Image: Marcos Sotomayor/Jopwell
Most of my earliest childhood memories involve watching TV. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I especially loved The Cosby Show. When my mom told me Mrs. Huxtable was a lawyer, I declared, “OK, I’m going to be a lawyer.” And that was how I chose to pursue law. I never really considered that the woman I admired was an actress playing a lawyer.
There were no lawyers in my family, but when it came to carving out my path, my mom had set an example of how to be resourceful and figure things out: She migrated to New York from Puerto Rico and was the first person in our family to go to college, eventually becoming a computer engineer. So, like her, I kept asking questions and working toward my goal.
Once I got to law school, though, I encountered a reality I hadn’t anticipated: I was miserable. Some of my struggle came from not having a great sense of who I was or which tribe I belonged to. I constantly felt like my classmates were making assumptions about me. They’d say things like, “You grew up in the Bronx, right, like J.Lo?”(…uh, no). It didn’t end there. When it came to my peers, I don’t know if it was because I was a young Latina or a woman, but I’d walk into a courtroom full of male attorneys, and they would assume I was the court reporter. There’s nothing wrong with being a court reporter, but I’d have to say, “No, I’m defense counsel for XYZ,” and walk by with attitude (and a winning argument).
I was really unhappy, but I’d been saying I was going to be a lawyer for so long that I thought I’d be disappointing myself and my family if I quit. So I graduated, landed a job at a mid-sized law firm and was the only Latina attorney in the litigation department. It took me about three years of working in a job that wasn’t right for me – along with a lot of introspection and planning – to finally follow my heart and become an actress.
Transitioning to acting professionally has been a game-changer. I feel liberated and empowered to be building a completely new career that is right for me – and to still be able to pay the bills. I value all of my experiences, including being an attorney, for their role in helping shape who I am now. But I also want people to know that it’s truly OK to say, “I’m done with this chapter” and move on. We don’t allow ourselves to do that enough.
If you’re considering a career-180 or wanting to do something different with your life, I’ve been there. I challenge and encourage you to consider these steps that proved very important to me:
Around the same time I started working as an attorney, I created a personal blog to try to make sense of my feelings and to find my calling. In the process, I ended up forming a community with other Latina writers and bloggers, and we decided to start a book club. The first book we read was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. That was a huge turning point for me. It was the first time I’d heard a woman ask questions like, “Why doesn’t this life resemble me anymore, and why do I feel this duty to continue?” I still had no clue how to stop being an attorney and still be a positive reflection of my culture and my family, but knowing that I wasn’t alone in feeling so much uncertainty helped me find the strength to face it.
Even after accepting that I didn’t want to practice law anymore, I became a really elegant procrastinator. I’d tell myself, “Well, it’s a bad time to give it up,” or “I just need to do these million things first.” That’s how you end up spreading out into infinity. The good news is that you don’t actually have to suddenly make a huge move. Just get your feet wet! For me, the key to transitioning was making a plan and listing out small steps I needed to take. Think to yourself: ‘What is an actionable step I can take today?’ I made a vision board to keep me motivated and to remind me of my goals. Then I focused on doing my research, reaching out to college classmates who’d studied theater or done some professional acting and asking them for advice.
Once I did my research, I began taking acting classes to see if this thing stirring inside of me was legit. I also ended up connecting with the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors and following the steps they suggested: getting a headshot, registering with their directory, and going to auditions. Right away, I booked a regional commercial followed by a lead role in a web series. I was happy (and relieved) to discover that I was actually good at what I wanted to do. I was in court when the premiere of my first acting gig came around and had to literally run there to make it, but I made it work.
There came a point when I felt spread thin trying to juggle the actor’s life while working as an attorney. I’d used all my personal time for auditions and the roles I booked. One day I was on the verge of a breakdown at the office, unsure of how to keep moving forward. I was so unhappy but I needed a sign — anything that would tell me that it was time. I went outside and started bawling. As I walked down Wall Street, I was praying out loud, asking God if quitting was the right thing to do. Right then, a bird pooped on my shoulder. How’s that for a sign?! I couldn’t help but laugh and think to myself, ‘OK, I got it.’ I wiped my tears, took a deep breath, and gave myself the permission to follow my heart.
Everyone has an opinion, but at the end of the day there is no single set of rules for how to get what you want. There were a lot of well-meaning people who tried to discourage me from leaving a “stable” career. But I also had a lot of support from the people closest to me. While I could listen to other people’s advice, I ultimately had to decide what worked best for me. Listening to my instincts is the smartest thing I’ve done. Don’t ever let someone else’s opinions stop you from doing what you want to do. When you can feel that certainty of purpose in your core, that’s when you know you’re on the right path.
The most challenging part of all this has been overcoming my own fear and taking the leap. It took me a while to figure out how I could leave life as a litigator and still be a positive reflection of my culture and my family. The truth is that I’m an even better representation of my family now that I’m pursuing something that reflects the person I am, not someone I used to be. And I’m so very happy!
I often think back to one law school classmate of mine: He was a 70-year-old man who had retired from his medical practice to become a lawyer. I remember staring at him in awe thinking, ‘Wow, he’s so brave.’ He’s a great reminder that, at any point in your life, you can step back and say, “Maybe this path was right for the person I was when I started down it, but now I’ve become someone else – and I need to do what’s right for me now.”