As a teenager, Wilmer Valderrama moved to the U.S. from Venezuela. His first big break came in 1998, when he appeared on That ’70s Show as Fez, the foreign exchange student with an accent from … somewhere.
As Valderrama explains, that “somewhere” symbolizes the immigrant experience for so many people. “I remember when I got That ’70s Show, it was a big deal for my family and a big deal for me,” he recently told Yahoo Celebrity. “But I really didn’t know what it represented.”
Fez was frequently the butt of the gang’s jokes, but he also was one of the only Latino characters on Fox at the time.
“I didn’t know that eventually [Fez] was going to be representing so many of us, coming to a country to learn a culture and to assimilate,” Valderrama explained.
And for some people of color watching That ’70s Show, Fez became more than just a character.
“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say ‘When I saw [Fez] on television, I felt like I existed,’” he said.
Valderrama likes to compare Fez to another popular TV character with an accent: I Love Lucy’s Ricky Ricardo, played by Desi Arnaz. Arnaz, born in Cuba, was an inspiration to a young Valderrama.
“When I saw Desi Arnaz on television, with an accent, being as Latino as he really was, I felt like I could do it myself, I felt that I could be me,” he said.
Arnaz also acted as an informal English teacher to Valderrama: “I learned how to speak English by watching Desi Arnaz in I Love Lucy, and I’m totally convinced that’s why I still have an accent!”
Watch Valderrama discuss how he almost changed his name because it wasn’t “Latino enough”: