When Salma Hayek arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico at age 25, she could barely read a street sign. She spoke almost no English. And having struggled with dyslexia her whole life, she knew that learning a new language would be a challenge.
But Hayek isn’t one to back down from challenges. The acclaimed actress, producer, and director rose above her learning differences and the language barrier. Like many other famous people with learning and thinking differences, she looked beyond her weaknesses and pursued her passion.
Today, Hayek is a megastar, famous for her talents in film and TV. She’s also a passionate champion for the many causes she supports. That includes global health care, domestic violence prevention and environmental issues. And Hayek has worked to create more opportunities for Latinas in Hollywood.
Over the years she’s brought a lot of attention to these issues. But she’s also been very vocal about her own challenges (and triumphs) with dyslexia. For Hayek, having dyslexia is part of her identity.
A Fun Childhood—and Hidden Struggles With Reading
Born and raised in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, Hayek was a fun and mischievous kid. She had a pair of pet monkeys. She loved gymnastics and watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory—her favorite movie growing up.
Hayek begged her parents to let her attend boarding school in the U.S, which she did for a short time. She still recalls playing pranks on her classmates there.
After returning to Mexico, Hayek starred in a local theater production of Aladdin. It was then that she discovered her talent for acting. Her reading issues were no match for her love for the stage.
Hayek had always struggled with reading, but she was a good student. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she was diagnosed with dyslexia. And even then, many people didn’t know she faced challenges.
“I’m really a fast learner. I always was, which is maybe why in high school they didn’t realize I had dyslexia. I skipped years without studying too much,” she has said.
After high school, Hayek studied political science at the National University of Mexico. But again she was called to the limelight. By age 22, she had become one of the country’s biggest soap opera stars.
Hayek wanted to be more than just a recognized actress. She has said, “At one point I said, ‘I don’t want to do this—it’s not my dream’ … I’m going to start a company. I am going to create projects for me. I’m going to create projects for other Latin women.’”
Soon after, she left for Hollywood to pursue her dream.
A Difficult Start in Hollywood
It had been years since Hayek did her stint at boarding school, but she was confident that she could pick up English again quickly. But between the language barrier and her dyslexia, she “soon realized it wasn’t going to be hard to learn—it was going to be nearly impossible.”
How were those first auditions in a new country? “Everybody thought I was so out of my league,” she has said. “The people in Hollywood were the first ones to try and discourage me. ‘Go back,’ they said. ‘You have no future here.’”
But she refused to give up, and after doing a few movies, Hayek landed her breakout role in 2002. She starred in and produced Frida, based on the life of artist Frida Kahlo. Her performance landed her an Oscar nomination.
Later, Hayek brought the TV hit Ugly Betty to life, which paved the way for many Latino actors to be recognized in prime time.
Her dreams were coming true. “I have an accent, am dyslexic, short, and chubby,” she told reporters. “You name it, I have it, but I am here. I must be the luckiest girl in the world to be working.”
Overcoming Challenges and Owning Her Dyslexia
Having reading issues doesn’t bother Hayek anymore. “Some people read really fast, but you’ll ask them questions about the script and they’ll forget. I take a long time to read a script, but I read it only once,” she has said.
More than that, Hayek is grateful for the journey her career has taken her on: “I’m very lucky I didn’t have it easy, because I’ve learned so much from having to figure out everything on my own and create things for myself.”
If you think your child might have dyslexia, learn which steps to take. If you recently found out your child has dyslexia, read about what to do next. And explore more dyslexia success stories you can share with your child.
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About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.