Jason Genao, who starred as Ruby Martinez on the Netflix show “On My Block,” discusses Hispanic representation in show business and how his character on the show inspired him.
Can you tell us about your upbringing and the culture you grew up around?
Yeah, I was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Dominican parents. My mother was born in Long Island, so she’s kind of a first generation herself. My dad is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. They took me back there to live from the age of a couple months old to about three. Then I came back to America.
My brothers were born here as well, but they were raised over there. I was like the Americanized version of everything that was happening. My brothers couldn’t really speak English too well because they were being raised in the Dominican Republic. Once I was born, my mom was like, ‘I don’t want to do this. I want Jason to not have to struggle to learn English and not have to struggle to read and write.’ I was my mom’s reason to come back to America.
Are you fluent in Spanish?
Yeah, I’m pretty fluent in Spanish. I can read, write, and speak it. I’m not going to sit here and say I could be a translator for the government, but yeah, I’m pretty good.
How do you think your Dominican and hometown roots contribute to the success in your career?
I think the thing about growing up in a Dominican family is that we all sort of grew up in the same state of bordering poverty, and then kind of touching the American dream. We grew up on a farm. My dad grew up in one house with 13 siblings. There’s just this dream of trying to get out of that, that I think we all sort of run with. When I was around nine years old, he got a bodega. I’ve seen all these people in the community, and then as time goes by, everyone starts accumulating a sort of lifestyle for themselves. My family was big on dreaming and just pushing past whatever it is that we were essentially given to start with. That’s why wanting to become an actor felt like a pipe dream, but it also felt like this thing that was instilled in me through my parents without me even knowing. I wasn’t going to give up on trying to be an actor.
How did you know acting was for you, and how did you get on “On My Block“?
Honestly, I’ve always wanted to be an actor. Ever since I was little, my school had a drama club. My drama teacher used to praise me and really pushed me. She was always making me the star of her plays. We didn’t get cable until I was around nine or 10, so that’s when I discovered HBO and all these places where movies existed. I was always so entertained by them.
A common issue in the industry is media underrepresentation.
Oh my god, yeah. I don’t even think people can fathom how underrepresented Hispanic culture is.
“On My Block” tackles this issue perfectly. A lot of people in the Hispanic community were able to see themselves on a screen and similar stories that they’ve been through. What does it mean for you to be a part of that impact?
I started the show at such a young age, and people kept saying this show would change history. You can’t really describe it, because you never intend to do these things. It’s just so crazy to think that I’m part of something, especially being from Jersey City and being from the family that I’m from, those are just not the things that you think are part of your legacy or your future. “On My Block” was an amazing representation of the other side of Hispanic culture in America. I was at Sundance a couple of years ago, and America Ferrera gave this speech, and it was probably the most incredible speech I’ve ever heard. One of the things she said was that the world only works on the stories that it’s been told, and that’s the way the world moves.
It’s really so crazy to be from Jersey City, because honestly, racism is the most difficult thing that’s plaguing not only America, but the world, honestly. Being that I grew up from such a diverse place like Jersey City, racism was really something that had to be taught to me, it wasn’t something that I just walked around and saw or understood. I mean, you watch movies and you hear about it, but it wasn’t something that I ever saw with my own two eyes. The stories that keep being told are the ones that people are going to live by, even in the media and the way it represents things. You keep making stories, movies about racism, and for the most part, yeah, there’s happy endings and fairytales at the end of these movies, but they’re necessary for people to understand and see the story of these people. I just feel like when a certain narrative is told so many times, people actually believe that there’s a reason to hate others for minute things like their skin color or their religion. In Jersey City, I was sitting in the same classroom as like 17 different ethnicities and backgrounds and religions. My first best friend ever was Indian. It’s so crazy that the rest of the world works so differently.
Can you share what empowering the Hispanic community means to you?
To empower Hispanic people is to believe that we all exist, and that we all exist in the same manner that other people exist. Every movie in the world that talks about Hispanic culture is based in Mexico, or Cuba, or Puerto Rico, or, you know, Colombia, and it’s to believe that someone other than a Mexican actor can be the highest paid, or the most famous, or the most booked actor. It’s to believe that a movie about Dominican people should be funded just as well. It’s tough. It’s to believe in everybody as much as you believe in all the stereotypical stories that you’ve been told.
You played such a big role as Ruby in “On My Block.” What kind of story did you want him to represent?
I think Ruby was one of the most amazing characters ever. He is so unapologetically himself. Even though he was different than others, he walked this Earth believing in all the things that everyone else of higher status believed in. People like Ruby aren’t told that they should walk with their head high; they’re told that they should stand in the background, that they aren’t as deserving and aren’t going to get as much as the rest of the world. You know, he’s Spanish, he’s short, he’s intense. He has all these different personalities and physical characteristics that are so different, and he still walks around, chasing the girl that he wants, chasing the school that he wants, helping his friends, and doing everything that the cliché American, pretty, six-foot-tall, blue-eyed person is doing. Ruby went and strived for the same thing. And he achieved it.
Ruby was an inspiration to me, because sometimes I still walk around shy or nervous to obtain the things that I want in life. He believed that he deserved everything. I think that’s the most important story to tell people: that they’re deserving of everything, regardless of what they look like or regardless of what the media and stories have told us we should look like to receive these things.
You’ve made such an impact on younger people in society. What’s next for you?
What’s so funny is that I love acting with all my heart. I love it so much. But I also feel like I wasn’t meant to just do one thing in this lifetime. I’ve been so blessed to be able to act, and I want to act as long as I can, but I also want to pursue different things in life. I want to own a restaurant and I want to be a writer. I want to be a producer. I want to create fashion brands. I just sort of want to do everything. I want to be a photographer today and design tomorrow and go back to acting the next day.