While the projections put Latina girls at the forefront of Hispanic millennial success with higher education enrollment than their Latino male peers, it’s difficult for me to yell a “hip, hip hooray!” when they’re up against the highest rates of teen pregnancy (twice the national rate) and school drop-out (40 percent) two contributing factors of abject poverty. And, alarmingly, Hispanic girls also lead their peers nationwide in rates of suicide attempts (1 in 7 girls). Compounded with a lack of access to technology, and continued negative or missing portrayals of Latinas in media, the odds are sobering. From the darkness streams a beam of light, though, generated by the girls, themselves: Latinitas.
The first digital magazine made for and by young Latinas, Latinitasmagazine.org, was founded 10 years ago in a class at the University of Texas at Austin by myself and co-founder/hermana/work-wife Alicia Rascon. I was a New York native coming from 10 years in publishing with some faint Latino heritage, Alicia had been born in Mexico, raised in El Paso, Texas with an emerging resume working for NPR’s Latino USA and volunteering at LULAC. Together, we slapped together a pretty impressive business plan that now stands as a script of what we’ve accomplished since. Ten years later, with 2,000 girl-published articles, 30,000 readers a month, our own social media network, MyLatinitas.com and clubs, camps and workshops serving 20,000 girls with digital media education, we have more than just a magazine—Latinitas is a cultural movement.
In 10 Texas cities, a few in New Mexico and our first chapter office outside of Austin in El Paso, TX, Latinitas has grown as exponentially as the Latino youth population has in the past 10 years. And, as founders, we have realized we know some things others don’t. America’s young Latina cannot be defined in a monolithic stereotype as mainstream media so excels at doing. She’s Goth or Emo, as the kids say today. She may love her Papi’s Banda music, but also Rhianna and AC/DC. She wants to be a doctor because of her own alienation from quality healthcare. She’s multi-cultural. And, she wants to come out of invisibility. A Latinita can also be extremely assimilated, a hard-core Americana, but is curious about her roots. And, as young as 2nd and 3rd grade, a Latinita has filters and awareness about the media’s view that she’s a sexual object, a criminal, a maid or worse—not there at all. We are also learning they are the game-changers. Presenting them with digital media based activities such as “Create a Business Plan” or “Design an Application”, we have witnessed creativity that will serve their community and others. I attribute this to Latina youth’s unique skill set that is honed by someone who is the English speaker/translator in the household or the first to attain a college degree. Latinitas is providing these girls with technology and forums for expression so they can make themselves be heard, in a culture that treats them more like an exotic commodity than the next wave of everything.
Latinitas puts the power of media in chicas’ hands. Addressing traditional teen topics such as relationships, pop culture and youth news, mixed with inspirational profiles of adult Latinas in academic, business, advocacy, media and more, Latinitas could not have invented the original and moving content produced from niñas, themselves. During our first teen reporter orientation in 2004, girls wanted to address issues such as immigration reform, transgender experiences and school violence. Articles from youth talk to fellow youth imploring them to address high teen pregnancy rates with a demand for education. Other teens wrote about sexual harassment amongst girls. The article talked about “Slap the Butt” Friday, a growing ritual in American schools. Girls were welcoming the negative attention because it was attention. Our girl-writers clarified positive and negative attention – how to glean it and distinguish between the two. The outpouring of honest Latinas’ narratives gave and still gives Latinitas its overwhelming success and makes it genuinely, Latina girls voices being expressed.
Magazines for Latina girls have come and gone. None did what Alicia and I have cultivated since the start of Latinitas : cultivating girl-generated content. And, Latinitas is not only training “reporteritas”, but teaching them how to use technology to self-publish and produce. This kind of access is crucial. Ninety-five percent of Latinitas’ club members in Central and West Texas do not have a computer at home, decades into the digital era. Simply put, these girls have about the same access as my baby-boomer parents growing up in the sixties. Zilch. This still at-large digital divide is devastating as technology is linked to everything we do.
The need for what we do is as fresh today as 10 years ago. I think the issues are even more grave: family separation because of deportation, increased pregnancy rates and population growth and decreased sexual education and resources to help these students. Alicia and I also know the future of Latinitas’ success lies in the girls themselves. We are seeing the first round of club participants returning, grown up in college, to lead programming: the mentees are becoming the mentors. It is thrilling. The demand for Latinitas’ programs grows weekly and to meet this need we have created a Teacher Tool-Kit, a Latinitas-to-go model, on the website. An ex-club leader just asked if she could start Latinitas’ Mexico City this summer. We get calls and letters from as far as Panama, as nearby as Elgin, Texas and in more “Latino-obscure” places such as Omaha, Nebraska from emerging and existing Latino communities seeking to support Latina youth empowerment. That original business plan from so many years ago has some undone tasks including Latinitas becoming a go-to place for all things Latina youth, national growth to more cities and a unified vision that ALL Latinas will be strong, confident and empowered to reach their fullest potential.