food that you grew up with, where you were like, “Oh my God, are we doing this again?” And now as an adult, you’re like, “Game on. I want that one thing.”
The thing that I was… not embarrassed about, but was a weird meal for me as a kid was when we would have any kind of holiday stuff. My mom would hit the Costco and get little mini quiches. Do you know those?
Yes, yes, yes.
They’re so good. I think at the time, when I was a kid, there was something embarrassing about Costco. I just felt like, “Why aren’t we going to the regular, fancy grocery store and shopping like everybody else does?” And as an adult, I mean, Costco is like, Obviously we’re going to go to Costco. Costco has the best prices on wine, also I could buy a TV, also, do I need new slippers? Also, I’m going to get a plant. It’s the food connection, but it’s also the money connection. When you grow up kind of poor, or struggling for money, there’s a lot of shame that gets attached to that.
Now I can see how wonderful it is that my parents instilled in me money’s valuable and you don’t have to waste it. You can spend it on the things that you want to spend it on that are valuable to you. My dad would miraculously come up with $20 so I could hit the movies with my friends, but there were other things that they were really savvy about.
Speaking of family, I got to see In the Heights, and I mean, it’s an incredible film. What was that experience like?
Being with actors, and dancers, and everyone in the cast, and I extend “in the cast” to the extras as well, and everything with the people that made up the community of Washington Heights… In the Heights was really special, because there were so many different types of people filling up that world, and I’d never seen us on screen like that before. I remember Jon Chu showing me an initial cut of “Carnival,” and I felt so shaky, like I was going to throw up as I was watching it. I realized it was because I just was having an experience that I’d never had before. I was seeing so many people, and I’d never seen us like that on film.
I was also really excited because they folded in the fact that your character is queer, which was an incredible little slide in. Do you know how that came to be? Did you have any hand in that?
I didn’t have a specific hand in it. I knew that it was going to be happening from the get-go. I think it was Quiara [Alegría Hudes, screenwriter] or maybe Jon that mentioned it really early on. And I was, of course, super excited, because as somebody who’s queer, I’m dying for more—more of it everywhere, in all forms of media. So when I was told that that’s what their relationship was going to be, I was like, “Well, this is perfect because it fits those two characters so seamlessly and well.” I’m excited, as a queer person, and I’m so thrilled that it’s going to be, like you said, layered in, in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s… I don’t know, kind of problematic-slash-tragic, which is usually what we get.
Your Brooklyn Nine-Nine character Rosa came out as bi around the same time you came out publicly as bi. From that time, how do you feel things have progressed in the way characters have been written? I almost feel like we’re on a warp speed path.
Oh God, I hope so. A lot has happened in the last few years in television. Period. But, to use this as an example, even from the time that Brooklyn Nine-Nine started, when Melissa Fumero and I were both cast in this ensemble, and we’re both Latina, it felt like an incredible moment where something really special was happening. And now it sort of feels like, “Oh yeah, that’s normal,” which is also an incredible moment. For people to be watching TV and have two Latinas in the ensemble cast that aren’t related, and to have it be normal, is not something that I grew up with. In fact, I was terrified in the beginning that one of us was going to get fired after we shot the pilot, because somebody was going to say, “We got one. We checked the box. We don’t need two.”
To have a myriad of different kinds of queer characters start popping up all over the place in different kinds of ways is really special. Am I normal? Is there something wrong with me? Am I going to be okay? Am I going to live happily ever after? Because I don’t know. I just don’t know. I think that’s really, really powerful. I heard this artist once say that the biggest way we can effect social change is to create art that people like that gestures to, or reflects, that social change that we want. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a few different projects that have done that, and I’d like to keep doing that, if possible.
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What I think makes Rosa so interesting is, as representation expands, there is just not a ton of bisexual characters in film and TV, and if they are there, I feel like they’re created in a very archetypal way. Do you feel like we’ve seen movement in the way that bisexuality is depicted in Hollywood?
I think we’ve seen some movement, for sure. Just the fact that we’re having this conversation and talking about it in an interview, that is movement. I think there’s room for much more. There’s room for many more people to see themselves. One of the things I think about a lot is bisexuals that are men. If you’re talking about bisexual erasure, men that are bisexual get erased so often. They’re not even a thing almost, which is like, “Well, that’s not true,” because I have plenty of friends that are bi that would tell you they exist.
Has there ever been a time when you felt like the different pieces of your identity and parts of you that you’re proud of were in opposition?
Oh, totally. I was raised Catholic. My family really was involved in the church. My mom, in particular. We immigrated to the United States when I was two, and it was a way for her to create community and to connect with people. Catholicism isn’t necessarily known for embracing gayness. There are certainly some churches that are, I guess, more… I want to say…
That’s a good way to put it. But I think that that was really difficult, especially in the beginning when my parents first started understanding like, “Oh, my daughter’s bisexual.” I wasn’t able to really have a coming out moment with them because I just knew that, for my parents, it wasn’t going to be… it wasn’t going to go well. So I was like, let me lay a crumb trail, and hopefully they’ll start to pick up the crumbs, and then eventually I’ll be able to lead them to the place that I want to be able to. It still, to this day, can be a tentative, touchy, gentle conversation I have to have with them.
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But so much can change because of TV. I think of all the progress that’s been made just by exposing people to another perspective.
That’s how I feel. I used to work in theater. I did a lot of Shakespeare and American classic theater, and when I was learning about Shakespeare, I was deep diving into the history of Shakespeare, and how Shakespeare affected people, and how going to see plays affected people. That was the main form of entertainment, right? You go to bars, you go to pubs, you listen to people tell stories, you listen to people sing songs. And then you pay literally your penny and you go stand in the front like a music show, and you watched the plays. That’s where you’re getting ideas about shit.
TV is that. Especially reality TV, because anybody that has a TV, and almost everybody does, has access to the stuff. And so that’s where the shit is… I mean, if that shit is changing, oh baby, it’s weird to say, but this is how humanity starts to move forward.
Last night [on Real Housewives], Garcelle fully said to Kyle, because I guess Kyle had a charity event and she accused Garcelle of not paying a $5,000 donation, Garcelle straight up said to her, “Would you have called me out on that if I was one of the white women?” Do you realize what that is to call out a Black woman about not paying a bill? Do you know what that means? Do you understand the repercussions of that? And I was like, “Fucking yes. Garcelle, talk about it.” Kyle’s just sitting there, like, “I don’t know.” I mean, at least Kyle listened, but it’s this kind of stuff.
Before we go, I wanted to ask you, why this recipe? Why empanaditas?
I love this recipe. It feels special every time my mom makes it. As you experienced, it’s a pain in the ass. So it feels like, My mom is putting in the time in her very busy schedule to collect all these ingredients and do this for us. My mom was a very busy woman. She was working really hard to make a lot of shit happen when we were kids, for myself, and my sister, and our family. And so to know she was going to put in the time to do that, and to be invited to stand next to her in the kitchen, crimping the edges of the empanadas, and then to be invited to eat as much as you liked, all of it felt like a very special experience. When I’m a parent someday, I’m really hoping to bring a lot of that into my own family and parenting.
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