Empowering Latina Youth Through Tech & Media
Words by Jess Hagemann Photos by Ashley Haguewood
Latinitas serves the largest community in Austin’s community-at-large—Latinas, specifically young girls—by rooting them in today’s fastest growing industries: media and technology.
The fifteen-year-old initiative of two then-journalism students at UT, Latinitas Magazine began as a digital publication made for and by Latinas ranging from fourth to eighth grade, and now their monthly reach is over 20,000 unique users up to age 25. Offering comprehensive instruction in writing, photography, desktop publishing, filmmaking, audio production, and web design, the program soon expanded beyond just magazine-making. Today, Latinitas also tackles app development, video game design and production, coding, and programming. Through tech and media literacy, the nonprofit hopes to inform, entertain, and inspire Latina girls to become healthy, confident, and successful women of color.
With operations in Austin and El Paso and events in Round Rock, Corpus Christi, San Marcos, San Antonio and cities in New Mexico, Latinitas signature program is Club Latinitas, an after-school program. Each club consists of 10-25 girls recruited from local schools at no cost to the student and her family. Supplementing the clubs are extended camps, weekend “Chica” conferences, and one-off workshops aimed at reaching the widest slice of Latina youth possible. Not only does Latinitas hope to close the gap between young Latinas, a traditionally underserved population, and their representation in the tech and media industries, but they make the leap possible by providing access to new devices and platforms. “The assumption,” explains co-founder Laura Donnelly, “is that kids are inundated with tech,” but among Austin’s young Latina population, less than 50% own or have access to a device, and of those who do, only a small fraction have WiFi or a network to which to connect. For those girls “east of east [Austin],” technology is still largely cost-prohibitive. They’re tech-starved and tech-savvy at the same time.
In addition to preparing girls for the future, Latinitas also situates them within their own historical context and focuses on their own heroes. “Where other programs might be referencing Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus as icons, we are all about Selena and Quintanilla,” says Laura, “but we also address revolutionaries like Frida Kahlo.” One month, the girls will research historical figures, dress up like them, perform a runway show, then shoot, edit, and distribute PSAs or mini-documentaries on who these change-makers were. The next month, they’ll meet Austin’s contemporary street artist Federico Archuleta or specialists working in fields as diverse as tech, photography, and event planning. The speakers share what they’re currently working on and their experiences with diversity in their respective industries.
The club members themselves are likewise encouraged to share the knowledge and skills that they already bring to the table. “At this point of programming, we are involving the girls’ input on curriculum more. They know the newest apps. They are cutting edge.” Laura admits, “Sometimes the girls have even more to offer than us old people,” since they’ve grown up navigating the cybersphere. While each Latinitas girl receives a thorough introduction to all aspects of tech and media, she is given the freedom to incorporate whatever theme she wants in her radio show, webisode or app—from growing up undocumented to her love of “Takis” to animal advocacy. Through it all, however, the overarching theme remains personal growth and development. When discussing body image, for example, Latinitas addresses societal pressures on tween girls to worry about their weight, but also the more common issue of food deprivation and its attendant problems, like binging and hoarding. Identity is a similarly hot-button topic, with girls questioning what it means to be Latina, who ‘counts’ as Latina, and how to combat racist messages in the media or at school.
Just as a Club Latinitas girl who has recently been dumped by her boyfriend might write a telenovela about relationships that can then be staged, filmed, and screened, another girl might wish to highlight culturally-specific legends that have been excluded from the larger cultural narrative. A Mexican folktale known as La Llorona tells the story of a ghost who lost her children and cries while looking for them by the river. One group of girls made a video game about La Llorona. If the player completes the journey and finds the lost children, she is released from the curse. Such freedom of self-expression allows the girls to mine from the personal, the cultural, and the socially-relevant when curating new content, to share what’s important to them and how they see the world. No matter the specific topic, the outcome is always invention, and often, innovation. The girls learn that they matter, that their opinions matter.
For the last decade and a half, Latinitas has been the primary agency in Austin to facilitate tech education in a bilingual format and continues to publish the only magazine made for and by young Latinas. In that time, they’ve seen a significant portion of their ~25,000 mentees graduate into the role of mentors for the next class—the girls just love the program that much. “We look at the metrics,” says Laura, to track the program’s success. “Are we producing coders? Are we producing journalists?” But the girls have also taught her to define success in a more holistic way. “Sometimes,” she adds, “the takeaway is making good girlfriends,” and that’s real empowerment, too.
Latinitas just won a 2016 Google RISE Award for its efforts to increase access to computer science education for youth. The Austin-based program is the only nonprofit organization from Texas (and one of only 13 in the United States) to receive the annual award. Latinitas plans to use the grant to expand its existing after-school, summer camp, and conference programming to create a more definitive pipeline between young Latinas and jobs in the tech sector.