Paulina Cerrilla captured the nation’s attention four years ago with her appearance on The Voice, a television show that features top-notch talent competing for a recording contract. Chosen by musical artist Christina Aguilera to join her team, the Mexican American Cerrilla did well, though she did not make it through the battle rounds of the show’s third season.
Since then, Cerrilla has racked up more than 124,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, with more than 28 million views of her music videos. She starred in a short film, String Theory, and is a CoverGirl spokesmodel. Her bilingual abilities and ethnic background make her appealing to a variety of demographics. Additionally, a Christmas song she composed was picked up by Girls’ Generation, the biggest K-pop (Korean pop music) group in Korea, and at least one of her songs will befeatured on the next album from Reik, a Latin Grammy Award-winning group from Mexico.
Through it all, the 21-year-old Cerrilla has maintained her faith, starring in several faith-based productions made by Family Theater Productions.
“I do a lot of my praying in Spanish. I carry my Bible everywhere. I journal, too. I write down my thoughts and what I’m reflecting on for the day. The way that I pray, it’s just kind of interesting,” Cerrilla says in an interview with St. Anthony Messenger.
A Star Is Born
Her mother and father, Mexican immigrants, raised Paulina in Texas. She began singing opera and Andrea Bocelli songs when she was 3. She would sing at family and friend gatherings. “I just loved performing,” she says. She began receiving vocal lessons when she was 7.
“I feel like it was something that just came so naturally to me,” Cerrilla says of her musical gifts. “There was never a moment or something that happened in the middle of the night. I know that happens for some people. But for me, I feel like I was born knowing what I needed to do.”
When Cerrilla was 9, she discovered that she also wanted to act. She auditioned for an off-Broadway play in Houston. It is customary for touring shows to audition local children to be part of the production in the city where they’re performing rather than travel with the children.
“I came in with no acting experience whatsoever. I got the role. ‘What acting school do you go to?’ they asked me. I said, ‘I don’t.’ And they said,‘You should. Because you’re kinda good.’ ‘Thanks.’” When she tells stories, Cerrilla does different voices for the different characters.
When she was 12, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother to start her career. She signed with music manager Joe Simpson, Jessica Simpson’s father, and began working with music and film producers. Her father stayed in Texas to support them.
“My parents—I have never met two people with so much selfless love, grace, and just . . . they’re just the most wonderful people,” she says, searching for words to describe her parents’ generosity, but feeling as if she’s fallen short.
Struggling with Rejection
It was a trying time for her and her family. She says the most challenging part of her work was rejection at auditions. “I took these meetings [when I was] 13–14 years old; it makes you grow up really fast.”
The rejections were difficult because she still believed she was called to share her talent. “But then you look back at your track record. ‘OK, eight years.’” The ratio of meetings and auditions to actual jobs is dismal. Cerrilla, who is lively and smiles a lot when she talks, is more still when she talks about the rejections.
“Here it’s very tough. There are no numbers. There’s no spreadsheet for success,” she says. “When it comes to acting, auditioning on a daily basis: No. No. No. No. And it’s all right. Honestly, I’m used to it. I go to an audition and know not to expect a call back, whereas in a job interview they at least have the decency to call you and tell you that you didn’t get the job. It’s brutal.”
It wore on her in her early teen years. She channeled some of that into her music. Yet Cerrilla wasn’t new to adversity. She had to face it from an early age. Spanish was her first language, and teachers at her elementary school threatened to hold her back because they mistook the light-skinned Latina’s accent for a speech impediment.
“There are tons of us of every color. Mexicans—we can be black, we can be white, but people tend to think of us as brown,” Cerrilla says. She dyed her hair black for some of her roles, but it’s naturally red.
“At all these auditions [the roles] are for non-Spanish-speaking Latinas. So you would have brown girl, brown girl, brown girl, white girl with a spray tan, brown girl, brown girl . . . and it doesn’t make me any less Latina,” she says of her light skin and red hair. “I speak more Spanish than half of these girls do. I’m not ‘half.’ I’m Mexican.”
She credits her heritage for her devotion to San Judas Tadeo—St. Jude Thaddeus—and to Our Lady of Guadalupe. She’s visited the tilma (cloak) at the Basilica of St. Mary of Guadalupe in Mexico City many times. It inspires her to see the faith of the pilgrims who walk on their knees for hundreds, if not thousands, of feet to see the image of the Blessed Mother.
“You can’t not feel close to her when you see something that amazing,” she says of the faith of the pilgrims. She also notes the devotion of the Mexican people to St. John Paul II, recalling how they greeted the late pope when he arrived in Mexico: “Juan Pablo Segundo . . . te quiere todo el mundo.” (“John Paul II, the whole world loves you.”)
Yet while the family passed on the faith to her at an early age, she continues to grow into it.
“Yes, I grew up in the Catholic faith. But I feel like, you’re Mexican, you’re Catholic. So I feel like I’ve kind of had to find it by myself. That’s not to say that my family isn’t Catholic. My grandmas are so intensely Catholic, like let’s-have-10-children Catholic. Catholic-Catholic.”
Working with Family Theater Productions on faith-based projects strengthened her faith, she says. Cerrilla noticed a difference from the moment she stepped on the set. Holy Cross Father David Guffey stopped all the work and prayed over the production.
“It was something that completely changed the tone. We were working for something that was much bigger than ourselves,” she says. “We wanted the film to be a way for people to find their path, so, you know, we had to put our personal interests aside to create a truly wonderful, impactful project. That’s what made working on this series of films so special, because it wasn’t necessarily for us.”
While she’s always been Catholic, working with Family Theater was a turning point. “I always knew how to light the candle, and pray the rosary, and who to pray to when I needed it,” she says. “But I didn’t understand what it was like to have a day-in, day-out relationship. That’s what I’m working on now. That’s why I have my Bible.”
She has a large wooden crucifix that hangs in her bedroom, a present purchased by Family Theater’s Susan Wallace during last year’s Religious Education Congress. Being strong in her faith is as important to her as her aspirations to share her musical and acting gifts through various platforms.
Plans for the Future
While she plans on continuing to do faith-based projects, she believes she can reach a far broader audience through other avenues. She sees herself as a mainstream artist, hopefully opening for a major artist on tour in the next year or two.
“I think we can create a career that isn’t a singer trying to be an actress or an actress trying to be a singer,” Cerrilla explains. “We can truly create two credible, stable careers in both facets.”
“I kind of want to be like Justin Timberlake. He does his music; he’s awesome. He does his films; he’s awesome. He’s a very credible actor. But I want to extend beyond that. I also want to do fashion. I want to touch as many people as possible and just share my passions. Yeah, I have big ambitions.”
Her drive for success is apparent in her many projects. In 2015, Cerrilla starred in Family Theater’s 40 Hours, which depicts the lessons a high school girl learns during her 40 hours of community service at a soup kitchen, based on André House in Phoenix. In another role, Cerrilla was a natural fit to play a musician on a youth retreat in Down from the Mountaintop, a TV film for which she composed an original song. These two roles followed Family Dinner, in which Cerrilla played the lead in a film about the true meaning of love.
Films and music that deal with darker subject matter can serve a purpose, too, Cerrilla says. “People need to see where life can take [them] so that they don’t necessarily feel curious to take that path themselves. So if we keep on creating all this bright and sunny content, they’ll think, That’s cool, but that’s normal. Let’s try this. They don’t necessarily realize where that can take you. There’s definitely a place for darker content, and that can be used for the light.
“Thankfully, I haven’t been exposed to really terrible things. I’m actually kind of sheltered, and I think that’s a good thing. Because I’ve seen the way certain things have affected people in the industry, I don’t need to experiment,” she says, adding that she never “felt inclined to break the rules.”
Having worked with her on different projects at Family Theater, writer-director Tony Sands believes Cerrilla could be on the cusp of a breakthrough.
“No one ever knows, but some people just kind of have ‘it.’ And I would say she does,” says the Hollywood veteran, who worked on special effects for Space Jam and Titanic. “Here you have a person who has the discipline and the drive and the gifts to make it,” Sands explains. “Obviously, God alone knows. But you have someone here who has every possibility of being a major star in the near future.”
If that happens, Cerrilla wants to follow in the footsteps of Taylor Swift. “She’s very accessible, girl next door. She’s kind of dorky. She’s not afraid to be herself. But she’s also a very confident, empowering figure for girls. And I really admire her for that.”
Cerrilla is confident, too, and comfortable with herself. She gives her full attention when catching up with her friends at Family Theater. Whatever roles she takes on, she’s committed to staying true to herself.
“As long as I’ve been in the business, I’ve never been as excited to work with an artist,” says Richard Ellis, Cerrilla’s manager. “When she walks into a room, it’s not put on; it’s not rehearsed. She has an attractive, engaging quality that everyone responds to.”
Ellis, who’s been in the business for decades, describes Cerrilla as “a really good kid who happens to have a lot of talent.” With the strength of her convictions, she can be a role model to young Latinas.
“In this industry you can get lost in the glamour and the music. And the films can portray things that you don’t necessarily believe in,” Cerrilla says. “I take pride in the fact that I’m not going around with guys. I would like people to know me, and despite whatever I end up doing or being portrayed as in the media, I’m going to fight very hard to maintain my integrity. I would want people to know that there can be a person just like them fighting the fight and trying to be a good person.”
Journalist J.D. Long-Garcia is the editor-in-chief of Angelus for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.