As we faceplant into a new year, fortified fueled by memes that tell us both that everything is okay and that nothing ever will be again, Latinx representation is more important than ever. Vital, in fact, given the newly-elected and vaguely fluorescent leader of the free world has some interesting thoughts about Mexicans in particular, all immigrants who aren’t white Slovenians, and any Latinx fans of overpriced taco bowls.
Therefore, it should be a time when Latinx media—defined as any media entity that purports to make content for a U.S.-based Latinx audience regardless of language—becomes the place to showcase the broad diversity of thought and experience among Latinx in the U.S., be they undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as toddlers or sixth-generation Americans whose families have seen borders shift around them.
But for this to be true, those at the helm of Latinx-focused sites and meme generators will have to make a just a few staggering changes to how they operate and how they view their audiences.
The past year brought with it the shuttering of several sites aimed at the growing U.S. Latinx audience, including Fox News Latino, Variety Latino, and the editorial division of Flama, an online comedy portal under the relatively newly-formed Fusion Media Group (which is also home to Jezebel). Those were three very different outlets catering to three very different segments of the Latinx audience, but their respective demises were very likely all due, in some part, to the reality that the people who run Latinx media exist worlds away from the people meant to consume it.
In early December, Fox News correspondent Bryan Llenas shared his thoughts on Fox News Latino closing, noting that, in an ideal world, there would be no need for that extra, concentrated push to get Latinx stories out into the world. But as Angie Romero, a founding editor for Variety Latino, notes, identifying exactly what makes something a “Latino story” is complicated. “There’s not one, unifying, historical experience for all Latinos in America,” she tells Jezebel (I’ll forgive her forgetting about ¡Rob!). Even the giants of the Latinx media world, Univision (home to Fusion Media Group) and Telemundo, who have relied so long on language as a unifying factor among Latinx, are pivoting towards English-language content as their tried-and-true Spanish-dominant demographic ages.
As Romero puts it, the fight for a Latinx audience is a constant struggle of “storytelling versus metrics.” And when metrics overtake storytelling, the result is pandering. It’s easier to reach a wide audience, and one even beyond Latinx, when you default to reducing a complicated identity to, say, taco memes (which share really, fantastically well) rather than taking a gamble on longer form content about, for example, colorism among Latinx (which tends to not share really, fantastically well). She cites Remezcla as a rare example of a site devoted to Latinx culture and voices that has managed to stay the course without pandering or losing focus of its core audience.
Andrea Gompf, Remezcla’s editor-in-chief, says there’s a specific reason for that, pointing to the site’s grassroots, grounds-up approach and the fact that its founders—young, creative Latinx—are their audience.
“It also definitely helps,” Gompf adds, “that we’ve remained independently-owned, so we have no one to answer to but ourselves (for now). The industry is in a tough place in terms of finding the right business model to sustain journalism, and there’s a lot of pressure for outlets to scale audience quickly..”
It’s almost as if it takes time to earn trust with an audience whose identity you want to monetize.
I’ve worked in Latinx media on and off for ten years, writing for an audience of around three people and putting captions on image macros for an audience of thousands. At the beginning of 2016, I wrote a few thoughts on the state of Latinx media, noting that I found it preferable to work at a place that was completely dedicated to Latinx content, as opposed to treating it as a separate vertical that only received a portion of available resources.
At this point, I am tired of going from job to job, always with that goddamn spirit of optimism and trust, and feeling let down or, worse, knowing that I’ve been complicit in letting down an audience that deserves better. I am tired of passing glass conference rooms full of white men discussing Latinx content. I’m tired of taco memes going viral, thus creating a mandate for more taco memes. I am tired of a diverse identity being reduced to a taco meme, and I’m tired that those memes are the only things people ever remember or talk about. I am tired of newsrooms and brainstorms that bring up content and representation for black Latinx at places that still haven’t hired any. I am tired of Latinx media being thought of as niche and I’m tired of Anglo and Latin American executives patting themselves on the back for work conceived of and created by U.S. Latinx. I am tired of being promised that this time won’t be the same as the last, because it always is. I am very, very tired. After a decade of working in Latinx media and over three decades of being Latina, believe me when I tell you this shit will never change and I no longer want to be a part of it.
And looking back on how so many Latinx-focused sites fared in 2016, it’s clear that a lack of resources aren’t the issue. Brands are keen to throw money at Latinx projects once they see numbers showing how we over-index when it comes to pretty much every kind of media consumption. We spend a lot of money, be it on cell phones or movies that don’t include us.
The bigger issue is who, exactly, is in charge of making this content, and what the end goal of making it is. Because pandering is pretty fucking easy when it isn’t personal. And no matter how much individual writers and video producers care about offering a platform for Latinx voices or fighting for Latinx representation, that’s not why the people at the top are in the game, especially when they’re looking for a return on their investment.
Which brings us to an even bigger issue: How effective is any particular Latinx company at finding, retaining, and grooming talent to move on to bigger and better positions? Smaller outlets nurture Latinx writers and editors more obviously—Remezcla is a good example of this, as is Club Fonograma, a Spanish-language publication focused, very specifically, on music within the Latinx space—and they do so in part because their management is also their audience. This is vital when it comes to creating content around a specific identity, and something too many Latinx media companies keep getting wrong. Because, again, pandering happens when it isn’t personal.
Now, it would be very easy to write “go forth, and be independent, making your own thing and telling your own stories.” So easy that I’m tempted to do it now! But the reality is that writing and creating videos for any online audience tends to not pay spectacularly well in most cases, and outlets that aren’t specifically dedicated to featuring Latinx stories are usually hesitant to showcase them. It would be naive, then, and irresponsible to encourage content creators to take on that financial risk. So perhaps the more practical and more responsible solution lies with consumers. The way to encourage good work is to support talented individuals, no matter where they’re working. Whether they’re at a Vivala or a BuzzFeed or a Huffington Post, chances are good that, unless their work is shared, they won’t be there for long. And that’s probably for the best.
Alex Alvarez is a writer based in Los Angeles, unfortunately. You can find her work on BuzzFeed, Fusion, Mitú, and Medium.