Home Economics Actor Karla Souza Makes The Case For Being a Messy Environmentalist
Karla Souza's to-do list can wait. "When I'm with somebody, the rest of the world disappears," says the star of the ABC comedy Home Economics. "I'm interested in really getting to know them and being empathetic." Her encounters with women of color, in particular, tend to leave a deep impression. That's because Souza's journey as an environmental activist centers on giving voice to marginalized communities. "The injustices happening to people and the planet are interconnected. And it weighs on me," she says, describing her worries as an "incoming tsunami."
Now, that may sound intense, but the analogy did come after watching Don't Look Up, the Netflix film about society's indifference to climate change. While the movie had her "crying like a baby," Souza does believe in humanity's ability to work toward a sustainable future by opening their hearts. "I don't have all the answers, and I mess up all the time," she says. "But I encourage everyone to dare to be a messy environmentalist rather than not be one at all."
As a mom, she, along with her husband, Marshall Trenckmann, a banker, are committed to raising daughter Gianna, 4, and son Luka, 22 months, to make sustainability a way of life. Beyond the basic eco habits, such as eliminating single-use plastic from her home, she gives her children's stuff a second life by swapping items with other like-minded parents in her Los Angeles neighborhood. "We've shared toys, books, bikes, bounce houses, and swings," she says. Most recently, she scored a play kitchen that might have otherwise ended up in a landfill. "My kids just think that's the way it is," says the Mexico City native, whose own ecological and environmental education came at an early age.
"We often weren't able to go out and play at recess because we would have a black flag every other day signaling that there was too much smog," Souza recalls. "It's crazy thinking about that now, but the air quality was so bad—I don't know if that's why I have asthma." As an ambassador for Acciona, an international company dedicated to renewable energy, she uses Instagram, where she has more than 4 million followers, to bring awareness to the negative effects of the climate crisis. She has also traveled back to Mexico, visiting the northeast coast of the country to survey how the rising water temperatures have stressed the coral reefs. And in Oaxaca, she toured wind farms that power thousands of homes. "I've been paired with amazing scientists to reflect on different issues and explore solutions to them," she says.
While Souza has lived in the United States, England, and France, Mexico is where she first rose to fame, starring in a telenovela, sitcoms, and, eventually landing a role in one of the highest-grossing films in the country's history, 2013's Nosotros los Nobles. Having the support of her Mexican mother and Chilean father, who passed away in 2011, encouraged her to strive for career longevity in what can be a finicky business. "My dad would tell me, 'If you become famous quickly, you can also very quickly disappear. What are you setting the foundation of your fame on?' " she says. "He knew that would empower me to feel ownership.
That advice has taken her all the way to Hollywood, where she proudly represents her culture wherever she goes. In the Shonda Rhimes–produced legal drama How to Get Away With Murder, she played a Mexican lawyer, a role free of the negative stereotypes often perpetuated in the film and television industry. She credits Rhimes for creating a multidimensional character. "As a trailblazer for women, she opened my eyes in terms of race and doing things for my community," Souza says. "It's been an interesting journey for me—speaking up, growing up, and becoming bolder and less afraid of saying no or raising my hand."
Now, in Home Economics, she once again plays a Mexican woman, this time a mother. "I feel seen," Souza says of the part, which allows her to reflect on parenthood. "Having children magnifies all those things you're trying to work on, like a lack of patience, or your anxiety or your past trauma. There's so much stuff that bubbles up." And because she knows her daughter is always watching, she is motivated to keep working on herself and, in the process, become a better mom.
"Everything I am, whether I like it or not, will be passed on to her," she says. "Gianna is going to see me with all my shortcomings—the positive as well as the negative." And Souza is okay with that. She did, after all, give a TEDx talk on adversity and mental health that has been viewed almost 6 million times, so she knows there is a lot to learn from both ups and downs. "I want her to see me going through life and to know that I'm not perfect. Sometimes I come home from work and I tell her, 'I had a really rough day today. I didn't feel like I was good enough.' " By sharing some of her own doubts, Souza wants to inspire her children to open up, especially as they eventually embark on different paths.
Their individuality is something she is acutely aware of. "They are going to have their own stories, and I can do only so much," she says. For now, she is focused on making sure they have a solid foundation. And that starts with giving them a bilingual, bicultural education. "I've become militant about the language part of things," says Souza, who even translates English-language books to Spanish in her head while reading them to her kids. "It's a lot of work," she admits. Thankfully, infusing her family's life with Mexican culture doesn't take much effort: "It's just who I am," she says. "Every time there's a birthday party in my house, there are mariachis, a piñata, and all the Latin songs."
Let's not forget that being an environmentalist is also core to who Souza is, so of course there are also biodegradable balloons, and every gift is wrapped in old newspaper. "It doesn't look as nice as regular wrapping paper—there's a process of letting go of the idea of something being shiny and new," she says. But as Souza can attest, every flaw has a valuable lesson to impart, you just have to be willing to learn from it.
PL's Lightning Round
Favorite eco toy
Montessori's wooden instruments.
"It's okay to not be okay."
The Easter Bunny brings …
Too much chocolate!
Saying a gratitude prayer at night with my kids.
Favorite children's book
La Ballena, by Benji Davies.
Going for a walk.
Getting ice cream at Parque Lincoln in Mexico City while vendors and musicians are out.
Most used Spanish phrase
"¿Cómo se dice …?"
Hot towel on my face.
The meaning of life
Finding purpose within every day.
Starring with Jamie Foxx in the vampire-hunter film Day Shift.
This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's April/May 2022 issue as "Force of Nature."