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Latino Rebels: Getting Stories From The Ground Up


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a New Jersey judge has ordered the state to allow same-sex marriage. We'll find out what that means in the garden state and beyond. But first, we're going to continue our look at Hispanic Heritage Month. We've been showcasing the different roles that Latinos play in everything from business to politics, but they're also making their presence felt online. And one blog is using the space to rebel. We're joined now by Julio Ricardo Varela. He's the founder of the blog Latino Rebels. Welcome to the program, Julio.

JULIO RICARDO VARELA: Hi, Celeste, how are you?

HEADLEE: You know, it's no surprise to me that you'd start this blog. I mean, obviously, you're filling a gap - a place where the media wasn't covering. Do you feel like you still need it? Is any of that gap between the news coming out of Latino America and the news that's being covered - is any of that gap shortening?

VARELA: Oh, totally. It's totally shortening. I mean, we started two years ago, 2011, and it was a time where we saw a lack of English-language underreported stories in the U.S.-Latino community. It was about the time that other outlets started to do it, but we were kind of one of the first and we were - since we're independent and a little bit alternative, we found our niche pretty quickly. But yeah, no, it's happening a lot.

It's happening with Fox News Latino, NBC Latino, Fusion, which is a new ABC-Univision partnership, HuffPost Latino Voices. A lot of pages that we've seen the last couple of years and we have really good relationships with. They're all good people. And we're all kind of in this together to, like, quote "High School Musical." And it's just a lot of fun.

HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you about one of the issues. You know, sadly, this is one of the issues that, to a certain extent, is assumed Latinos care the most about and that's immigration. Although, I wonder if it still is. We did have the DREAMers, over the weekend, headed to the border. Is immigration the number one concern among Latinos in America?

VARELA: I always say that it might not be the number one concern, but it's the number one issue within our hearts. And I think what's happened with the online world is that there's such an authentic, unfiltered voice out there. So, for example, the border action that's happening in Laredo today is something that is happening that was never planned, it was never something that people said, oh, let's - we have to do this. It's just honest voices that are now being covered by English-language outlets, particularly those that are interested in Latino issues.

But it's something that we've always covered. And that online community's been around for years, but because now people are starting to see this as something that matters, I would argue that it might be the most important issue in our hearts. It might not be the most important issue in our heads. And I think we're kind of redefining identity because of that, and that's where there's so many opportunities to talk about it, dissect it, debate it, challenge it, criticize it, celebrate it, and that's what it's all about, right. That's what we try to do.

HEADLEE: Well, since you've mentioned the word authentic, and this came up also at the beginning of this month when TELL ME MORE had a Google hangout chat focused on Latinos in the media. This idea of authenticity - how do you know when somebody outside the community is actually being authentic as opposed to pandering?

VARELA: That's a great question. I think when people actually start seeing what's going on online and that a lot of the stories that we cover and we share, literally, come from the ground up. So when someone tweets us or when someone sends us a Facebook message or when someone posts or goes to our Tumblr site and they say this is a story that's important to me, we cover it. Why we do what we do comes to the matter - is that we love to listen what our community tells us.

And it's a hard lesson for media outlets to stop believing that they are more important than their readers or their followers. We see everyone on the same level and that's what social media's all about. My profile is just as important as your profile, it's just as important as the person that has 10 followers. And that's freaking companies out because it's no longer a one-way communication, and good things come out of that.

HEADLEE: And yet, another thing, which, as you say, might freak people out is that there's not a unified voice coming from the Latino community. I mean, the example of - for example, Little Miss Hispanic Delaware is a perfect example. And I think your blog doesn't shy away from criticizing your own community, but there's certainly not any kind of universal agreement on either what is a Latino-authentic persona, what looks like an authentic Latino-American.

VARELA: Exactly, exactly.

HEADLEE: I mean, that's a little freaky for people outside of the community as well, don't you think?

VARELA: Well, yes it is and that's the problem. I think there's a lot of responsibilities here. You know, Latino Rebels represents probably about 10 countries and so our diversity is in the people that's in the group. And we just want that voice to continue to be reflected and, yeah, we are. When we do feel like something is being done for the wrong reasons, we have no problem, whether criticizing our own community or criticizing people that think they know our community.

HEADLEE: Well, then let me get you on record here, the case that I'm talking about with Little Miss Hispanic Delaware - they were considering taking away her prize, and I guess, are in the process of taking it away - yeah, because they feel like she doesn't best represent Latino beauty. Many people think she looks too black. Her grandmother was from the Dominican Republic. Where do you fall down on that debate?

VARELA: It's the biggest elephant in the room in terms of race and identity in the U.S.-Latino community. There are issues of the fact that when you look at mass media entertainment, particularly in Latin America and particularly in Spanish-language television in the United States, white is always seen as being superior. And what I love about all this is that the community knows that - you know, they know the scoop.

They know that this is something that needs to be questioned, needs to get dissected, needs to be, like, called out and said, you know what, this is wrong. The only thing I can hope for is that something positive is going to come out of this. I feel really badly for the 7-year-old little girl. It's just something like - why, I mean, why did it have to happen? Someone got upset and it's because she was not, quote-unquote, Latina enough and she happened to be, like, darker skin tone? I mean, this is ridiculous.

HEADLEE: That was Julio Ricardo Varela. He's the founder of the blog Latino Rebels. You can check them out at Kind enough to join us from member station WGBH in Boston. Julio, thanks so much.

VARELA: It was a pleasure. Saludos (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.