While Gabriella is called "mija" and spoken to by her mother in Spanish in High School Musical, Vanessa's actual mom is from the Philippines. In a 2013 interview on Chelsea Lately, when asked outright if she was "Latina," Vanessa replied, "I mean kind of, a little bit."
Speaking to Allure, Vanessa said, “Obviously, I became 'famous' for High School Musical and my character is Gabriella Montez, so everyone automatically assumed that I was Latina, and most people still do."
"When I tell them I'm Filipino, they're like, ‘What?!’ You haven't met my mother. I think that I'm quite ambiguous so people don't really know. But I am doing everything that I can to let people know because I am proud," she continued.
In fact, elsewhere in the interview, Vanessa said that she went to the Philippines for the first time earlier this year. While she said that she was raised "super, super American," Vanessa explained that she was “missing a piece” by not being as connected to her Filipino background: “It felt so empowering to know where you're from, and be able to represent your heritage.”
When it comes to representation today, Vanessa called fellow High School Musical alum Olivia Rodrigo her "mini-me." She continued, "The most incredible thing is when I have these girls come up to me, and they're like, ‘you were the first person that I saw that looks like me on TV.’ I want to cry. It’s just really beautiful to be able to be an identifying person that helps allow others to feel seen.”
Earlier this year, Vanessa said that it was a "struggle" to make it in Hollywood as a Filipino person, explaining at a press conference in Manila, "I remember, I was auditioning for a movie that I was very passionate about, a character that I always wanted to play, and I was told I couldn’t because I wasn’t Black or Latina. I’m like, 'I’m ethnic! If that’s what you’re looking for.' But you know, it’s hard. It really is. And I think I’m still out there, trying to find where I fit in Hollywood."
You can read the full interview with Vanessa here.