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Interview with Kamala Lopez, Actress, Writer and Film Producer

Kamala Lopez

With a grandfather imprisoned by a new dictator while publishing the main newspaper in Venezuela, then later becoming Consulate General to the United States from Venezuela, it's no wonder Kamala Lopez has become a political activist. Lopez's new film Equal Means Equal and innovation, ERA Education Project sheds light on a disheartening fact - equal rights for women are not protected under the United States Constitution. Plus the Equal Rights Amendment has never been passed, contrary to what many Americans might believe about equality for women.

Also an actress, Lopez worked in a number of featured films such as Born in East L.A., Deep Cover and The Burning Season. Adding to her long list of films, she's guest-starred in many signature television series including Medium, 24 and Alias.

Earning the title director and producer, Lopez formed the company Heroica Films which produces media for women, about women and utilizes women in front and behind the camera.

In an interview with Women For Action, Lopez explains why she feels the film and television industry may be headed in a new direction for women. Also, she shares some startling news about our U.S. Constitution, provided by feminist, journalist, and activist, Gloria Steinem and helps us understand why her longtime friend, actress Patricia Arquette made a public statement about women's inequality.

Women For Action: Kamala, can you tell our audience a little about you, your background and how were you first introduced to the work you do now?

Executive Producer and Mom, Liz Lopez with daughter Kamala Lopez

Kamala Lopez: I was born in New York City. My mother is Liz Lopez and is from a village in South India. She arrived in the United States at age fifteen because she was enamored with the history and vision of America taught to her by the nuns in boarding school and her grandparents indulged her. She joined her uncle who was studying in Kansas at the time.

My father, Robert Lopez, was a World War II veteran turned Madison Avenue Ad man who was creative director at an ad agency in Manhattan when my parents met.

Dad’s parents had emigrated from Venezuela before he was born due to political persecution. My paternal grandfather published the main newspaper in Venezuela that fell out of favor with the new dictator and was thrown in jail. With the assistance of the French and US Governments, he escaped hidden on a ship and was taken to New York City.  There he worked at the Tribune and started Lopez Press where Grandpa continued to print and ship angry newspapers back to Venezuela. When his wife and children were able to join him, they lived in Queens, then Brooklyn and eventually moved to Massapequa Park, Long Island. After the death of the Venezuelan dictator, my grandfather became Consulate General to the United States from Venezuela.

My mom was born in Rangoon, Burma.  During WWII, and after the death of her mother, she and her siblings moved to a small village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu to live with their grandparents. Mom’s grandfather was a scholar, accountant and philosopher and her grandmother was a teacher.  Our relatives still live in the house to this day.

My parents decided to move to Caracas, Venezuela from the States after a series of assassinations (Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, MLK, JFK, RFK) and the rise of Richard Nixon made it too disheartening to stay.  They returned to the States when Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

As far as how I came to the work I’m doing now, while my profession has been that of an actress my entire life, I’ve also been consistently active on issues that I believe in.  The particular situation women find themselves in has been an ongoing preoccupation of mine. I have tried to make sense of it on a personal and a political level throughout my life. In the past decade my focus has become quite clearly the issues surrounding women’s rights mostly because I feel like I stumbled upon something that may be the key to the whole thing – the lack of explicit legal equality for women on a federal level.

Women For Action: Your mother is from South India and your father is from Venezuela - So you kind of have a personal connection with all sorts of obstacles that women face in different parts of the world such as femicide in Latin America and honor violence in some South Asian communities. How does it make you feel to know that women are still facing these sort of herculean obstacles around the world?

Director of Photography, Jendra Jarnagin, myself and Lauretta Prevost (2nd Camera) photo by Jaime Medrano Jr.

Kamala Lopez: I find it actually difficult to function if I allow the reality of the global situation for women to really infiltrate my consciousness.  I know enough about it to be completely convinced we need to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in order to compel our government to sign CEDAW (the international treaty on women’s rights that has been signed by 194 countries but not us) and start immediate global enforcement of women’s human and civil rights.  Every day that we sit on our hands and allow the false fa├žade of female equality in the USA to be maintained we are complicit in the bloodbath around the world for women and girls.

Women For Action: You are currently wrapping up your documentary film, Equal Means Equal, which touches on some of the present day obscenities toward women in the media. What makes this film important?

Kamala Lopez: Actually the media landscape is not the focus of the film, although it does provide the audience with a backdrop for my experience; as an actress I have experienced a great deal of sexism and stereotyping in my work and environment.  But that’s nothing new -- what I am trying to get at is something deeper.  I’m looking at why there is so much sex discrimination hidden in plain sight and why we don’t recognize it.  Or why we accept it.  

Many young women today believe that society views them as completely equal to their male counterparts.  They assume they can “be, do and have” whatever they can achieve based on their individual merits.  But the reality is quite different from what young women are being told.  Being “empowered” is quite different from “having power.”  The former is a feeling; the latter an objective reality. What Equal Means Equal does is take the top dozen issues affecting women and do an analysis of whether the laws that are presently in place are working or not.  From the gender wage gap to sexual assault, from pregnancy discrimination to child sex trafficking, I found laws that are incomplete, insufficient and in some cases actually deleterious to the women they are supposed to be helping.

Women For Action: Actress Patricia Arquette is a longtime friend and an obvious supporter of Equal Means Equal. Her statement, and I am paraphrasing a bit, “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color, who we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” Why do you think her statement seemed to strike a nerve for some?

Kamala Lopez: I think that her words were completely misinterpreted to presumably show some racial/cis/class insensitivity. That assessment couldn’t be farther from the truth.  The reality is that women have been a major force in every single successful civil rights movement in this country.  We have been out there on picket lines and in marches, knocking on doors and getting arrested -- had skin in the game of every social justice movement to date.  So it’s kind of curious that the one obvious human rights movement that hasn’t gotten the traction it needs to put it over the finish line is the one that counts no men as its direct beneficiaries.  So while a lack of equal rights for women affects the majority of the population both globally and nationally, it is somehow dismissed by both genders as a problem of less worthy of solving.  

I think what Patricia was saying is that women need the support of all of our allies, in all of our communities to put skin in the game for us.  To stand up for us.  To take on this fight
with us – because we are not going to be able to do it alone.  And because we are always there, have always been there and will always be there for everyone else – that’s just the kind of human beings we are, generally.

Melvin Glover AKA Melle Mel,  Kamala Lopez and Rodney C outside The Shrine in Harlem, New York City at the W[r]ap Party for Equal Means Equal.  Old School rappers, led by Kurtis Blow, are supporting Equal Means Equal. There are plans to collectively raise money by recording a track. The demo is constitutes a list of various artists, including John Legend.

Women For Action: The ERA Education Project makes it clear that not only are women paid less than men, the discrimination is far more pervasive for women of color. Statistics shows that Latinas are paid less than African American women. How does this make you feel, to know that the gap is far greater for particular minority groups?

Kamala Lopez: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin Luther King. When black people got the right to vote in this country black women were not included.  There is historical and systematic bias in our legal system that we must address.  

What we are being subjected to in the United States today is a system that turns a blind eye to discrimination in the service of corporate profit. This is not surprising given the history in our courts dating back to the 19th century of corporations having legal precedence over women.  Corporations are protected under the 14th Amendment.  Women are not.  Corporations are held to be “people” under the law.  Women are often in a different nebulous class with fewer rights.  For example, race, religion, and national origin fall under a “suspect” classification, while gender or sex does not. This permits our legal system to avoid strict scrutiny when looking at cases involving sex discrimination.

Another major fundamental problem is that our biological differences are seen as “other” instead of the normative.  Meaning that for legal purposes human = man.  The implications of the male human being the “standard model human” imply that we are the “unusual” or “different” model.  Our particular features, which involve the ability to reproduce, leave the issues surrounding it, such as pregnancy, infant care, issues of rape or incest, etc. in murky legal water.  This non-normative classification also allows gender discrimination in dangerous areas such as medical research and safety testing.

So, back to your question, the fact that there is a race correlation to the gender pay gap makes complete sense in a system designed to take advantage of people wherever possible and in particular where they have limited resources to fight back.

Women For Action: What do you hope the Era Education Project and or the Equal Means Equal documentary film will achieve?

Kamala Lopez:  My hope for the film is that is will reach far and wide across the country and begin to educate the public on what I believe is the greatest civil and human rights violation of our time.  And that once informed, the people, in particular, the younger generations who have been shockingly kept ignorant to their own direct economic detriment, will not put up with it.  I believe the youth will use their collective energy and will to force a change to happen and make our country do the right thing.  The climate is right and ripe for full equality for women today.

Women For Action: What sort of positive and negative feedback have you received regarding the project?

Kamala Lopez: We are very grateful to have been funded by almost twenty-five hundred people through Kickstarter.  These individuals proved that, yes, the general public wants to see women’s issues addressed.  The film has not been released but seems to have moved and educated the few who have seen it so far.  My hopes are very high.

Women For Action: Just touching on your education project to promote the Equal Rights Amendment and the fact that people aren’t even aware that it has not passed, why do you think some Americans are under the perception that women have obtained equal rights?

Kamala Lopez: There is a very clear propaganda campaign in the popular culture designed to convince women that they are equal in every way to men in our society.  They want you to feel “empowered” and to think you can “have it all.” Go out there and conquer the world, girl! And most of the young women I speak with have, to some degree or other, bought into that narrative.  In fact, there are some extremely well-meaning allies and actual icons within the present feminist movement who subscribe to the mentality that it’s up to us to have great self-esteem and confidence, be bold and aggressive in negotiating for ourselves, speak up and have a unique and loud voice.  Do these things, they promise, and discrimination will crumble before you.

While all of these characteristics and strategies are excellent and I am all for them, they have ZERO to do with the situation.  Well, OK, maybe I’ll give them 10% weight on the very very outside – but that’s being generous.  The fact is that you being and doing all those things (speaking up for yourself, negotiating hard, etc.) while individually helpful and potentially useful, do nothing to rectify the situation collectively.  Meaning that each and every woman, black, white, brown, red, yellow, gay, trans, disabled, whatever, will have to take this on herself and try to fight back against a boss that’s trying to rip her off or harass her, or not get fired because she gets pregnant.  Or face off against a trillion dollar vertically integrated multinational corporation alone.  

The fact of the matter is that there is a fundamental legal problem with our Constitution.  This is not by error.  This is not a matter of opinion, discussion or nuance.  In 1787, when our Constitution was written, women were chattel (definition: an item of property other than real estate).  We were the property of our fathers and then, upon marriage, of our husbands. It is still this way in many parts of the world today.  In fact, Gloria Steinem told me that the legal model of wives was the basis for the legal model of slaves.
And while the society has evolved and changed, and women have achieved multiple legal rights, etc., the basic document upon which all legal precedent is based remains, as in 1787, failing to recognize that men and women enjoy the same legal status.  So they don’t.  And at this point in our history and culture, very few people know this. It has been conveniently forgotten, remains untaught and swept under the rug but has major ramifications that cut across all segments of our society.

Women For Action: You received the 2009 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women's Political Caucus for your film, A Single Woman (2008), about the life of Congresswoman Janette Rankin. What inspired you to direct this film?

Kamala Lopez: My second cousin, Jeanmarie Simpson, wrote a play about Jeannette Rankin called “A Single Woman.”  I saw it at a theater in New York.  I was blown away by the fact that I knew nothing about this incredible woman who convinced over 80,000 men in the territory of Montana to vote for her in 1916 and became our first female Congresswoman.  Rankin was elected before women had the vote!  She also voted against entry into both world wars – was the only member of Congress to do so.  A true pacifist, she studied the work of Mahatma Gandhi and went to India seven times.  She led five thousand women to the Capitol against the Vietnam War when she was ninety years old.  How’s that for a role model??!

Women For Action: You sort of grew up on television. You were a cast member on Sesame Street, and you appeared in several popular television shows and films over the years. Are there any plans to further pursue your career in acting?

Kamala Lopez: Absolutely plan to put some time and focus into my acting – things on TV seem to be slowly improving.  I remember when I started I literally would play only characters who were called Maria or Lupe.  I always had to put on a thick accent and speak in poor English.  I often was a whore or a crackhead (also a whore but even more degraded).  Now I see so many young Latinas playing strong professional characters and multi-layered human beings – I feel optimistic about the direction we are headed in and hope to be a part of continuing to make it better and get to play better parts.

I have several shows and films I’m developing which have many unusual female roles that propel the narrative and are active participants in the overall stories.  I think the days of the women being simply eye candy draped on the arm of the leading man are numbered.

Women For Action: What career achievement are you the proudest of?

Kamala Lopez: I think that this film, Equal Means Equal, is what I am most proud of so far.  It is intellectually rigorous which was very important to me.  I felt that the subject and the real-world implications compelled us to be extremely comprehensive in our investigations and not skip and steps or cut any corners.  But it is also a super personal film. It is a project that has spanned over six years, hundreds of interviews and thousands of hours of work.  That is why I feel so solid in terms of the conclusions drawn. I believe the arguments are strong and well constructed and actually irrefutable.  Let’s see what everyone else thinks ☺

Women For Action: What sort of challenges have you faced as a woman throughout your career?

Kamala Lopez: Dear God – we don’t have time for me to write that encyclopedia.  Bottom line, never take no for an answer.  Ever.  Just find another way to get to where, who or what you want.

Women For Action: What sort of advice would you give a young girl that is interested in following in your footsteps?

Kamala Lopez: Never do something you do not want to do.  If it feels wrong or doesn’t represent you or what you believe, don’t do it.  Be proud to stand behind what you do, what you say and who you are. Stand up for yourself publicly and stand up for others too.  Be brave.  Don’t let people treat others incorrectly.  Call people on their sh*t even if they are powerful.  Don’t let intimidation or fear stop you from doing what you know is right.  But also be kind and remember that everyone is pretty much in the same boat, regardless of what it looks like.  

Care about things.  But don’t care too much about money and what it buys.  Don’t buy into your own BS – you can feel in your stomach if something is right or wrong.  Listen to that feeling and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.  If something is wrong – just don’t do it.  But, conversely, if there is something that the society says is right, but you know, in your heart, it is wrong then actively fight against it.  Don’t accept it, don’t stay quiet about it – change it.

Do every single job with every ounce of your being – don’t do anything half-assed.  If your job is to file paperwork – make sure you are the best paperwork-filer that has ever existed.  Or don’t file paperwork.  Your choice, but if you tell someone you are going to do something – do it, and do it the best you possibly can.  And that someone could be yourself!  

Realize that what you do is very important.  No matter what “they” may say, we have a great deal of personal power – own it, use it, and do well with it.  If you ever feel depressed or down, take the focus off yourself and go do something for someone else.  This is a much healthier and more effective anti-depressant than the crap they try to give you at the psycho-pharmacology office.

Life isn’t really that long at all.  Find your purpose and get going on it as soon as possible.  Human beings are really an incredible hive species – we don’t realize how connected we all are but if you stand back far enough it’s very obvious.  No one I know personally has the knowledge to build a bridge or transplant a heart, yet as a human being I get to drive over bridges or have that operation.  Our collective work builds on the evolution and continued survival of all peoples.

So remember that while you are a unique individual, you are also a member of a group and to consider others.  Civilization is something that took the human species thousands of years to develop.  The appeal of grotesque barbarism, ultra-violence and shock-culture is not cool or edgy, rather a quick way to set the species back a few thousand years in one generation.  

How much cooler would it be for us to all get behind some old-fashioned integrity, vision and creative collaboration to move into this new future together? I personally believe it is a matter of survival.

Women For Action: What would you like our audience to know about you that wasn't previously mentioned in this interview?

Kamala Lopez: My husband, Joel Marshall, is the father of the modern “planking” movement, meaning he started a fad where people just lie on their faces in weird places for no reason at all.

Husband, Joe Marshall

Women For Action: Kamala, thank you for your time and doing ALL the incredible work you are doing!

Kamala Lopez: Thank YOU for inviting me!!!!

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Julene Allen