Selenis Leyva barely set foot out of the Bronx until she was accepted at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“I specifically remember walking around the neighborhood near school and wondering what it would be like to live in one of those high-rise apartments,” she said. “It was the ultimate dream of this little Bronx girl: very fancy, a doorman and everyone walking their dog. It just seemed so glamorous to me.”
Leyva played the take-no-prisoners kitchen capo Gloria Mendoza on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” but her focus has now shifted from the big house to the White House, thanks to her role as the mother of a would-be leader of the free world on the new Disney Plus series “Diary of a Future President.”
There was a story going around LaGuardia that a classmate had lived in one of those “very fancy” places. Rumor further had it that there was an Olympic-size swimming pool right on the fancy-place premises. “Can you imagine? Right in your building,” said Leyva, who is also the author, with her transgender sister, Marizol Leyva, of the memoir “My Sister: How One Sibling’s Transition Changed Us Both,” due out March 24.
Leyva no longer has to imagine such chlorinated splendor. For the last two years, she and her daughter, Alina, 17, along with the family dog and cat, have lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise rental not too very far from LaGuardia High School. A lap pool is part of the package, not to mention a rock-climbing wall, a basketball court and a bowling alley.
“It feels like living in a hotel,” Leyva said.
But you can’t have everything, even when you’re living high. Leyva has firsthand knowledge of this. Several years ago, during a stint in Riverdale — “which is still the Bronx, a little fancier, but still the Bronx” — she lived in a penthouse with a large kitchen, an expansive terrace and a great view.
Her first night in residence, Leyva turned on the lights in the kitchen and saw cockroaches by the score. “It was the grossest thing,” she said. “I cried and stayed up all night with the lights on. I had to get the dishwasher removed in order to get rid of them.”
The incident left its mark. Before moving into the building on the Upper West Side, Leyva petitioned the super and the management company to let her go into the apartment late at night and flick the lights on and off a few times to make sure she had no freeloading roommates.
“They were like, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” she said. “But when I moved in, everything was good.”
It still is. Leyva used the move to the Lincoln Square neighborhood as a chance to wipe the slate clean. “I was able to get rid of lots of furnishings that had the energy of certain other times of my life,” she said. “When I was married, I lived with someone who loved a lot of color. The place was busy and eccentric. Now that I have my own space, I have exactly what I want: white walls.”
Actually, Leyva wanted — and got — pretty much white everything: a white sectional to replace an Ikea futon (“My daughter made fun of me about the futon” she said); white dining room chairs; a white desk chair; a white accent chair topped with a white pillow; a white bureau; a white rug. (A black storage unit beneath the television provides contrast; the pops of color come by way of an abstract painting.)
“I wanted something easy on the eye,” Leyva said. “My mother claims I got white furniture so no one would want to visit. But I like visitors.”
There’s a nod here to Hollywood Regency, courtesy of the sleek bar cart and the abundance of glass and chrome, leather and faux fur, geometric shapes and shiny, reflective surfaces.
Leyva insists that she is no fan of clutter. Still, it wouldn’t really feel like home without the many photographs of her family, including one of her walking the red carpet with her daughter at a Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony. And chances are life would be a bit less sweet without the tiny toy iron that belonged to Leyva’s mother and that now sits on a table in the foyer, near a faceless ceramic doll from the Dominican Republic.
“That iron has been with me forever,” Leyva said. “My siblings are like, ‘Why does she get to keep it?’”
Things might go less well for her if not for the Buddha statue on the windowsill, and the luck-carrying elephant figurines positioned here and there.
And surely it wouldn’t be quite as pleasant for Leyva to sit at her desk in the far corner of the living room if she couldn’t turn slightly to the right and see the plaques honoring her social activism and philanthropy, or if she couldn’t gaze slightly left and beam at that photo of herself with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“I was asked to go to a luncheon at which they were honoring her in the Bronx,” Leyva said. “I was so nervous to meet her, but also so inspired: This is another Latina! From the Bronx!”
She surveyed her apartment. “To me this is …”
She struggled to find the words. “I still walk around and think of that little girl who looked at those buildings and wondered what it would be like to live in one of them. I’m like, ‘I did this on my own.’ It makes me feel I have come so far.”