For most of the past few decades, it would’ve been fair to call the creative talent in the Rio Grande Valley a well-kept secret. There have been a handful of writers, artists, musicians, and performers to break out—Kris Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke graduated from McAllen High School—but largely, folks from deep South Texas have not seen their creative potential tapped. In recent years, though, that’s begun to change. San Juan native Cristela Alonzo created and starred in the 2014 sitcom Cristela, and the short-lived show’s cult success landed her a Netflix comedy special and a leading voice role in Cars 3; McAllen native Raúl Castillo parlayed a main cast role on HBO’s Looking into recurring roles on Netflix’s Atypical and Seven Seconds, as well as the lead role in the forthcoming action feature El Chicano; Tanya Saracho, who grew up splitting her time between McAllen and Reynosa, created the Starz original series Vida, which returns for its second season in May.
Gabrielle Ruiz, who grew up in Edinburg, has both observed other RGV natives ascend to prominent places in Hollywood and been part of the trend herself. She started her career on Broadway, including an early turn in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamiltonmusical In the Heights, and transitioned to television with a regular role in CW’s beloved cult hit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. After four seasons, Ruiz’s time as Valencia—protagonist Rebecca’s rival-turned-confidante—comes to an end with the series’s finale on April 5. Before it does, Texas Monthly talked to Ruiz about why it matters to see people from regions like the Valley on television, how she gives back to her community, and why getting cut from the Rockettes as a dancer helped her live her best life.
Texas Monthly: For a long time, it was rare to see people from the Valley on television, but there are a few Valley natives on TV right now. Why do you think that’s happening?
Gabrielle Ruiz: I think it’s about exposure. The first time I ever saw a Broadway show was when I was twelve, on a family trip. I saw Phantom of the Opera, which was spectacular. Then I saw Grease, which was a little more raunchy than I was prepared for. I said, “Oh my gosh, he’s got a cigarette! Mom, why are we watching this?” Then I saw the musical version of Big, the Tom Hanks film—the actors were all my age. When I saw all these kids dancing on Broadway, and then saw them after the show going out the stage door, getting on skateboards, I realized, “Oh, this is a job. I could do this.” But there was no career-minded education to dance professionally in South Texas when I grew up. I danced at Melba’s School of Dance in McAllen, and I talked to my dance teacher about doing it in college—Julliard, because that’s what the movies told me to do, or NYU, because it’s in New York City. But she told me to go to Oklahoma City University, and I made a face—”No, I want to go to Broadway!” OCU was the only dance program I got accepted into, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Without having YouTube yet, or even Dance Moms and those shows, I wasn’t exposed to that world. Melba’s didn’t do competitions—we didn’t even do the Nutcracker, because we did a February show. At OCU, I was able to focus not only on ballet, but also tap, jazz, career coaching, some vocal performance lessons. I met the artistic director of musical theater in Wichita at my spring dance recital, and he told me to audition for their summer program, and I was one of three kids from my college who booked it. We did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and it was the first show where I sang and danced at the same time, told a story, and got a paycheck for it. I was twenty, so I was a late bloomer. Growing up in South Texas, I felt like I was the only kid who really cared about 32 fouettés [a ballet step in Swan Lake]. For most people I knew, it was just for leisure or a hobby—how would you do that as a career?
TM: If you never see people do something as a career, you never think it’s possible.
GR: But now, with social media and everyone having the internet in their hands, it’s fascinating to go back. I’ve been out of the Valley now fifteen, sixteen years, and throughout, I try to go back to lead master’s classes. No one was there for me to look up to except maybe Eva Longoria, but I didn’t know how to do TV the way that she did, and then Liz Ramos, who toured with Earth, Wind, and Fire, and did Broadway. She was more my idol. She was the ensemble dancer with professional artists and professional theater, and I thought, “Okay, I could do that.” So I latched on to her career, but she was the only person. There was her, and then we had one Rockette. I even auditioned for the Radio City Spectacular right after college, got cut as a dancer, then booked it as a singer.
TM: What was that like?
GR: I come from a salesman family, which translates well into show business. You fake it ’til you make it. If they like the product, just agree with them that they should. I only went to the audition because I didn’t want to be so nervous when I auditioned as a singer otherwise. Then they kept me around, like, “Can you dance?” Yeah, I can dance. So I smoked all the singers in the dance callback. The singers don’t have to do the hard dancing; it’s just during the costume changes. It taught me, “Oh, I can do this, this is great.” It’s a big deal to me to reach back and show kids that it’s actually possible to do this.
TM: When you do a workshop in the Valley, what do the kids think?
GR: I can compare it from ten years ago to now. Ten years ago, Melba’s was very excited to have me, because I’m an alumna. So right after I booked In the Heights and A Chorus Line in 2008, I went and said, “Hey, not to pat myself on the back, but it is possible, because I’m doing it.” They were excited that I was an alumna doing Broadway, because they knew Broadway. But now, with social media and every kid owning an iPhone no matter what their home life is like, this generation of kids knows Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and they’re excited to see me. It’s not so much that they’re fans as that they know that I’m from there. Ever since the beginning, I was like, “Reach out to me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, remind me what class you were in, and ask me questions—how do I get out and audition? New York or L.A.?”
TM: Do they do that?
GR: Yeah. Two years ago, I was looking for an intern while I was teaching two weeks of classes in Edinburg. It was pretty intense, and I needed someone to press play and make sure lunch was there, that sort of thing. A girl messaged me and said that she took my class when she was at Edinburg High School, and that she was torn between New York and L.A. I was like, “Hey, are you home for Christmas, because I’m here, and I’ll barter with you. I’ll take you out to dinner as many times as you want, and we can talk New York versus L.A., if you’ll help me out during my workshops for two weeks.” She did that, and then she moved to L.A. in August. Now, she’s my assistant.
TM: Does having more of a critical mass of people from the Valley chasing this kind of dream in Hollywood or New York make it easier for everyone?
GR: I’ll tell you a story: I went to a showcase for Oklahoma City University in L.A., because I’m here, so let’s support each other. A girl in a red tank top who was auditioning sat right down next to me and she asked, “What’s it like to be a Latina in television?” And I told her, “Well, first of all, I’m from very very South Texas, because everyone thinks Austin or Dallas, and it’s like, ‘No, keep going.’” And she said, “Where are you from?” I told her it was McAllen, near Brownsville. She said, “I’m from Weslaco,” and we started almost bawling. Like, shit, you’re doing it, girl! She was going to OCU, and we didn’t know each other. She now lives in Los Angeles. My sincere approach to paying it forward is to get more people out here, like Eva Longoria’s been doing, like Liz Ramos did for me. I really love doing that for other kids.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.