Dascha Polanco is proud of her background and loves the diversity among the Latino population in the U.S. But the Dominican-born actress is upfront about the fact that this country still has a lot to learn when it comes to embracing the complex history of Latinos. “I was born in the Dominican Republic,” she says, “Where we saw all colors and shapes as equal. Some of us, Latinos, are sub-divisions of a blend.”

Finding a platform

While Polanco relates to non-Dominican Latinos on key similarities, she emphasizes the mix of cultures in Latin America. “When I look in the mirror I see European, Indian and African features.” She says it was a new experience for her when she learned how the U.S. groups and divides people.

“‘There’s not a lot of roles for Latinos and we do not have the option of choosing.’”

Her role as Daya on “Orange Is the New Black” has helped bring attention to social issues, but she says she didn’t initially take the role to change things. “There’s not a lot of roles for Latinos and we do not have the option of choosing,” she says, “It’s an opportunity that as Latinos we have to take.”

However, the strength of Polanco’s performance has given her a chance at new opportunities, like playing a best friend character to star Jennifer Lawrence in David O. Russell’s “Joy,” which she says is a rare kind of role for a Latina actress.

Embracing differences

Now Polanco is paving the way for Latina actresses to enjoy a diversity of roles they haven’t had in the past. “Hollywood needs to embrace Latin accents,” says Polanco, “Instead of an accent being mocked or used to sell.” She believes the best way to do this is to improve diversity behind-the-scenes, in order to help build a creative vision that better includes Latinos.

Polanco’s role as Daya has not just helped her break new ground in the acting world, but has helped her learn some deeper lessons on self-confidence. “You don’t have to be a product of your own environment,” she says, “Work on breaking the cycle and embrace your faults. Love yourself, and love hard.” This is part of why she’s proud to be American, and Latina, no matter the complexities.