Cierra Ramirez

'The Fosters' Star Cierra Ramirez Talks Dance, Mariana's Heritage, More (EXCLUSIVE)

Cierra Ramirez is one of the stars of ABC Family's The Fosters, a family drama that ranks among the best on television. This is due in large part to its frank, honest portrayal of modern family issues, such as cultural identity, sexual identity, acceptance and loss.

As Mariana, 19-year-old Ramirez plays a young woman who has an ambivalent relationship with her Latino heritage, due mostly to its association with her birth mother, Ana, a recovering addict whose neglect prompted Mariana and her twin brother Jesus (Jake T. Austin) to endure years in the foster care system before being adopted by Lena and Stef -- the latter of whom is almost killed in the first season following a shootout at Ana's house, an encounter set into motion by Mariana's attempts at reconnecting with her biological mother. As a result, Mariana found herself experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, joining the dance team but also dying her hair blonde to distance herself from the fact of her heritage. It made for interesting television, and helped deepen a character who, up to that point, had mostly been defined by her pursuit of boys and fashion. In essence, Ramirez proved there was much, much more to Mariana than met the eye.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Ramirez earlier today, to discuss Mariana's journey, some behind-the-scenes tidbits, and what we can expect for the character going forward:

Cierra Ramirez Interview for The Fosters
Credit: ABC Family

First of all, I wanted to send out a congratulations to all of you. The Fosters was nominated this morning for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Drama Series.

Thank you! It's an amazing thing to wake up to! So exciting!

It's a very well-deserved nomination. Seriously one of my favorite shows on TV. On that note, I suppose my first question regarding Mariana is one that's kind of close to my heart, since I basically went through something similar as her in high school as a Puerto Rican who sort of distanced himself from his heritage. But do you think we're going to see Mariana connect more with her heritage as a Latina as the series progresses?

You definitely will. We definitely played with that, with the idea of her quinceañera and rekindling her relationship with Ana. Growing up in the foster system, she's had so many families. The Fosters are so blended, and she doesn't really know who she is, or her background and what that means. So I think that's why she's struggled, turning her hair blonde and trying to figure out who she is. Up until now, Ana is the only Latina woman she has in her life, and you can see how that's turned out with her. I mean, it's been a mistake to even start a relationship with her because she almost lost Stef because of it. I think she wants to kind of forget it, but at the same time, she can't forget who she is. Mat has played a big role, as well as her family, in helping her realize that pretending to be someone you're not will get you nowhere, and that you're perfect the way you are. So we will definitely be getting deeper into her heritage this season, and I'm really excited for people to see.

The Fosters Mariana (Cierra Ramirez)
Credit: ABC Family

So you see her relationship to her heritage as being a reaction to her upbringing?

Definitely. I think that if she would have been a good role model in her life, even as just a friend -- I mean, she doesn't consider Ana her mom -- but just for her to be there, and to know her, and hear her story would have made a big impact. But she's doing pretty well on her own with the Fosters, who are great to her. So we'll see how that all plays out.

So this past Monday's episode illustrated just what an awesome dancer Mariana is. Were you a good dancer before, or was that something you picked up for the show?

That is actually something I picked up for the show! It's been a really fun experience. I got to work with Chris Downey, who's an amazing choreographer. He's just helped me from the start, and he's been so patient with me, helping me perfect every move. As well as all the dancers. I mean, there were times where I'd stop doubting myself and think "I got it," and then they'd bring in the professional dancers and, "Okay, I don't got it." [Laughs] So it's been a really fun experience, and everyone has been so helpful. Through this, I can say I am a dancer now, so it's been really cool. So thank you, Mariana!

What has been the biggest challenge in playing Mariana? Has it been the dancing?

That was pretty tough, but I think the toughest thing is dealing with issues -- like you said, you even relate to her storyline -- realistically and give people a voice. That is the hardest. But that's also the biggest reward at the end of the day. When I meet someone and they tell me, "Mariana is me" or "The Fosters are my family." That's the best reward, because I feel like everything we're doing is making sense, and that makes it all worth it. To make these characters come to life in a realistic way so people can relate to it, that's the hardest. But the writing is so beautifully done that they make it easy.

On that note, what has been your favorite moment as Mariana?

My favorite episode was "Vigil," the episode where Stef gets shot. She realizes that all of that is her fault. If it wasn't for her even trying to reach out to her birth mom, none of this would have happened. She's really doubting herself and she feels like the Fosters don't want her anymore. And there's a scene with her and Lena where she tells Mariana, "DNA doesn't make a family, love does," and I think one of the reasons that's one of my favorite scenes is because Lena always knows the right thing to say. She's just amazing, and I think that was really important for Mariana to know. As a foster kid, you want to always know that you're wanted. So I think that was a really big moment for her. For a second, she can just kind of chill out and realize she's exactly in the place she needs to be, with the Fosters, and that they're her family. So that was one of my favorite moments.

But other than that, she's just so sassy, and I love that. I love all of her comebacks. My favorite line in this last premiere episode was, "I'm way too pretty to go to jail!" I just think she's so cute and so sassy, and I wish I were as sassy as her.

And hey, she is too pretty for jail!

Thank you! [Laughs]

'The Fosters' Star Cierra Ramirez Talks Dance, Mariana's Heritage, More (EXCLUSIVE)
Credit: ABC Family

So what's ahead for Mariana?

Well, you've seen that she quit the dance team, but before that, she ditched her friend Tia. But there was a method behind her madness. Together, they're going to start their own dance team, and compete against Anchor Beach's dance team. So they're going to have to scavenge around for some good dancers in Anchor Beach. But the other team already has the best, so we'll see how that all plays out. One thing Mariana's going to get into that I'm really excited for people to see is she's getting into the STEM Club, which is "Science Technology Engineering and Math." It's just something I don't think we'd ever expect from Mariana, with her being so girly and frilly, and having fun with the makeup and nails. It turns out she's not all about that. She's actually pretty smart, which I think is really important for people to see. It's not all about the nails. You can be smart as well. That's a big part coming up in the season, so I'm not going to give too much away. But I'm excited for people to see.

I can't wait! Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to talk with me. I love the show, and I enjoyed chatting with you.

Thank you! Thank you so much for your time.

The Fosters airs Monday nights at 8:00 PM ET on ABC Family. Check out a sneak peek at Monday's episode below: