Interview by Jana Letonja

Jillian Mercado is a Latinx actress, an advocate for greater representation in the industry and a model. She was most recently seen as Maribel in Showtime’s series ‘The L Word: Generation Q’. She is very passionate about diversity and inclusivity in the industry and works as an activist on improving that.

Jillian, you were diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in your early teens. How did this define who you are today? How did it empower you personally and professionally?

Up until I was diagnosed or until the reality hit me that I had a disability, which in society meant I was different from people who didn’t, I lived a pretty normal childhood. My mom would always take us to the park, I spent a lot of time at the library, watching cartoons and doing any adventurous thing that a child could do. Having that upbringing of bliss in innocence really shaped who I am today because I was able to disregard the realization of what was going to happen in the future, which was understanding how ableist of a new society I live in. Flash forward to when I realized not only my disability, but the ableist society I live in, I was able to take that information and turn it to fuel to help myself and fellow people who also can relate and start a revolutioning. This gave me strength to realize that we are not the problem, even though the world wants to blame us and point fingers. When you look carefully, this world was made for us to not have the upper hand. Having that knowledge has extremely empowered me to not only prove everyone wrong, but to prove to myself that I do belong in society as much as my fellow neighbor. Disability or not, that’s what makes this world such a beautiful place, because we have different stories that we can contribute to society.

Growing up, you developed a love for fashion, but the industry’s Eurocentric and ableist beauty standards meant that you didn’t see yourself represented. You resolved to redress this inequality by entering the fashion industry herself. How hard and challenging were your beginnings in the fashion industry and what made them so worth it?

As I grew older, I started noticing the separation between people with and without disabilities. The gap was so big that it was extremely hard to envision it any other way. Although I do remember my mother telling me one day that whatever I choose career-wise, to know that I have the privilege to do whatever my heart desires. She explained to me that there are so many things that she wished she could have done and that she didn’t want me to regret my decisions because society says one thing. She reminded me that whatever path I take, to lead with my whole heart. 

So going into the fashion industry was more because of how at home I felt in the community. I was able to express myself in ways that I did not see anywhere else. The challenging part was after college, realizing that I would have to work 10 times harder than anybody else not only because I was a woman or queer or Latin, but because I had a physical disability and that was unheard of in the industry. Some said it was even harder to believe it could ever be possible, but my drive was stronger then any words could possibly be. I studied the ins and outs of the fashion industry, I got myself familiar with the people making the moves and strategically placed myself as close to them as possible. I did not rest until each and every one of them knew my face and continued to see it anywhere and everywhere. 

Those efforts made it extremely worth it, because today I can say that I do see so many more people who have disabilities not only working in the industry, but also freely expressing themselves on social media. This was not the case when I started. I know that I’m not the first one who has tried to break through in the industry, but I know that I am one of the first who can see the difference from where I started to now and know that I had something to do with it.

You studied marketing at Fashion Institute of Technology and wanted to learn politics behind fashion. What made you interested in politics behind fashion? Why was this so important for you to learn more about?

I believe that it was important for me to find a different way into the industry since the conventional study hard and get a job wasn’t going to be easy for me because of the zero opportunities that I would keep bumping into. So I had to come up with a strategy, I had to understand unconventional ways to get into the industry so that people knew that I was not giving up because of my physical disabilities. In which case, my journey started by interning as many places as I could. I would purposely not tell anyone that I had a disability in interviews and let my resume show my abilities on its own. I got shut down several times, but I didn’t let that stop me and kept interviewing. I’d go into meetings at places that I admired the most and met so many people along the way. Going to events three times a week allowed me to make more connections and interactions with people in the industry than I could ever ask for. I knew that was my way in and through that I learned so many things. I took that information to help me grow into the career that I always wanted. 

Although my life had a different path for me, this journey worked because I led with my heart. My mission was to show people that someone like myself deserves the opportunity to follow their dreams and aspirations and that there isn’t any excuse if the person knows what they’re doing and studies hard to be there. 

How do you use your platform to advocate for topics surrounding diversity and inclusivity in the fashion and entertainment industry?

I’ve taken a little bit of an unconventional way to advocate for topics surrounding diversity and inclusion by being unapologetically myself as much as possible. Even though at times I do talk about topics that surround my community, I’m more of a person of action rather than just talking out of the blue. I also team up with people who have that same mindset of physically wanting to change the world. That formula has helped me advocate for my community in more ways than one. My community is tired of people wanting things to change, but not acting on it, so I do anything and everything possible to change that narrative. My social media shows me acting on that narrative by showing people that a disabled life can be a beautiful one.

As an activist, you have worked also with UN Secretary General António Guterres in 2018 to reduce inequality. How was your experience of working with him on that?

It was absolutely amazing and extremely surreal that somebody with that much power wanted to discuss with me the ways that things need to change and what actions we can all do to be closer to those missions. He was extremely aware of how far we’ve come, but how much we still need to do. It was also rewarding that he understood how this is not a local problem, but a world problem. There are millions of people who don’t have accessibility the way that people in America might have. It was extremely memorable and rewarding to know that these topics are being talked about in The UN and that there are steps currently being taken to get us closer to the mission statement on reducing inequality for my community.

In 2020, you founded ‘Black Disabled Creatives’, offering an accessible database platform to connect disabled creatives to one another, as well as connecting them with hiring personnel, given that they are the least hired demographic. Why did you decide to found this initiative and what is your vision for its work?

During the re-emergence of ‘Black Lives Matter’, I started noticing that people in my community were having an extremely hard time getting opportunities in the workplace. During this time, I kept growing frustrated of hearing these stories from my fellow community members and given the privileges that I currently have, I found myself needing to help as much as I could. If I was able to find these opportunities, why aren’t they? This was a running question in my mind. I don’t believe that there is a single excuse for anyone to deny work to someone with a disability. 

We saw how Covid changed the way we view the workplace, which is something that the community has been fighting for a very long time. So I decided to create this platform to connect the dots, so there’s even less of an excuse to make if the person is talented in their field. We all deserve and need the opportunity to survive. Disability is not an excuse to not find those opportunities. Hopefully the purpose of the database is to have tangible evidence that we are an extremely huge and talented community, so I hope that in the future there is no need for this database and my community can freely find opportunities in their field if they need one.

Who would you describe as your biggest idol and inspiration in life?

The perseverance and strength that women have in our society will always be the biggest inspiration of my life. I was blessed to grow up with extremely strong women who carried out their own revolutions. From my great grandma to my mother, they have all carried the world on their shoulders with love in their heart. Their force continues to follow me and guide me every single day of my life. They are more than my idols, but the force that help me continue to do what I do.

You are also an actress. Most recently we’ve been able to watch you in Showtime’s ‘The L Word: Generation Q’. What prompted your interest in acting? Why does acting make you feel fulfilled?

Acting came into my life in a very interesting and unplanned way. I got the opportunity to audition for the role of Maribel a couple months before they started shooting the new season. I always had opinions about non-disabled people playing disabled roles and getting awards and recognition for their movies or TV shows. The unfortunate part about that wasn’t about representation, but the fact that the opportunities for these roles were never given to the person who may have lived that experience. 

These narratives and stories have been extremely harmful to my community in various ways. Depicting these scenarios could be extremely harmful and deadly because it’s viewed through the lens of somebody who does not have a disability. These stories and narratives are always showing my community in the worst light possible, where we are either killed or used as a crutch for another character’s inspirational porn story. We are much more than that. Actually, we’re extremely different than that. 

These stories continue to hurt my community, so when I had the opportunity to make a little bit of a dent into that, I took the chance. Lucky for me, I realized that I very much enjoyed acting and diving into a character and bring her to life through the body of someone with a physical disability. It has fulfilled me in more ways than one, because I can happily say that I am one of the first actresses with a physical disability who was able to have a relationship, but also a romantic one as well on national television for millions and millions of people to see. 

Jillian, with all your successes, what’s coming up next for you?

There’s so much work to be done and my mission, while I can, is to continue this conversation of my community being at the forefront of everything. So anything or everything that I do next will always have the mindset of helping my own community out and inviting them to the table. Nothing I can currently say at the moment, but definitely look out. I’m currently filming an indie movie that has so much heart in it. I can’t wait for you all to see it.

Talent: Jillian Mercado @jillianmercado
Photographer: Brianna Alysse @brialysse
Stylist: Parker Harwood @parkerharwood
Make-up & hair: Carolina Pizarro @ See Management @cphcarolinapizarro @seemanagement
Editor: Timi Letonja @timiletonja
Interview: Jana Letonja @janaletonja