Elyza Guzman, now a freshman at Boston's Emerson College majoring in musical theater, is eager to make her mark in theater for numerous reasons, but none as important as to be a shining example for youth like her.
"I want to reach a place where I can have a big enough platform to connect with people who (share) my background," said Guzman, a member of Coahulla Creek High School's class of 2020. As a Latina with a diverse family heritage — mostly Cuban with some Mexican on her mother's side, and the Dominican Republic on her father's side — "there aren't as many of us represented in the arts, (and) representation is extremely important," she said.
"I don't see a lot of people who look like me, specifically, and I've realized, especially watching my younger cousins, that what they see in media" is formative, she said. "I want to be that (example) for kids who look like me."
She idolizes Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of hit musicals "Hamilton" and "In the Heights," because he not only writes his own material, but he provides opportunities for actors and actresses who historically have been overlooked.
"He's definitely number one for me," she said. "He's Puerto Rican, which is close to where (my family) comes from, and 'In the Heights' is one of my favorite shows of all time."
Guzman also admires the Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong'o, who became the first Kenyan and Mexican actress to win an Academy Award when she took home the best supporting actress Oscar for 2013's "12 Years a Slave."
"She's one of the most amazing actresses I've ever watched, so strong," and she's been an outspoken advocate on issues of diversity, inclusion, acceptance and representation, Guzman said. "She's a phenomenal talent, and I hope to be like her one day."
Guzman resided in Miami until moving to Dalton at age 10 with her mother, siblings and stepfather, while her biological father remained in Miami working multiple jobs. He died six months after she moved to Dalton, and her uncle died a few years after that.
Since then, "there's been a lot of unrest and stress in my family," and as the oldest of her siblings and cousins, "I've had to pick it up for them," she said. "I want to be an example to them and give my family some inkling of positivity."
Barry Pulliam, theater and choral director at Coahulla Creek, believes in Guzman because she strikes the ideal balance between humility and self-assurance.
"Many high school students would be arrogant about their abilities and achievements, (but) this is not the case with Elyza," Pulliam said. "Since she is truly confident of her abilities and aware of her opportunities for improvement, she remains sincerely humble, (and) she will be greatly missed by all who are involved in our program."