Alumnus uses Hollywood role to empower marginalized communities

Headshot of Tonatiuh Elizarraraz, wearing green jacket and smiling.
Tonatiuh Elizarraraz stars in ABC’s upcoming pilot, “Promised Land.” (Photo courtesy of Susan Gordon)

Tonatiuh Elizarraraz grew up listening to the stories of the people who frequented the beauty salon his mother worked at. He was constantly surrounded by people who were eager to talk about themselves, their lives and even their divorces as they sat back in chairs getting their hair done. 

Elizarraraz was fascinated. At the salon, his curiosity often led to his mother scolding him for being nosy. At home, he would spend hours developing original stories for his toys as he played with them in the bathtub. Consuming stories through television and film also provided Elizarraraz insight into how the world worked. 

His interest in the stories of others, television and film is part of the reason why he decided to become an actor. The other reason isn’t as heartwarming. 

“The joy part of [acting] came from wanting to belong and being around other people,” Elizarraraz said. “But I guess every story comes with the dark side, and, to me, a lot of it was I needed to learn to shift my behavior and belong as a means of survival.” 

Elizarraraz was bullied growing up, which led him to seek a sense of belonging through acting. However, along the way, he never forgot about his love for storytelling and how the world makes sense of itself through stories and language. As a professional actor, Tonatiuh understands that these narratives, as well as those who control them, can shape the world. 

“Culture changes much faster than politics,” Elizarraraz said. “If we can help control the agreements, or guide the agreements between us as society, and create a more tolerant and empathetic place that is just for everyone, then we can thus reflect that in politics and policy and law.” 

As an actor, Elizarraraz is a direct participant in the shifting of culture. The USC’s School of Dramatic Arts alum has appeared in many film and TV projects, such as two STARZ drama series “Vida,” and “Promised Land” and an ABC pilot currently in production. Tonatiuh’s road to success exemplifies his tenacity and laser focus on his values of empowering marginalized voices. Delving into the business aspect of Hollywood, Elizarraraz interned at a talent agency during his time at USC. Following graduation, the agency offered Elizarraraz a job, and he set his sights on becoming a part of the theatre community in Los Angeles. He hopped from gig to gig, making friends along the way. 

All the while, Elizarraraz remained focused on his commitment to storytelling. By not limiting himself to on-screen roles, Elizarraraz helps shape pivotal narratives through political work and conscious storytelling.

“I hope that the stories that I tell impacts people in such a way that liberates them,” Elizarraraz said. “But I also hope that the stories that I tell impact people in such a way that they take action.” 
Besides focusing on telling impactful and inspiring stories, Elizarraraz also works as a volunteer in organizations that effect change through protests, community outreach programs, and education.

“I have worked with Build Power and Black Lives Matter,” Elizarraraz said. “From being out on the field and protesting, helping them with their tech aspects, helping anywhere that I’m really needed.”

Elizarraraz also lends a hand to script writers by posing important questions about the framing of their stories and the way they represent different cultures. Addressing issues that range from colorism to accurate on-screen representations of communities of color, Elizarraraz helps with the intention of creating characters that provide more realistic representations of communities of color. 

In addition to giving advice to storytellers on developing their stories into conscious works of art that accurately represent marginalized communities, Elizarraraz also directly participates in work that aims to provide a voice to the voiceless, starring in two short plays from Chalk Repertory Theatre’s series “Chalk Lines.” 
Elizarraraz stars as Arturo in the play “Mutual Life,” which tells a narrative about the AIDS epidemic in 1992 around the historic West Adams area within Los Angeles. In “March of Time — Time Warp” viewers witness how the city of L.A. has evolved over the course of 150 years from Chinatown all the way to the Coliseum. 

Giovanni Adams, the writer of “Mutual Life,” is an actor, playwright and friend of Elizarraraz. Adams said when he was writing the play, he had Elizarraraz in mind for the role of Arturo.  

“And I just felt with Tona’s deep understanding of L.A. and his affiliation with the queer community here in Los Angeles, he would bring so much to the role, and I was not disappointed,” Adams said. “He has realized Arturo in a way that is such a marvel to watch as a playwright.” 

Adams lauds Elizarraraz as a great actor and said he was “not disappointed” with Elizarraraz’s work in “Mutual Life,” which will be available for viewing June 19. But, Adams didn’t only sing words of praise for Elizarraraz as an actor. He also praised him for being a great friend. 

“He has a great laugh, great sense of humor and a very, very sharp wit,” Adams said. “He’s a fiercely loyal, committed friend.”

USC alumna Jamie Lew is an artist who has created and designed art installations and theatrical sets for the likes of rock band Aerosmith and Disney Music Group. She met Elizarraraz at USC when she saw him performing in a play she worked on as a set designer. Her words of praise for Tonatiuh speak volumes about his character. Lew described him as charming and beautiful, with a strong political and moral voice. 

“I’ve learned a lot from him … to be non judgmental of different experiences of life,” Lew said. “And to be empathetic of different experiences of life.” 

As professionals, Lew said she and Elizarraraz have grown together. They have deep heart to hearts about their experiences with microaggressions and being used as an artist which makes them feel less lonely in their experiences. 

“People should know just how brave and powerful he is,” Lew said. “His success right now is only the beginning of what he is going to do and change in this world.”

When he isn’t on screen driving the narrative for conscious storytelling or volunteering in political organizations, Elizarraraz engages in all sorts of activities including, dancing, traveling, competing fiercely in game nights with his friends and holding intimate conversations with people about who they are. 

Tonatiuh is a person that has goals for their future but also the determination to accomplish them. 

“On the micro level, my goal for myself is to have enough money to provide for my family and to have financial freedom,” Elizarraraz said. “On the macro level, … my goal is to allow people to be seen, allow people to tell stories that empower them to grow.”