Q&A: Cristina Escobar

The co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co on media representation and the whiteness of critique.

With awards season revving up, it’s likely that the number of bad entertainment takes will increase for the next few months. With this flood of coverage, however, it’s also likely that critique from white writers will be overrepresented.

This short-term trend is indicative of the overall lack of nonwhite representation in media, an issue that limits the number of stories by and for underrepresented groups — including Latinos, one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States.

For more insight on the ways journalists can improve Latino, Latina, and Latinx representation in popular media, newsletter manager Holly Rosewood spoke with Cristina Escobar, co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


I’d like to start by talking about part of your founding manifesto: “We KNOW them, but we don’t SEE them.” Could you tell our readers a bit more about why you and Nicola Schulze launched LatinaMedia.Co? 

Nicola Schulze and I, my co-founder, were doing work on media representation and gender at a great nonprofit. It became very clear to us that the people who were doing that work were doing amazing stuff but that Latinos, Latinas, and Latinxs have really particular needs and that if we don’t communicate them, no one is ever going to be able to prioritize them. And part of making that happen is getting a little bit loud and a little bit rowdy about it. So, as people who had worked in media representation and were interested in this critical gatekeeper side, we realized there was something that we could do, which was both build our own voices and then encourage others. 

So, a little less than five years ago, we created LatinaMedia.Co to be that space, a place where Latinas and femme Latinxs can speak up about what is important to them in media, what’s working, what’s not working, and where we can advocate for more representation. The Latino population is super diverse. We’ve got everybody: All races, all classes, immigrants and nonimmigrants, Spanish speakers, Portuguese speakers, Indigenous language speakers, gay, straight, queer, trans, cishet … it’s a really big range. 

When we’re talking about people from a whole continent, there’s a lot of nuance that needs to go into different types of representation, and we really felt like you weren’t seeing anything close to that in popular media like television and movies. We figured this was a thing we could do to chip away at that.

You also have the stats ready, showing just how underrepresented Latinas are in Hollywood. At the Objective, we’ve published work about how people of color are also underrepresented in entertainment reporting. To you, what are the effects of not having critiques by Latinas? 

One of the things that’s frustrating is Latinas are the least represented group when compared to our numbers in the population. And then, when we do get portrayal, there’s lots of data on how it tends to be a stereotypical portrayal of someone. On the masculine side, it’s the drug trade, and criminals are definitely overrepresented. On the feminine side, it tends to be either the super sexy, bombshell sex object, or the nearly-invisible maid. 

We have a list of really great groups working on representation in front of the camera and behind the camera across the genres. But we focus on the cultural gatekeeper part because we really see it as the third rail for advancing representation in media and the reason why is that critical conversation helps define what’s “good.” If we’re not in that conversation, then not only are our needs not being met as audience members, but those stereotypical portrayals aren’t even being challenged. 

We’ve started to see some progress, but you have to look long-term for that. So, think about West Side Story. The more recent one, and the one 50-plus years ago — 50-plus years ago, Latinos weren’t able to really speak out about that film as it came out. Versus this time, we really were leading a lot of that conversation. So that’s an exciting point of view. 

Something that I’ve heard from others in the field, academics who study this, is that it’s a good bellwether to think about in terms of where we’ve advanced. But the truth is, criticism is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. There’s a real lack of Latino voices, Latina voices, in particular, and Latinx voices. And that’s to our detriment because we’re not getting the full breadth and depth, beauty of humanity, and all of the interesting stories that we could be telling.

In terms of news media, what journalists or outlets do you think are doing a good job of representing Latina communities? 

Obviously, I’m gonna promote LatinaMedia.Co. Our model is to commission and pay for original pieces of criticism from Latina and Latinx perspectives. We do that in addition to highlighting others in the field with roundups: What do Latina critics say about Encanto, West Side Story, or In the Heights? We have a newsletter, #TheLatinaPress, where every month we just say, “What are journalists covering? Why does it matter?” 

We’re also making sure that we’re celebrating and highlighting Latino, Latina, and Latinx creatives. That’s really important because there is great media being made by us and for us, but it often doesn’t get the marketing budget and doesn’t get the promotion and support that it needs to really succeed, so we want to be part of that engine. 

So that’s our three-part model, on kind of how we do the things that we do. I would say, in terms of other publications, there are some really interesting ones. I write a lot for Latino Rebels, which I think is a great site. It’s part of Futuro Media, which was founded by Maria Hinojosa, the famed NPR journalist. There’s also PopSugar, where I write. Refinery29 has Latino spaces and NBC Latino does, as well. I’m glad those big media conglomerates are doing that. 

But I really want to shout out the importance of independent media and our ability to be a little more free from additional push and pull and also be really dedicated, I would say. Latino Rebels, for example, is 10 years old and going strong. And we’re coming up on five years. 

I would say that there are a lot of great Latina critics, but they tend not to be platformed in the same way as other folks. Maybe they’re writing for themselves or maybe they’re at smaller publications. So, it’s been exciting to see those people’s careers grow. I think of Rosy Cordero who’s over at Deadline now. Arianna Davis is now at the Today Show’s online site. There are other great people that I like in key places, but it can be kind of hard to figure out how to find them. 

To this day, when something Latino/Latina/Latinx comes out and I go to Rotten Tomatoes for it, you scroll and scroll and it’s all white dudes. And that is still a point of frustration to me. Because I say, “Well, I only want to read what Black critics have to say about Black Panther. I don’t care what other folks have to say.” I think the Latino audience has been underserved by that dynamic.

Aside from hiring more Latinx employees, what is one thing the media could do to better cover Latina stories? 

On the Hollywood side, we need [hiring] in all aspects of the industry. Executives, editors, writers, directors, in front of the camera, behind the camera … we really need to push for that broad representation. I think the same is true for journalism. That means writers and editors, and also executives pushing for more diversity. 

But I would also say that I think there is still the stereotype of Latinos as silent helper characters, people whose contributions to society are in service of richer, whiter folks. And as we work to tear that stereotype apart while still honoring the people who do that type of labor, and showing their full humanity on screen, there’s a need to have our voices be both louder and more heard by the mainstream. 

That goes for journalism, as well. Some of those stereotypes are based on facts, but they really need to be pushed on. For example, Latinas do make up an oversized population of domestic workers. That is true, but domestic workers are human beings who deserve to have their stories told in ways that give them dignity and interiority. And so I would challenge folks to think a little bit more about the humanity of people who maybe look or sound or pray differently.

A big part of the Objective’s mission is unpacking the myth of objectivity. How does your background in domestic violence prevention and journalism affect this work? 

I first want to say that I agree with your theory. I think “objectivity” is a lie, there is no such thing, and it is much more important to own and discuss how your subjectivity affects — oftentimes in positive ways — how you go about telling the story and choosing the stories that you tell. When I’m writing and when I’m editing, I think, “Why am I passionate about this? What is my unique experience bringing to it?” And, when it’s necessary, I discuss those things in the pieces that I write.

As I mentioned, Latinos are a very, very diverse population. I’m third generation Mexican American, light-skinned, my Spanish is medium, and there are times when I bring that into stories or times when I don’t. I’m thinking about how that affects me and making sure that I’m balancing my perspective with others, but still recognizing and rooting myself in that subjectivity, which I think is the only way to be effective. 

That gets into the other half of that question. I think there is a lot of work to be done in terms of valuing women’s voices. We talk about criticism being overwhelmingly white and male, so figuring out how to build diverse coalitions and understanding what is happening across communities in regard to gender and sexuality is really important to understand our worlds. It’s just, for me personally, a fascinating and motivating question in terms of my curiosity when I approach what stories I want to tell and consume.

I pretty much only read books written by women, and when I read books written by men I’m almost always disappointed. We hear so much of their perspective, right? So much of the world is organized that way, and even while being a conscious consumer and trying to organize my consumption differently, you’re still sort of inundated with the male perspective — and the white male perspective, at that. 

I think it’s a sign of curiosity to think about what the rest of the world has to say. Why do we always love to hear this small percentage’s perspective when there’s a whole world out there of people who also have really interesting things to say that we maybe haven’t heard before?

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

We’re always accepting pitches at LatinaMedia.Co, and you don’t have to be a professional writer — we’ve given some folks their first byline. If folks have something to say from a Latina or Latinx perspective about what they’re watching, consuming, hearing, or seeing, we’re interested. We do pay a competitive rate, so hit us up.

The other thing I would say is that when Nicola and I started LatinaMedia.Co we started it off as an experiment to see if we had something to say. As it turned out, we did — and other people were invested in it. Since that time, my freelance journalism career has really taken off. The site has grown and we’ve attracted grant funding. We’re on track to get our 100,000th reader this year. 

It’s a side job for both of us, and if we stopped after year one or year two, none of those things would have happened. And so something that I remind myself of is that sticking at it and working at it is part of the story. When you look at people who are interesting and successful and you’re comparing yourself to folks, there’s usually a long time of maybe not so much exciting stuff going on. We’ve been at it long enough that we’re starting to hit some exciting aspects. And so I would tell early career folks that there’s a lot of grace and beauty to trying.

This conversation was edited by Curtis Yee.

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