"Everything leading up to this has just been quite the journey," Rodriguez, 30, tells PEOPLE
Gina Rodriguez has always known she wanted to be a performer – even if she didn’t always look the part.
“I was a huge tomboy,” the Jane the Virgin star tells PEOPLE about growing up in Chicago as the youngest of three daughters born to native Puerto Rican parents.
“I remember being 6 years old – I was probably wearing joggers and an oversized T-shirt – and I saw these little girls in sequins outfits smiling and dancing at the Puerto Rican Day parade. I was like, ‘I want to be in those little sequin dresses.’ “
Rodriguez, now 30, joined a dance troupe and continued to perform through high school, but it wasn’t long before she set her sights on acting as well.
When she was only 13, she ventured across town on her own to audition for a commercial against her parents’ wishes.
“I got the parent next to me to sign my parental consent form so they didn’t know that I didn’t have a parent with me,” Rodriguez says. “I ended up booking the commercial, so they called my parents. I thought I was going to get in so much trouble. But I was going to get paid for the commercial so they said, ‘Fine. You can do it if you put the money towards college.’ I said, ‘Done deal, baby seal. Let’s do this.’ ”
Rodriguez got an agent and continued to work, but she was also acutely aware that roles for someone with her ethnic background were limited.
“Growing up, I had these fierce women in my life who were kicking ass, but I never saw them represented onscreen,” Rodriguez says of her mother Magali – who rose through the ranks of the Cook County Court from secretary to director of the interpreters – and sisters Ivelisse, an investment banker, and Rebecca, a doctor.
“The [role models I saw on TV] weren’t ever the color of myself or my siblings. I realized: Changing that is my mission,” she says.
“I thought I was going to be, like, the next Jennifer Lawrence,” Rodriguez says. “And then that didn’t happen.”
But the actress was not fearful of waiting until the next perfect role came along.
“I got a lot of TV options after [Filly Brown] but they all continued to tell the same story. So I waited,” she says. “That was scary because they were offering me all this money that would have allowed me to not be a broke, struggling actor anymore. But I feel so lucky that at a very young age I was given so much motivation by my parents to try and stay the course and stand up for what I believe in.
“I feel like I need a year to go by because it is still so crazy,” says the actress, who currently keeps her new award sitting in a box on her TV stand. “Everything leading up to this has just been quite the journey.”
For more of our interview with Gina Rodriguez pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday