By Maya Renee Castro, Photography by Joana Meurkens
Tomás is a New York native performer. He identifies as a Queer, Afro-Latino with a newly found love for making empanadas. Tomás attended the renowned “FAME” high school and has been in countless amazing productions, from musicals to HBO and Amazon shows. At 22, he is about to make his Broadway and Netflix debut. I was lucky enough to sit down with him and talk about his upbringing, craft, current state of Broadway, Industry changes and much more. Tomás has such a loving and beautiful look on self worth, identity and life… I could have talked to him forever.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where were you born and where/ how did you grow up? All that good jazz…
My name is Tomas Matos and my pronouns are He/Him. I am 22 years old. I was born and raised in New York City, specifically Staten Island, which is kind of trash and I hate to represent it. But I am the Staten Island Fairy, so I got to do my part, honey. I went to school in Lincoln Center at LaGuardia High School, which is how I know Joana (Mixed Mag’s Art Director). We were good friends in high school and both did theater together outside of school. I identify as Afro-Latino. My dad is Puerto Rican and Black, my mom is Cuban and Spanish. So I have a sensible mix of both cultures. Right now, I live alone in Hell’s Kitchen. My family is quite religious. I would say my mom is turning a corner of realizing that being gay is not a bad thing. I was kicked out when I was sixteen and moved in with my grandmother, which was kind of a moment. I’m a really fabulous queer Afro-Latino man.
Did you grow up in Staten Island your whole life?
Yeah, but I went to school in Manhattan, so I was commuting back and forth from home to school. I spent a lot of my time in Manhattan. I would say I’m a city boy.
What was your family dynamic like? How did you navigate your different viewpoints on religion?
My family dynamic is very interesting. I don’t know my dad. He’s not really in my life and he never has been. So I’ve only had my mom as a single mother. I think there was this idea that she had to make me the stereotypical idea of what a man is supposed to be in her mind. And when I came out to her, that was just not acceptable. She was not having it and thinking back, I can understand where she was coming from based on where she was in her life. It’s being a single mother and raising a son and feeling as if it was her fault in a way. But I’m really happy that she doesn’t think like that anymore, because that is definitely not the case. And I would say that in terms of religion, my mom is a Christian. She was raised Christian not by my grandmother, but her best friend’s mother, who is a Bishop. I would say that I am definitely someone who is spiritual and I do believe in God, but I don’t know if I’m necessarily about the church.
That’s quite interesting. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but it can be hard to navigate religion when you’re queer. I grew up Catholic-ish. My mom wasn’t religious, but my grandmother was. Dismantling religion and understanding what is out there and what you believe in is a whole thing. I can be hard to not hate yourself when a lot of religion tells us that being queer is wrong.
The more I grow and learn more about myself and how I identify spiritually, the more I realize that religion often tries to fit people into a mold when in reality we’re all living our own lives. We all have our own spirituality or what we believe in, so if we own that then nothing else really matters.
How did your cultural heritage play into your understanding of self as you were growing up and continue to evolve?
It’s really interesting. It’s something that I am struggling with and growing into to this day. My grandma is from Cuba, but her whole family was from Spain. She immigrated here through Operation Pedro Pan, which was a huge initiative to bring children out of Cuba when Fidel Castro started taking over. She’s always had this really conservative idea that socialism is a bad, bad construct. She believes in that Cuban idea that Democrats or liberals are trying to take over the world. So I have that side of me, which is kind of a weird mindset, something she doesn’t even realize that she instilled in me. I’m trying to break apart from it, because as someone who identifies as being mixed with two opposing cultures, it can be really hard to really figure out what ideals I identify with and who I am.
Then I have my Puerto Rican and Black family. Growing up in my grandmother’s house, I realize that she tried to suppress that side of mine and my sisters’ identities. It was a lot of her trying to negate our Blackness while at the same time realizing that in the world I am seen as a mixed Black individual. So it was really tricky and to this day it’s still tricky to own my blackness and my queerness and my mixed identity. I’m still learning about how I feel about my identity, my culture, my coming out, and just feeling OK with who I am in my own skin.
You know, it’s quite a battle. I’m Afro Latinx too, Black Latinx. I get that it’s a battle.
Yeah, it’s tough, but it just takes a lot of self-love to be like, I am who I am and I am enough. It’s trickiest when it’s your family who is trying to suppress you and subconsciously shut out a part of you because of their own prejudice.
It’s really hard because a lot of Afro-Latinx either look Black or very ambiguous. And, personally as someone who looks ambiguous it’s hard to own Blackness. But then I notice that there’s a lot of Anti-Blackness from family and people around me. I had to tell myself it’s OK to be Black. And then there’s so much hatred for people in the Latinx community who are Black, especially those who are very dark skinned or have Black “features” or whatever you want to call it. You just have to love yourself at the end of the day and love everyone for every part of themselves.
Yeah and realizing that you are who you are and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it is very tricky, especially when people immigrate with those terrible conservative ideas. In a lot of Latin cultures, people believe that being Black isn’t going to get you anywhere. It’s a terrible idea. It’s something they were taught and was constructed long before them. So I think it’s just breaking that barrier and throwing away the old because that shit is too old and wrong.
Yeah, it’s time to move on guys. You kind of already touched upon colorism in a way. But what have you noticed or experienced navigating the world with your mixed identity?
Colorism plays such a big part in my career. Being in the cast of Diana on Broadway, I was very fortunate enough to speak about colorism and anti-Blackness with the company. We all sat down on Zoom during the height of all the Black Lives Matter protests this past June. The four people in the show who identify as Black demanded that the producers and the cast sit down and listen to what we had to say. The fact there were only four of us in the first place out of an entire cast of white people says something about the industry in itself. I could go on and on about how Broadway has a systemic racism issue, but I will not do that. Instead, I’ll say that I feel like I have really benefited from colorism, which is quite terrible to even think about. As someone who has a lighter skin tone within the Black mosaic, I’ve gotten a lot of advantages because of that. Because when you think of the Rockettes, why is there only one or maybe two Black Rockettes? It’s because producers and the creative team think that if you are Black, you stand out. Black Broadway is really trying to change that backwards idea. After being in the cast of Diana for three years and performing four different productions both out of town and on Broadway, I was the only Black cast member who stayed on the entire time. And I was also the only person who identified as mixed. I couldn’t help but realize that out of all of the people I’d worked, everyone who was replaced had a darker skin tone than mine.
I can’t help but think that I’m only here because of the color of my skin and the fact that people think that compared to a darker skinned individual, my lighter skin tone is not going to stick out in an ensemble. It’s a lot of self reflection to realize, wow, I really do benefit from colorism. And it’s something that I hadn’t really thought about for a really long time, because it wasn’t on my radar, until it was. I think it’s just holding yourself accountable and being like, OK, this is something that I benefit from and this is something that I need to help change for darker skinned friends in the industry who are discriminated against in casting.
It’s a horrible old way of thinking, rooted in hatred and anti-Blackness and it needs to change. You can’t just have one or two Black people in the cast of a production and think that’s fine. Even in Hollywood, they recast the same Black people and they don’t look for newer Black or mixed actors people because they’re like, oh, we’ve done it already, we have our quota. There’s a lot to unpack in terms of colorism in the industry, and in any industry, honestly.
Yeah, I do think representation in casting is one of the main issues that the Broadway community is facing. At least it’s something I’m realizing and really trying to make people aware of because it’s something that I benefit from the most as a mixed person. It’s accepting the fact that we are sometimes ignorant ourselves and then just striving to make changes against that.
Speaking about your identity and loving yourself, how does your culture and your ethnicity affect your beauty preferences? Do you have your own internalized beauty standards?
We have been carefully taught that European features are the beauty standard and that it’s what you should strive to achieve. But thankfully, I don’t really feel like that is something that has been instilled in me. I really don’t feel as if one person or one feature is more beautiful than the other. And I think that the reason why I don’t feel that way is because if you’re attracted to an individual’s energy, then you’re not really worried about how big their cheeks are or if their bone structure is defined. And while I might have some of those desirable features, I really don’t feel like that is something that I tend to look for. I tend to look for things like how am I interacting with individuals? I think this plays a lot into my sexuality and how I identify on the spectrum of queerness. For a long time I knew I was a gay man and I liked gay men, but mostly cis gender gay men. But then I was like, I don’t really feel that is the truth because I’ll find a woman that is like very masculine, extremely attractive. And I think it’s because I’m attracted to energy, not necessarily someone’s gender identity. I think if people were more drawn to energy verses sex or gender, the world would be a lot happier and there wouldn’t be so many social standards on what is beautiful or what is ugly.
Was there a moment in your life where you realized this about yourself? Do you feel like someone taught you this way of thinking or is it innate?
I think it’s just part of understanding who I am as Tomas an individual. I don’t think that anyone necessarily taught me. I have been blessed to grow up in a city where I can explore who I am as an individual without any sort of judgment, which is why I feel like it was important for me to get the hell out of Staten Island. Staten Island isn’t the most comfortable place to be as a queer individual. I’m so lucky to have grown up with friends and role models who told me that being myself was OK. I am blessed that when I look in the mirror, I am very happy and I feel very loved by myself, which can be really hard to do. I want to spread love and help other people find that.
It’s very hard for a lot of people to wake up and just love what they see in the mirror. And I think that’s very beautiful that you found that in yourself. Can you tell me, how do you identify as an artist?
I would say I’m a performer because I sing, dance and act. I’m technically trained as a dancer, but I’m also technically trained as an actor and a singer. I would say that my strongest suit in the performing industry is definitely my dancing, but I do all three.
So you could call yourself a triple threat.
Yes, triple threat!
How did you come to your craft and what drives your inspiration?
When I was in sixth grade, I was placed in a creative writing elective. And I remember after school, my sister who went to the same school as me asked if I liked creative writing. And I was like, “no, absolutely not”. So she suggested I tried drama. I moved into the drama department as my elective and then started taking dance. During the first dance class, we were doing plie and my teacher was impressed with mine. And I remember getting a lollipop for being so good at them. I loved it! I became a dance major in seventh grade and then I joined the dance troupe and started doing the musicals. When I got into LaGuardia for high school, things really popped off. I would say the reason why this is my career now is because I just love performing. I love taking my bow and getting applause, which for a long time I felt was a negative reason for enjoying performing. It felt like a form of codependency that I had to be loved by the audience instead of just loving my craft. You can love the moment when people are throwing roses at you, but you know that it’s not something that you should be looking for. But I express myself and my emotions best through my body, which is why I ultimately love my craft.
Is there anything that inspires you to continue this work?
I would say I’m inspired to change the systemic problems that are currently instilled within my industry. It’s one of the main reasons why I want to stay in this craft, but it’s hard to be a performer right now when the entire industry is on pause. When I look at the rest of my castmates and the other people in my field, I am probably one of the youngest individuals. So it’s nice to think that one day I could be inspiring someone who sees themselves in me today.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
So many! I would say the main one would be Lin Manuel Miranda. I also love Cynthia Erivo. But I fell in love with Lin Manuel when he and the entire original company of In the Heights came to speak to our production of the musical at LaGuardia. It was so beautiful to see people who looked like me and people who identified as being Latino, Afro-Latino, all of these mixed beautiful individuals on a stage talking to us. It made me realize that I could do this, this could be my life and lo and behold, girl this is my life.
OK, this is a side bit, but how do you feel about Hamilton? Because I love In The Heights and I do love Lin Manuel Miranda, I will admit it. But while Hamilton created a lot of roles for performers of color, he was also talking about these white colonizers who were not that amazing. And I don’t like that part.
It’s totally a double edged sword. I feel like ultimately the reason why he created the show was to give us Black, mixed, and Latino people the power, which is why most of the cast are people of color. And I think that is the beauty in it, because he is speaking about all of these terrible colonizers and slaveowners while giving us control of telling the stories of people who have oppressed us. That’s how I feel about it. It’s a part of our history and we can’t negate it, because then we won’t be able to move forward. But I do hear you. It’s a terrible idea to put all these white ass colonizers on a pedestal but it’s a way of taking back control.
Okay, I see that point. But it didn’t sit well with me that he didn’t talk about any of the bad stuff except for Hamilton’s affair. Thomas Jefferson is this happy go lucky guy that you really want to pal around with and it’s like his wife was a slave.
No, one hundred percent, there are some missteps that I would say have happened with that show. But ultimately, I think it’s a good piece of art. It is bad, though, that there are a lot of misinformed ideas about who the people in our history were because they weren’t heroes. They were colonizers.
Let’s talk about the current production that you’re in, Diana. When I heard first about Diana I thought it was about Diana Ross. But it’s about Princess Diana! In a play that’s about a white princess, where do all these characters of color come in?
That is a very good point that you bring up, because in a cast of about 25 people, there are only 4 POCs. It’s understandable we’re telling a show about a white woman, but it’s also 2020. The standard needs to change because someone’s skin color should not be the reason why someone doesn’t get a job. We shouldn’t just hire POC for the sake of filling a quota, because if that were the case, most of these shows would just have white cast members.
The show itself is a beautiful piece of art. It tells the story of Diana who was such an icon of her time. It’s going to share her story with a lot of people who really don’t know who she was. I wasn’t alive when she passed away, so I had no idea who she was. It’s really fun to be in the show and it’s going to be amazing for a lot of people who were obsessed with her during her time. I feel like there isn’t really someone who has been as famous as Princess Di. I would probably say that today we think of Beyonce as that idea of royalty. But the show is really good. The choreography is amazing. The lyrics are so beautiful. And the person who plays Diana is so phenomenal. She shines through in the vulnerability of telling the story of who Diana was and all of the hardships that she went through. It’s a beautiful piece of work and I’m really proud to be a part of it.
That’s amazing. How did you find out about this project and get the role?
I auditioned for it back in 2018 for the out of town production that was in La Jolla. And I’ve been with the show from that point until Broadway. It’s changed so much. It’s changed even from Broadway previews back in March to what the film is going to be, which is so amazing to see. It’s an ever changing piece of work that I’m very happy to be apart of.
I heard it’s going to be on Netflix. Are you excited about that?
Yes! She made her Broadway debut and her Netflix debut, I can’t wait! I think they’re planning on putting it on Netflix in January or February of 2021. We did the cast album too. It’s something to look forward to seeing in a time when there is nothing being created for Broadway.
With the current outlook for the pandemic, where do you think Broadway is heading? How do we create art for Broadway and continue the industry? Because honestly, as a playwright, sometimes I feel a little lost. I love to write, so no matter what I’m always going to write. But in the back of my head, I wonder, is there going to be a day where people can see this again?
It’s scary and it can put you in a downward spiral the more you think about it, especially if we go into lockdown again. But I’m currently trying to expand my idea of what my capabilities are in an industry that is currently shut down. I started this company called Empanada Papi, which is really fun and I’m really happy about it. Tomorrow I’m going to be driving around New York City, delivering empanadas that I’m making to all of the people who have ordered. So that is something I’ve realized that I want to start doing because I love to cook. So I’m just trying to focus my ideas somewhere else.
Broadway is very different from TV and Film. People are finding ways to shoot TV and Film before this second lockdown. But Broadway is about being in person. However I have high hopes for everything, because without hope you can go down such a rabbit hole of sadness right now. For when we do go back to performing, can you speak about any themes that come up frequently in your work?
Something that I have noticed a lot is that I often fill the diversity quota as that random mixed boy. Like I said, as someone who is of a lighter hue in the mosaic of BIPOC people, I am considered that random mixed boy. It’s just so sad that people feel like, “oh, we had one Afro Latino boy. OK, we filled that quota.” It happens quite a lot when I walk into a room and I’m the only person of color. It just makes you feel uncomfortable and it makes you feel like you stick out. But there are some circumstances where I’m sticking out and it’s benefiting me. So it’s a double sided coin, feeling like a sore thumb and then also feeling like this star in the room because I am so different. I was doing this production of Newsies once in Salt Lake City and I was on the cover that they created for the advertising of the show. It made me feel so good to think that at nineteen I’d made it on the billboard. And then about a year later I was thinking back on it and realized that they probably did it because I was the only person of color in that show. I just don’t like being used to make a production look less racist or whitewashed.
It’s the truth and it is a weird double edged sword when you are excited about getting a part but then realize the casting choice makes them feel better about their white guilt. What do you hope that the audience/viewer/reader takes away from your work?
I want the audience members to come away feeling something. It’s one thing to have a lot of people applaud you, but it’s another thing to make an individual walk away feeling something, feeling challenged in an idea.
I think the mark of a true talented performer is the ability to make someone feel something. What’s the point of doing art if we can’t make each other feel something or change the world, in a way, even if it is just through emotions. So something I think is really important to talk about especially with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, is how art and building up a community works hand in hand. Representation is so important and fixing systemic problems anywhere in any industry is so important. How do you feel that art can be used as a tool of community building?
I think it’s going to play a really big part in making a change in the industry and in the community of New York City as a whole, because we are able to reach so many people with our art and what we create. It’s going to take a lot from the producers, the creative team, to really sit down and listen to what we are demanding as POCs in an industry where we’ve been silenced for so long. I think most of the time creators and producers think that their job is done by filling the diversity quota, but they’re not really doing anything for inclusivity. And without inclusivity, the people who come in to fill the diversity quotas aren’t feeling comfortable enough to be themselves. And if people aren’t feeling comfortable enough to be themselves, then how will they perform at their true potential on a stage? First, we need inclusivity within our industry and then we need to create more jobs for POC. And there are going to be more people who want to see our shows. Making a change inside Broadway will lead to changes in the theater industry and also in New York City as a whole.
Do you think the crowds who go to Broadway are increasingly becoming more white? Who are we showing theater to?
That plays a big part in our outreach and who we are inviting to the shows. I think that also plays a lot into how much tickets are. No student, especially no young POC individual in New York City is going to try to spend 200 motherfucking dollars on a ticket. So there definitely has to be some sort of balance within that so that there is more accessibility.
Yeah, something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how high ticket prices are and how theater is the one medium that is so hard to access, it’s crazy.
It’s because they’re making it so. I feel like it’s purposeful. The reason there hasn’t been any systemic change with outreach or the type of people who come to see Broadway shows is because the producers are only in it for the money so they’re going to make ticket sales extremely high. They know that the people who are going to be buying them are in the top one percent. All of those people are inevitably white. It is another thing to figure out how to break down that one percent and how to break that mold of these one percent rich white millionaires being the only people with access to Broadway. It’s not going to just change like a flip of a dime either. It’s an idea that needs to be built upon and it’s going to take years for something for us to see a change. But it’s doable, you know.
In your opinion, what do you think is the role of art in the Black liberation movement?
I think it plays many parts. We do have the capability of reaching such a large audience with our art and cultivating and capturing people’s attention with our beauty and art. Art is also integral in making people think, changing thought patterns and making people jump on the idea that there needs to be actual change within our system.
I also think there is an LGBTQ+, queer liberation happening as well, right now, as well as other movements. In your opinion, does art play the same role in those movements that it does in the black liberation movement?
I would probably say yes. Right now, my heart is really in the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. I really want to open people’s eyes to the fact that there are so many Black Trans women, Black Trans individuals being killed constantly and NOTHING is happening because of it. Art can be a strong tactic when trying to make change. And when I say art, it can literally mean how you create a poster, or what your sign looks like or how you’re protesting. Art is part of a big diaspora of this idea of how to make a change.
I know you touched upon it a little bit but what specifically do you believe your role is?
I think my role is to get the word out. Because I have such a big voice and I have a platform, I’m able to amplify voices within the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically Black Trans Lives Matter.
Do you see other people in the theater community also trying to use their voices in that way? Or is there some type of pushback?
Within the theater industry, the BIPOC community is often on the same bandwagon. Most people do want to use their platforms to make a change within the industry and most of the time, people have no choice but to listen. We called upon the producers of Diana to sit down and actually listen to what all the POC and Black people in the community had to say. And similar conversations have happened across productions this year. It was really beautiful to see everyone just come together because we’re even stronger in numbers. I think that there is going to be actual change because there are so many of us carrying the same message. And especially with allies within our industry, we have so many people who are inside trying to actually make the change.
I think a lot of the times I think about the fear that certain producers might have when speaking out against big topic issues or just problems that are going on in the world. And it’s beautiful to hear when producers have you have your back or have your communities back.
Yeah, it feels good. But there are those people who are just money hungry and don’t want to be here for the movement. They just want to be there for themselves. And those are the type of people that we need to get a chop on. Those are the type of people who need to leave the building, you know, because they’re not here for anyone but themselves.
They’ll have their time out. They’ll be gone soon. This has such a lovely conversation/interview. I feel like talking to you about this forever… you’re a great person to talk to! So one of our last questions is what is your favorite play, movie and TV show?
My favorite play would probably be The Legend of Georgia McBride because it is just so funny and I love it. I saw it back at the Guthrie theater when I was doing West Side Story there and I was just so obsessed with it.
My favorite movie, although it isn’t a BIPOC story, would be the movie MILK. It’s so good and it’s so, so informative. And I remember watching it in high school and English class being like oh my God. Favorite movie.
I have so many, but I would have to say Charmed is my favorite TV show. The original, honey, is so good. That would probably be my fav, unfortunately not BIPOC centered.
Is there anything else you want to let our readers know before we end?
I would say to the readers to keep that light shining bright within you. Don’t let any of the haters get you down or try to dim it, because all they’re doing is trying to get yours to be as dim as theirs. Muah!
A New York City Native, Tomás is currently in the Original Broadway Cast of “Diana: a New Musical”, as well as the upcoming Film Adaptation coming to Netflix early 2021.
Dance credits include Broadway Dance Lab (Fall 2018); “Random Acts of Flyness” (HBO); Madonna (MDNA skin); “UNIQLO,” “Modern Love” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon Prime). Regional Theatre; DIANA(La Jolla Playhouse), West Side Story(Guthrie Theater), Newsies(Arena Stage), In the Heights(Pioneer Theater Company). Matos attended the renowned “FAME” high school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in Lincoln Center.
22. Queer. Afro-Latinx. Empanada Papi. @tomatos_