I Found a Job That Honored My Latina Voice — and Was Instantly Tokenized
Despite a rising interest in Latinx culture, white media gatekeepers continue to sensationalize our stories
By the summer of 2017, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” remix featuring Justin Bieber had become the top song in the country. While it was already a hit pre-Bieber, Justin’s auto-tuned Spanglish brought the song into the consciousness of many Americans, qualifying a predominantly Spanish-language song as “mainstream,” i.e. not only digestible but desirable to the wider American public. No small feat.
I was at a popular lounge in New York City when a DJ played the record. A woman sitting at the neighboring banquette, partying with her daughter and friends, reached for my arm, bending my ear to her lips. “I love watching you dance,” she spat, “Your people are so fun.”
Interest isn’t translating to opportunity for us, it’s just further commodifying our culture.
Growing up in a predominantly white town, I often confused fetishization for flattery. I wanted to fit in no matter the cost. As a grown woman living in New York City — one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world — still finding myself the object of a Midwestern tourist’s entertainment felt like depredation of my dignity. The cultural trend toward inclusion shone a spotlight on the Latinx experience, with eager capitalists preying upon bland curiosities. Unfortunately, as is the case with American Dirt, a narco novela written by a suddenly Puerto Rican-identifying white woman meant to transform the humanitarian crisis at the border into a parable for white readers, the calculated exploitation of a trend in market share poses a real threat to Latinx people like me. Interest isn’t translating to opportunity for us, it’s just further commodifying our culture. Diversity is leveraged as an asset to the dominant class — entertainment for white audiences and a social service for people of color.
As a freelance writer, there aren’t many jobs that come to you. Each one is hard-won. After years of independently contracting my words, I was accustomed to the landscape of freelance. I’d also grown accustomed to being told to list my credentials when pitching right away — to get to who I am faster, to put it in the subject line. Example: “<Enter topic here> a reported essay written by a mixed-race Latina.” This, I was told, was my best shot at getting the assignment.
In late February 2019, I was approached by a new website out of Silicon Valley. I was referred by a former colleague from my time as an editor at StyleCaster, someone I trusted. I was asked to help develop original, authentic Latinx content. I liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor of something. I appreciated being recruited for my unique perspective as a Latina. Best of all, the money was good.
At the time of my hiring, there were two writers — both very green. The site was a mess, and I knew the gig would be a massive responsibility. I recruited my partner and we excitedly built concepts, designed potential columns, and handed them over to a white woman with a common American name — let’s go with Karen, who asked that we call her “Coco.”
“The white lady in charge of a website for Latinos wants us to call her Coco?!” I joked to my partner, “I can’t do it. It’s too weird.”
I couldn’t manage to qualify as Latina enough to white gatekeepers as I watched the stories of my origin sensationalized in headlines.
The same year that “Despacito” whet the American appetite for Latinx entertainment, Pixar delivered Coco. The first of the studio’s 19 pictures to have a nonwhite protagonist, an all-Latino cast, and a nine-figure budget. Coco earned $208 million in North America and nearly $740 million worldwide. It also picked up the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
Interest in Latinx culture had been piqued, dubbed the Latin Wave — La Ola Latina — as the country stirred under the presidency of a man who launched his campaign by calling all Mexicans rapists, made a policy of separating families at the border, and has enacted the harshest immigration policies in our country’s history.
As a Latina, the dissonance was deafening. Not only had the 24-hour news cycle pinched the nerve of my deepest fears, one of the first migrant caravans began in my mother’s hometown in Honduras. But the assumptions made by my peers raised the tenor of hysteria. The clock was ticking on my window of marginal opportunity. But I couldn’t manage to qualify as Latina enough to white gatekeepers as I watched the stories of my origin sensationalized in headlines.
“Great time to be you, huh?” a fellow writer who is white, male, and middle-aged, constantly remarked. “You must be getting published like crazy!” I wasn’t. So my job at this new website seemed like a godsend.
When you operate largely from the margins of an industry, being centered can be intoxicating. At first, it was fun to answer questions, share anecdotes and idiosyncrasies native to my cultural experience, but difficult to communicate that these did not represent Latinidad as a whole. It couldn’t be summarized into clickbait. While I wanted to add substance to this mysteriously dark corner of the internet, I was encouraged to talk about beauty and cosmetics, produce unboxing videos, and search out humorous content satirizing harmful tropes.
“Anything on Cardi B, Selena, and Frida always works,” was my feedback.
I never worked directly with the man behind the project, a Mexican descendant and Ivy League grad turned tech entrepreneur, but I encountered his mission statement delivered by his white appointees whenever I crossed the border as a palatable Latina.
After several months, the team grew, but representation remained severely lacking. I voiced my concern during a meeting in New York to discuss a plan for a public launch while still employing a predominantly white staff.
“I feel like you’re attacking my white writers,” Karen responded when I told her that representation matters, stonewalling my legitimate critique of her leadership with a classic red herring: A well-intentioned white woman victimized by an angry brown woman who had the gall to hold her employer to a standard of practice. By weaponizing race, the mere accusation won my silence. The “threat” was cataloged as a sign of my unprofessionalism, and the truth of her false allyship was confirmed.
After my first confrontation with Karen, my pay and responsibilities were downgraded. She blamed the executives for the change, citing past issues with editors, telling me they didn’t want one perspective driving the tone of the site. I was skeptical of Karen’s portrayal of the founder, and I held on to the fantasy that he was an ally, one who would understand my vision if only Karen wasn’t blocking contact. “I’d bring you into more meetings, but I don’t want you to make me look stupid,” she told my partner and me, essentially the Latinx editorial staff.
As I contended with Karen at work, anti-immigrant rhetoric manifested into massacre in the United States. On August 3, 2019, Patrick W. Crusius drove nearly 11 hours to the U.S.–Mexico border in El Paso to carry out an attack in response to what he called the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” killing 22 people. I was celebrating my friend’s wedding in France, performing traditional duties as a bridesmaid, when I heard the tragic news. With my partner and me out of the country, the site went a week without coverage of any kind and our founder wrote to express his disappointment to the management team. Karen then forwarded that message — not to the entire staff, only to the four Latinx contributors.
During my last team meeting led by Karen, she asked, “But guys, how are we going to explain what ‘Latinx’ means to non-Latinx people?”
“We’re not,” I replied, looking to the other two Latinx contributors for support, asserting that my white friends are not anxious to dissect the definition of the term “Latinx” and we should center our community in the conversation. They agreed as we all braced for Karen’s reaction.
When I finally submitted a formal complaint to corporate after our Halloween party, no one flinched at the sound of my whistle. “I’m available to discuss if you’d like,” an executive replied. Though I felt unnerved and completely dispensable, I insisted on speaking. After several emails, a time for discussion was confirmed, but I was fired before it could occur. It happened on Thanksgiving Eve as news broke of Gabrielle Union’s complaints against NBC for wrongful dismissal in a similar fashion.
I was genuinely shocked; angry in all the ways one is when fired without explanation. But what disturbed me most was that this job had advertised the opportunity for safe harbor — a place designed to champion my voice as a Latina. Wasn’t it fair for me to expect a fellow Latino to have my back? To value my expertise, trust my concerns, or at least hear me out?
The ongoing scandal surrounding American Dirt reveals the willingness of publishers to commission the stories of marginalized people to white writers and reward them with significantly higher pay (Jeanine Cummings received seven figures after a competitive auction) and A-list publicity, including coveted spots in Oprah’s Book Club and the New York Times’ list of highly anticipated books. In the midst of the media blitz for American Dirt, Lee and Low Books published the receipts on the entire industry. Since their last investigation four years ago, Lee and Low found no progress on diversity and released their latest baseline survey results indicating that people who self-identify as Latinx/Latino/Mexican make up just 6% of staff across the publishing industry. The editorial department, which acquires and edits books — arguably the most impactful to aspiring authors — went from 82% white in 2015 to 85% white in 2019. Mirrored statistics can be found in newsrooms as well. Los Angeles Times reporter Esmeralda Bermudez tweeted in response to diversity reports published by NPR in December: “This never stops feeling like a punch in the heart and the gut. Even in the most racially diverse spaces in the country, newsrooms are still 70–90% white. The bosses are nearly all white. It’s straight up dull and shameful.”
I found an outlet for my frustration in public debate, cheered as it steeped and grew to capture the zeitgeist.
While I hadn’t yet attempted a foray into the literary world by pitching a book, I’d been published by reputable zines, developed a substantial community via social media, and I aspired to a career that married literature and advocacy. But I quickly learned that the point of this job was to assist in collecting data, checks, and clout. Intellectually, I understood the drivers at play. I could almost tell myself it wasn’t personal. Still, I was deeply demoralized by the injustices absorbed while competing in white-dominated fields, made all the more disorienting in this case as the exploitation was cosigned by a member of the Latinx community. Watching the controversy surrounding American Dirt unfold so soon after this experience felt like a cosmic response to my suspicions regarding the industry’s true desire for diversity.
The silencing of Myriam Gurba’s surgically academic review of American Dirt by Ms. magazine galvanized the collective outcry of POC writers into a formidable movement as her critique of American Dirt, later published by Tropics of Meta, went viral. I passionately joined the dialogue online. I found an outlet for my frustration in public debate, cheered as it steeped and grew to capture the zeitgeist.
#DignidadLiteraria, a coalition of prominent writers from diverse backgrounds, organized swiftly to demand substantive change in the publishing industry, soon garnering the attention of the Big Five. Leaders from #DignidadLiteraria — authors Myriam Gurba, David Bowles, and Roberto Lovato — met with Macmillan President Don Weisberg, Flatiron Books President Bob Miller, reps from various Macmillan imprints, a publicist from an independent firm hired by Macmillan, and representatives for Oprah Winfrey, to negotiate what Publishers Weekly called a “Diversity Treaty.”
I rolled down to Zuccotti Park to hear the outcome of the two-hour meeting in person. Journalists and supporters huddled together to listen to representatives from #DignidadLiteraria declare victory, securing a commitment from Macmillan to significantly increase Latinx representation in both editorial staff and acquired titles. “We are done with being the tropical sidekicks of the U.S. national conversation in journalism and in all other aspects,” Lovato said, “There’s a direct relationship between the story of a people and the exploitation, torture, and killing of that community… the caging, the suffering of that community. This is about changing the story of Latinos in the United States.”
Meanwhile, during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in February, he proudly announced, “Last year, our brave ICE officers arrested more than 120,000 criminal aliens charged with nearly 10,000 burglaries, 5,000 sexual assaults, 45,000 violent assaults, and 2,000 murders,” redoubling his commitment to demonize migrants and eliminate asylum, sharing the story of a deadly deportee in New York City. Within 48 hours, an ICE agent in Brooklyn shot two unarmed brothers while trying to execute a deportation order.
One of the hallmarks of Latinx culture is humility. My father always told me, “Tienes que ser humilde, Jessica.” You must be humble. It implied that my presence in certain spaces, starting with the affluent, predominantly white schools I attended growing up, would be interpreted as an imposition — as if I’d snuck in the back door. For a man who was denied education beyond a grade-school level, my father’s focus was providing access. The instruction from there was to add value through hard work; win friends through modesty, likeability, and forbearance.
He fell prey to the gimmick of American meritocracy, that we are all judged by our ability and rewarded equally for our labor. It took years for my father to accept that he would never be treated, protected, or compensated in the same way as his white colleagues. When, 22 years ago, he finally came forward after years of abuse, he was pushed out.
All writers must campaign, to some extent, for their stories to be heard, read, or clicked. Yet, there is a unique criterion for people of color, particularly women. An inexplicable fear of our honest opinions, a resistance to the full breadth of our creative process, limited faith in our intellect and capabilities. Our labor is expected, good humor required, and sexuality — well, that’s up for grabs.
“Make me care,” I’ve been told countless times. “Why would I want to read this if I’m not Lateeeena?”
I’ve never been able to provide a response. But I have stopped self-identifying in the subject line of an email. I’m no longer marketing myself as a quota, an experiment testing the spectrum of American humanity. But rather, as a writer with a nuanced, relevant, and worthy perspective.
My father wanted me to be a lawyer. He doesn’t quite understand my literary pursuits, although I inherited the talent for storytelling from him. I tried to hide what was going on at my job because I want him to know his sacrifices matter, that the lives of our family members are infinitely different as a result. The circumstances in my case are distinct from my father’s, but the institutions have not changed.
I wanted to protect my father from disappointment, but telling him, someone who could identify with the pain, gave me the strength that I needed. He understood more than anyone. He was angry in a way I never saw him be for himself. “Estás en el ring, Jessica, no tires la toalla!” he said. In a tone so rarely invoked, sharp as a piping kettle, he told me to fight.
“Te lo juro, papi,” I said, “I swear to you, Dad, I will.”