Every time Ynairaly Simo’s mother asks her what she wants to eat at home, Simo tells her the same thing: moro de guandules con bistec, or rice with pigeon peas and steak.
But if they’re dining out? It’s got to be the mofongo — a Puerto Rican dish made with fried plantains — from a shop two blocks away from where Simo lives with her family in the West Bronx.
The rich food culture in Fordham Heights is a piece of what makes their life so full there.
“We are proud to live in the Bronx, and we are proud that we are Latinos,” Ynairaly’s mother, Ydamys Simo, said in an interview. “And we always encourage that to her: Always be proud of who you are. And never change the essence that makes you you.”
Ynairaly (pronounced ya-NAH-ruh-ly) Simo, 14, is the voice of Gabi, an energetic and eccentric preteen, in the animated musical “Vivo” on Netflix. Though Ynairaly was born and raised in New York, both sides of her family are Dominican.
“I’m very glad to be playing Gabi and be Dominican,” Simo said in a video interview, in front of a canary yellow wall in her mother’s room. “Because girls my age — or younger — can be like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s Dominican! And she’s an actress? I could be an actress. I’m Dominican.’”
Simo felt a similar spark when she saw Zoe Saldaña as Gamora in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” She instantly loved the green warrior character, and looked up who played her.
When she realized Saldaña played Gamora — and that the actress was Dominican — it hit her: She could be in a Marvel movie someday, too.
Four years later, Simo and Saldaña would end up working together. Saldaña plays Rosa, Gabi’s mother, in “Vivo.” Since their recording sessions took place separately, the two have never met, but Simo still hopes to meet her idol.
“Vivo” is Simo’s first major role — although she’s been acting for years — and she worked alongside a cast of “icons,” as she put it, including Saldaña.
Lin-Manuel Miranda voices the titular, Vivo, a singer-musician kinkajou; the Buena Vista Social Club legend Juan de Marcos plays Andrés, Vivo’s owner; and Gloria Estefan plays Marta, Andrés’ old musical partner and unrequited love.
Because of the nature of voice performance, Miranda was the only cast member Simo met in person. She was more than familiar with his work — she had, in fact, auditioned for a role in the film version of “In the Heights” — and was eager to collaborate with him.
Miranda spent one-on-one time with Simo in the recording studio, helping her pin down high notes in her head voice and low notes in her chest voice. (Simo attends the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, where she learned she is naturally an alto.)
The actress sings on five songs on the movie’s soundtrack, including “My Own Drum” — an earworm rap about being true to yourself — and its remix with the Grammy winner Missy Elliott. Miranda, known for his signature rapid-fire rapping, guided Simo along her first time in the genre.
“He taught me: Get a deep breath,” Simo said. “And then learn the words, spit them out and make sure to say them, pronounce them very sharply.”
Onscreen, “My Own Drum” unfolds in Gabi’s tween tornado of a bedroom (her backpack is full of slime) in Key West, Fla. It features, in the words of the director Kirk DeMicco, “almost like a Busta Rhymes, fisheye lens, fun-house scene,” intended to shake Vivo out of his comfort zone. Here, the role fit the actress.
“There was this exuberant unpolished-ness to her that she just had, and this moxie that you can’t even act,” DeMicco said in an interview. “The way she delivered her lines” and “the little improvs that she did, the way she filled things in, the texture was just her.”
Simo’s father, Joseph Simo, is a big fan of the scene, the song and the soundtrack. It’s his “No. 1 pick” whenever he’s at work, he said: He flips on the soundtrack and listens straight through from beginning to end.
“One of the things that she always wanted to do is inspire kids: Latinos — and all the kids that are into acting and into music — to follow their dreams,” Joseph said in an interview. “And I told her the other day, ‘You see, your dreams are coming true.’”
Simo’s parents are, of course, her biggest fans: Two weeks into August, they had already watched the movie 16 times. (The film began streaming on Aug. 6.) They’re not planning on stopping anytime soon.
They have supported their daughter’s career in the arts since it began. At age 3, Simo started modeling. At 5, she started acting — doing smaller gigs, like commercials. “Vivo” was her first singing role (although since its premiere, she’s performed the national anthem for the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Gotham Girls and the New York Liberty).
But the road here was by no means easy. In July 2019, while “Vivo” was in production, Ynairaly underwent an almost 10-hour surgery to correct advanced scoliosis. Twenty screws and two metal plates later, doctors told her parents she might not be able to “move the way a normal child could” — at least for a while.
The day after the surgery, the physical therapist asked her to take a couple of steps, one step at a time, her father said. She walked 20. That same summer, she learned how to swim. She danced. A month after the surgery, she convinced the doctors to let her go back to Los Angeles to record.
Her family called her “Ynairaly la guerrera,” or Ynairaly the warrior. “Because that’s who she is,” her mother said. “She’s really determined.”
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