Her post-college path unclear, Yvett Merino kept taking her next right step — and ended up with an Academy Award.

Yvett Merino

Courtesy photo

When Yvett Merino ’94 moved from Norwalk, California, to UC Santa Barbara, it was like moving a world away. She was the first in her family to leave home for college, and the two-hour drive from Los Angeles County seemed to take light-years.

Yet the longest-shortest journey Merino has made to date may well be her walk to the Oscar stage at the 2022 Academy Awards. The sociology alumna-turned Disney producer picked up the Best Animated Feature statuette for “Encanto.”

“They called ‘Encanto’ and all I remember thinking all the way up there (was), ‘Don’t trip, don’t trip, just don’t trip,’ then suddenly there I was on this stage,” Merino recalled of that night. “It was very surreal and it still feels like a dream. Every now and then I have to look at the Oscar to remind myself it really happened.”

Indeed it did, and it marked many firsts. “Encanto” was Merino’s first full producing credit and it brought her first Oscar nomination. She was the first Latina nominated in the category, and the first to win. That it all happened for a film about a multiracial Latino family, and that it’s been celebrated for its representation of diversity, makes the victory especially sweet.

“It was a dream in and of itself to get this job,” Merino said. “I would’ve volunteered on this film. It’s the film I wish I had as a little girl. Seeing videos after it came out of little ones seeing themselves in this movie — seeing they are a part of something … that is so important to me. One of the goals I’ve always had is to work on projects where we put diverse characters in main roles.

“There is still some knocking and kicking in we have to do, but the doors are slowly opening,” continued Merino, whose grandparents emigrated from Mexico. “I’m excited for the future of animation and all storytelling. So many different stories within many different communities are yet to be told and for years haven’t even been considered, so it’s an exciting time.”

Merino didn’t arrive at UC Santa Barbara thinking about a career in film. She wasn’t necessarily thinking about a career, in formal terms, at all.

“My parents didn’t go to college. The instruction for us growing up wasn’t, ‘Find what you’re passionate about.’ It was, ‘Go to college and find a good job,’” said Merino, one of four daughters. “My parents never loved their jobs, they weren’t passionate about what they were doing, but they worked hard, they raised us in a nice, loving home and we were very happy.

“But I didn’t know these jobs existed when I was a kid,” she added of her experiences at Disney, where she has been for 25 years.

“I studied sociology at UC Santa Barbara and then I did social work for about a year, but I realized quickly it wasn’t for me,” Merino said. “I loved it but I took it home with me, and it was a lot of emotional stuff to carry. I didn’t think I could do that for a living. The road took me to temping, which took me to Disney, and I just fell in love with the people and the culture.”

Merino is a big believer in following “the road.” It’s what led her to UCSB, where she found her “family away from home” in multicultural sorority Lambda Sigma Gamma. It took her to a temp agency when she left social work and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. It landed her at Disney, where she eventually discovered production, scored the top job on “Encanto” and won the industry’s top award. Merino followed her road all the way to the Oscar stage.

Her advice to those still searching for their own paths?

“Be open,” she said. “Allow yourself to dream — that’s first and foremost. There is so much pressure on 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds to decide what they’re going to do for the next 40 or 50 years of their life. There’s time. Work hard, be open and if you don’t know what you want, it’s OK.

“When I found production, I was like, ‘My gosh, this is it,’” Merino said. “All those hours — it’s hard and stressful and a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like work. It took time but I found something I am truly passionate about — being part of a team, helping to get films done, helping artists achieve their vision. For the first time I saw a career path rather than just a job.”

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