Actress and singer Mandy Gonzalez’s voice is spectacular. I was fortunate enough to jump on the phone with her one recent Thursday afternoon as she got ready for her performance in Hamilton on Broadway, in which she plays Angelica Schuyler. Before our call, we met at her CD signing at Barnes & Noble in New York City’s Upper East Side.
Mandy Gonzalez epitomizes the working actor, one who has embraced the unpredictable business she’s built her life around. She’s worked actively in television and film and has replaced others in theater. Maybe you know her as Elphaba in Wicked. Perhaps you’ve seen her in TV’s Madam Secretary or Quantico. She now adds recording artist to her résumé with the release of her debut album, Fearless.
Gonzalez is a great interviewee — she’s warm, open, and doesn’t mince words. I first learned about Gonzalez in 2008 after listening to the cast recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, in which she originated the role of Nina, the college dropout everyone had such high hopes for. Before then, I had only seen a broadcast of Legally Blonde: The Musical in my childhood home in Puerto Rico. There were (still are) few Latinx leading ladies on Broadway, so discovering one had a last name I identified with spoke to my soul.
When I share this story, Gonzalez seems genuinely touched. She shares that when she started out, she was encouraged to change her name to something less “ethnically diverse” to avoid being typecast. It’s no surprise, then, when she mentions a bad review she got for her Broadway debut. Having her talent and appearance scrutinized hurt, but she used it as motivation to pave the way for Latinx women entering the business.
"I’ve been told so many different things, like my skin is too light, I don’t sound this way, I don’t sound that way, my skin isn’t dark enough. You have to find a way to be fearless and find the strength in yourself to find the things that you like about yourself first before you go out to look for approval in this business because it’s brutal," she says.
“Making an album was something I always wanted to do. It wasn’t until I kind of put myself out there that it started to happen. It became a way for me to create between the time of Wicked  and now. I’ve been busy. Through Hamilton, I was just building all these things, I was teaching, I was doing public speaking, and Hamilton happened. It allowed for things that I’ve been working very hard on to come to the forefront. One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was make an album for my squad,” says Gonzalez.
2017 created a need for safe spaces on social media to offset the divisiveness and racism the current administration promotes. As a response, Gonzalez launched the #FearlessSquad, an initiative to amplify stories of those who haven’t seen themselves represented and support individuals who feel swallowed by information overload. This movement started when she posted a photo of her and her castmates using the hashtag on her social media accounts inviting followers to do the same.
With her extremely dedicated fanbase in mind, Gonzalez collaborated with Jennifer Nettles and Lin-Manuel Miranda as well as Broadway composer Tom Kitt (If/Then, Next to Normal) and producer/lyricist Bill Sherman on an uplifting album that pays tribute to her heritage. While on vacation from filming Mary Poppins Returns, Miranda asked what “fearless” meant to Gonzalez, and she shared her parents’ love story.
“My father is Mexican-American, my mom is Jewish-American. They met as pen pals during the Vietnam War. My father grew up as a migrant and didn’t learn English until he was seven. My mom grew up in the valley of California living a pretty comfortable existence definitely not the kind that my father lived. When my father was done with his service, he showed up on my mom’s doorstep, and she fell in love with him. Then, she had to decide whether she was going to be with him because her parents said ‘absolutely not’ and she decided to go with her heart. I told Lin that story, and within a week or two, he wrote the song 'Fearless' for me.”
On including the popular ‘50s song "Que Será, Será," Gonzalez reminisces about growing up in California where her grandmother looked after her while her parents were at work. She would often sing this song to Gonzalez. “I put that on my album because it’s at the root of who I am. It’s a very personal album, and I’m very, very proud of it,” she says.
The Latinx and Broadway communities have found a home in Gonzalez’s social media feeds, but the #FearlessSquad is open to anyone who is willing to follow the rules — “help each other when we fall, embrace the differences, look for the good, and dream big.”
The #FearlessSquad proposes much more than just a collection of inspiring photographs. Gonzalez has become an advocate for social media to become more encouraging and inclusive. “Some people have reached out to me saying that they’re going through a lot. Some girls are cutting themselves; some girls have eating disorders. Older women and mothers have shared their struggles too. Sometimes, I just have to say the most fearless thing you can do is ask for help. I try to give them the numbers that they need to call if they need help,” she says.
Squad members who have had similar experiences often share insight and resources as a way of support. “Building yourself up means different things. It’s really beautiful because you never know who you’re going to affect.”
Gonzalez’s fans at the Barnes & Noble signing are proof of how she uses her music to inspire. They share how Fearless and the #FearlessSquad give them the confidence to take on everyday challenges in our uncertain world, learn about a culture different from theirs, or connect with their Latinx roots.
What are Gonzalez’s thoughts on self-care? “I’ve thought a lot about that, especially for myself and for my daughter. Sometimes, just doing one thing a day is okay. Self-care can be just as important as some of the issues that you’re battling: Did you eat today? Did you drink enough water? Are you sleeping? What are you reading? Did you put your phone down today? Did you walk outside? It’s the little things. I think that, especially in this country, we feel overwhelmed by all of the images we see on a daily basis. It’s important to fight, but I also think it’s important to care for yourself,” she says.
For all the heartache show business and social media sometimes bring, Gonzalez considers having digital solidarity from Latinxs in show business a gift. “For me, I connect with Gina Rodriguez, America Ferrera, Justina Machado, and because of In the Heights, Karen Olivo. There’s a sisterhood. I’m so proud of how far we’ve all come, the women who came before us and opened the door for us. We’re just keeping it open and trying to open some windows too.”
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Alicia Ramírez is a writer and editor covering identity, theater, and pop culture. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.