E!'s Lilliana Vazquez was nearly 40 years old when she first saw herself accurately represented onscreen. She talks to E! News about why that needs to change.
Let's be clear: Lilliana Vazquez is still pretty annoyed by the whole situation.
Having spent the past decade working in media, the E! personality is almost used to the underrepresentation of the Latinx community on screen, in mainstream media publications, in newsrooms and pretty much everywhere else. But when she spied the September issue of Cosmopolitan México, featuring white influencer Arielle Charnas on its cover for the issue that kicks off the start of the Sept. 15-to-Oct. 15 Hispanic Heritage Month, "That was kind of like the straw that broke the camel's back," she told E! News.
So, yeah, she was going to address it. "When I see a magazine with the name Cosmopolitan México give a space that I think is definitely better filled by somebody that represents the Latinx community to somebody who has no real connection to our community, to somebody that hasn't really done anything to create opportunities for our community, how can you not be outraged?" she reasoned. "I think you have a responsibility to your readers to champion and amplify the voice of the Latinx community."
Not doing so, she continued, sends a dangerous message to readers around the world "that not only are we not enough as Latinos in mainstream media, but we're not even enough for our own publications. That, to me, it just, it hurts so deep. And I was just tired. I'm just tired of feeling invisible."
Because, let's be clear, she's very much not. And with an entire platform at her disposal, Vazquez—joining Erin Lim and Victor Cruz to host an Oct. 14 edition of E!'s Daily Pop (11 a.m.) highlighting Latinx entertainers, stories and culture—has a few thoughts to share about why the 60 million Latinos in the United States continue to be underrepresented and how we move forward from here.
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E! News: We're in the waning days of National Hispanic Heritage Month. Talk to us about what this time means to you.
Lilliana Vazquez: Well, I mean, I celebrate Latinx Heritage Month every month. It's not like all of a sudden September 15th I find myself drawn to celebrate everything that is beautiful about my culture. We celebrate every day in my house through music or food or family or just tradition. So I think it's more about creating awareness around the splendor of success and contributions that Latinos have made in many different fields. Obviously for me, entertainment is the first and foremost because that's the industry that I participate in but, you know, contributions we've made it in science, in technology, in math, in public policy and government. That's why it's important.
E!: I think for some there's confusion about the difference between the terms "Hispanic", "Latino" and "Latinx." Can you help clarify?
LV: I always say this: The idea of identifying as Hispanic or Latinx in itself is a very American concept. When I'm in Mexico, I do not identify as Hispanic or Latina. I am Mexican, because that is what I am. I'm half Mexican and half Puerto Rican. If I'm in Argentina, and somebody asks me where I'm from, I say "Soy Mexicana y Puertorriqueña." That's my makeup.
But here's the difference: The word Hispanic, effectively what that means is that someone descends from a Spanish-speaking country. Then you have the words Latino, Latina, Latinx, and that is somebody who descends from a Latin American country. What's interesting about that is that it is inclusive of people from Brazil and Portugal, who don't speak Spanish, they speak Portuguese.
And you add the X in there because that is a gender-neutral term. In Spanish you have male and female endings so like someone is pretty, she's bonita, and if something is pretty but it's masculine, it's bonito. The x replaces that. I identify as Latina because that is what I am—I am a woman who identifies as a woman—but when I think about my community I like to say Latinx because it's inclusive of my Latinos who identify as male, my Latinas who identify as female, and my Latinos who don't identify.
E!: Why do you feel the use of Latinx has grown recently?
LV: It kind of started to gain a lot of recognition in more academic institutions, with younger Latinxs. And that's because I do think that our next generation is this wonderful inclusive group of young people that are needing change in this world. And because they started using it on social media, you started to see it pop up. I think it's a complex issue and it's deeply personal. You know, it's how we view ourselves. And that is kind of how we decide we show up in the world and it's not for anyone else to tell me what I am or am not. I think if people are confused about what to say, just ask about how to address them in a way that makes them comfortable. There's no harm in asking the question.
E! What other progress would you like to see in the Latinx community?
LV: I think first and foremost a lot of the images and representation you see from the Latinx community is a very European standard of what somebody Latinx is. And so, where we're severely lacking, not just as Americans who celebrate Latinx but as Latinos, is we underrepresent our Afro-Latinos, and our Indigenous people. We have so much work to do because not only are we underrepresented in the images you see, but the images you see represent such a small portion of our population. We need to do a better job by showing more images and having more people on screen that identify and represent Black and African Latinx. Not just, like, Sofia Vergara, and her standard of beauty.
E!: What would you like to see changed in the entertainment industry?
LV: I'm 40 years old and this last year, 2019, was the first year that I saw stories that represented how I grew up in an authentic real way on television. I mean if you just look at the Emmys, we had one nomination. It was Alexis Bledel for The Handmaid's Tale. She's from Argentina, she identifies as Latina. But look at the wealth of content. I mean you had The Baker and the Beauty, One Day at a Time with Rita Moreno, which pushed boundaries of the perception and the narratives of Latinx people in the U.S. We're not just drug dealers and housekeepers and gardeners. You had Vida, which was showing the beautiful culture of Boyle Heights in L.A. and also exploring LGBTQ+ stories through a Latino lens. I was blown away, because you never get to see that.
And so that's what becomes so upsetting is that, yes, we're making progress and I get it, it's like one step at a time. But when you are 60 million strong, and you have so much consumer power—I mean, the Latinx spending power, it would be the eighth largest GDP in the world. When you have numbers like that, and you have zero Emmy nominations and some of the best shows on television are being canceled, you're going to have to ask yourself why. And is it because people aren't watching them, or is it because networks are not giving these shows enough time to let them find an audience. And I think, for me, the answer is in the latter.
E!: Where do you see progress happening?
LV: I know that in L.A., Mayor Eric Garcetti helped start something. They want to double Latino representation in Hollywood by 2030 and they're creating this incubator for Latinx talent—executives, creators, documentary filmmakers—to find more opportunity in the entertainment industry. And that's a real step. So I'm excited that's happening, I just wish there was more of it.
And, again, we're talking about one industry. We are lacking when it comes to politics. This cohort is 32 million voters, yet when you look at who is going to be moderating the next debate, and the debate after that, there is not one Latino journalist who was asked to speak up for our community in the debates. There are so many issues that apply to this community and it's not just immigration. They care about the economy, they care about health care. They care about education.
E! What do you think can be done to move the needle on these issues?
LV: I think it's important that people speak out at all levels. You can vote with your wallet—how you spend is your voice. You know, don't shop in stores that don't make space for our brands. And do follow magazines and online sites that promote the Latinx community. Do support Latinx creators. You can do it both ways. You can stop supporting, but you can also create opportunity and support others who are unifying this community and who are amplifying our voices.
E!: Who are some of your favorites?
LV: There's a website called Latina Made Not Maid. And it's to educate both non-Latinx and Latinx people about our history. She's an amazing voice changing the narrative for the Latinx community. And then I also love the editor in chief of Vogue México. Her name is Karla Martinez de Sala. She is single-handedly changing that magazine. This month for Hispanic Heritage Month she actually put two Afro-Latinas on the cover, which was amazing, both Dominican, both beautiful, that's what we should be seeing. Last September, she also put four Afro-Latinas on the cover, which is unheard of, and she was the one who put the first indigenous woman on the cover of any major magazine. That is all Karla. She just basically said enough is enough and I have a position of power in this industry and I'm going to use it to affect change. And she hasn't been shy.
E!: Who inspires you in the Latinx community?
LV: I absolutely love [journalist] Elizabeth Méndez Berry and [the Latinx House founder] Mónica Ramírez. They are writers and activists, and the way they champion our community is just incredible. It's inspiring on a day-to-day basis. Every time I feel like I'm exhausted or I can't fight anymore or I feel like a broken record, I just go back and look at the body of their work and how long they've been doing this and this does not change overnight. They wrote a beautiful op-ed for The New York Times that I printed out and I have it on my desk, and I read it probably once a week. They are two voices for change, and they are just fighting the fight. I mean they truly are to me some of the most powerful women, not just in the Latinx community, but powerful women and advocates for change in the world right now.
E!: You mentioned you celebrate your heritage every day. What are some of your favorite traditions?
LV: There is such a history and a culture of comfort food in Mexican culture. My grandmother would start every morning with fresh homemade flour tortillas. Anything we had for breakfast, whether it was eggs, chorizo or beans, that is how we started our mornings. My grandmother sadly passed away about five years ago, so my mom has kept that tradition—she FedExes me fresh, homemade tortillas once a week. When we talk she says in Spanish, "Do you still have tortillas?" I'm like, "Yes mom you sent me four dozen." Food is our love language. I remember being a little girl and eating them in my grandmother's kitchen in Fort Worth and here I am at 40, eating them in my kitchen in Montauk. It's one of the most comforting rituals that I have that keeps me connected to who I am and where I come from.
And then the other is El Día de los Muertos. It's one of my favorite things. I know a lot of people have probably seen Coco, and if they haven't they should watch it. It's such a beautiful ritual and tradition, because it is a celebration of those who have passed. I think there's so much grief and sadness that happens when people leave. But to take that day and to really recall your family members and friends and people in your community who you've sadly lost, but still celebrate. There's such wonderful warmth in that. There's a meal, you dress up, there's music, it's just such a fun tradition and you don't have to be Latinx to celebrate!
E!: What would you say to someone who might not understand why representation is so important?
LV: I think a lot of people that ask that are used to seeing themselves. So you've got to ask, why is it important to people that don't see themselves? For me, I think representation is about challenging the boundaries of what we thought was possible for us, and that is really powerful. When we take away those boundaries, then I really feel like as Latinos our success has no limits.
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