The 31-year-old actor traveled back to the place where he was raised -- Sacramento, California -- on Wednesday to receive one of the city's most prestigious honors. Vice-Mayor Eric Guerra proclaimed May 15, 2019 as "Ryan Guzman Day" in Sacramento, in celebration of the 9-1-1 star's work in the film industry and as an ambassador who embodies the spirit, generosity and diverse talents of their community.
"It's so surreal. Unbelievable, really," Guzman exclusively shared with ET. "I'm just very happy that I got to spend it with people that I love in Sacramento. They made that day for me."
"Literally everybody came out to show their support, from my coach who I used to do MMA with to Dave Huckaba, who is a legend here in Sac for MMA, and even my baseball coach from when I played at Sierra College," he continued. "I also had friends come out who I hadn't seen in about 13 years, high school buddies. Just the whole community came out to support and the outreach was spectacular."
Held at Crest Theatre, the evening also featured a screening of the latest film Guzman's been promoting, Windows on the World. It follows the story of a young Mexican man named Fernando (Guzman), who travels from Mexico to New York City in hopes of finding his father, Balthazar (Edward James Olmos), an undocumented immigrant who goes missing following the September 11 attacks.
"The message is simple; it's about family, and what you will do for family," he said of the movie, which is currently being screened at film festivals. "People that watch this film, I just want them to relate and ask that question, 'What would I do for my mom, dad, my son, my daughter, those that I care about most?'"
It's a drastic departure from Guzman's most popular roles -- like heartthrob Sean Asa in Step Up Revolution and Jennifer Lopez's steamy love interest in Boy Next Door -- but that's one of the reasons why he so eagerly jumped on board.
"What drew me to the project was the fact that I was going to have to be extremely vulnerable in front of an audience and take a big risk on myself," said Guzman, whose performance in the film has already scored him a Best Actor in a Feature accolade from the Los Angeles Film Awards. "Those that know me know that I grew up very American, so feeling my own heritage and understanding where I come from took a little bit of work on my part."
"I flew myself out to Mexico, hung out and befriended the locals in Mazatlán," he added. "I worked on my Spanish and really felt more part of my heritage than I had ever felt. Once they found out I was trying to embrace my culture, I got open arms, which was such an incredible feeling... they accept everybody. In doing such, I became inspired to do this film. This was the perfect excuse to dive even deeper into that."
While Guzman was born in Texas and raised in California (his mother, Lisa's, native state), his Latino roots come from his father, Ray, who was born and raised in Mexico and later immigrated to the United States.
"When my dad immigrated over here to the U.S, he was definitely pro-America and really wanted to embrace American ethics," he revealed. "So, it was all about English, all about fitting in and figuring out how you made a living the American way. It was a lot of overcompensation. I think a lot of immigrants go through that."
"It was kind of a shame that I didn't get to speak Spanish for most of my life. In the beginning actually, when I was an infant to probably age 4 or 5, I did have aunts and uncles and my grandparents who would speak to me in Spanish," he added. "I would pick it up pretty quick. But as I went to schooling and grew up, more people spoke English to me and everything kind of faded away until I came back to it for my own purposes."
Growing up as a Mexican-American in Sacramento, Guzman admitted to ET that he often struggled with the challenges and expectations of what being a Latino "should" be. "The part they don't tell you about being Latinx is that you get racism from both sides," he explained. "It's kind of the old proverb, 'too white to be brown, too brown to be white.' You get it from the most unexpected people. It kind of develops a level of uncertainty in who you are as an individual in America. Are you Mexican? Are you American? Are you this or that, and for me, it developed a complex for a bit, until I was able to find these outlets via acting and introspection."
And it's no different in Hollywood. Guzman added that when it comes to representation in the industry, he believes there is a lot of typecasting that still happens in 2019. "In fact, from what I've heard about Windows on the World, from producer Robert Mailer Anderson, he was told by plenty of executives, 'Why don't we have the Mexican man be a drug dealer?' or 'Why doesn't the story revolve around maybe just a white guy who takes in a Mexican man, you know, the farmer?'" he shared. "You hear that nonstop to people of the Latino community and those of ethnic backgrounds. I think it might shock white America sometimes, but it's nothing new."
"I think there's a lot of growing up that the industry still has to do, but the whole point is to just push forward each year and change," he continued. "Make a little change each year."
To push forward in his own life, Guzman has a long list of personal goals he'd like to achieve, which includes taking on even more languages after finally becoming "the closest to fluent" he's ever been in Spanish.
"I speak as much as I possibly can to whoever I can now," said Guzman, who perfected the language for his role in Windows on the World. "Whether it's the guy helping me at the valet, or somebody helping me out with groceries or my own family. On top of that I'm also trying to learn Portuguese for my son, Mateo, because he's half-Brazilian and his mom [my fiancée Chrysti Ane] speaks full Portuguese. I'm hoping in the next year or so I'll be trilingual."
Guzman told ET there's plenty of other items on that bucket list, though, because "the sky's the limit," as he learned from his former co-star, Jennifer Lopez.
"She's one of the hardest working women out there," he mused. "A Latin woman, that's hard to come by, that makes it this far and is this determined to change the world and the perception on it. Not so much that that was her main goal, but that's what she did!"
Next up, he'd love to work with one of his good friends, Gina Rodriguez. "I love her and wish nothing but the best for her," said Guzman. "To see her star rise the way it has is well-deserved."
"So, maybe one day we'll make a film or TV show together," he added. "But for now, we have to keep on progressing and opening up those doors, so that more Latinos and Latinas can flow in."