MIAMI, Florida — At the young age of 19, Venezuelan-born Internet sensation Lele Pons has captured a huge audience. Her funny skits appear on Vine where she has over 10 million followers and her videos generate 7.7 billion loops. The bicultural, bilingual Latina was the first recipient of the Latinovator awards at Hispanicize 2016, which kicked off its 7th annual event on Monday in Miami.
The 5-day event is unique because it brings together Latino trendsetters from a vast amount of fields including journalism, marketing, tech entrepreneurship, music, and film.
During a press conference Pons talked about the difficulties of being bullied in high school and how her mother always "had the perfect words to make me feel better." Her uncle, Puerto Rican pop singer Chayanne, has also been a mentor for her.
"Being Latina is special ... the Latino world is growing faster than the American world." Speaking of toggling between English and Spanish, Pons said "it's a language that's touching many people; there is a lot to say," echoing many of the bicultural professionals at the conference, many fluidly speaking in both English and español.
Vine star David Lopez, known for his hilarious videos, said at a press conference it's important to "be yourself. Find that outlet where you can really express yourself." Lopez, a 27-year old Southern California native of Mexican descent said "as long as you express who you are, there are a lot of people who can relate to you and connect with you."
Lopez said a lot of what he does is from personal experience and growing up with his Latina mom.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists is hosting its first ever Spanish-language conference during the event. During a panel discussion on Tuesday about the challenges of covering Cuba, journalists from leading news outlets discussed how the situation on the island has changed for reporters.
Although human rights continues to be an important issue and the situation on the island continues to be transactional, the panel speakers agreed journalists can work with more ease, especially when interviewing dissidents.
USA Today correspondent, Alan Gomez, said it was "surreal" to cover the Ladies in White the day before President Barack Obama made a historic trip to the island last month.
Some of the panels that are drawing audiences include covering the 2016 elections on social media; "SnapChat: A Creator's Guide"; "2016 State of the U.S. Hispanic Digital Industry Town Hall; Where Are We and What's Next;" and "Move Over, Millenials, Who is Generacion Z?"
This year's event is being sponsored by companies including NBC Universal and Prudential, Toyota, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Amazon.
One of the hashtags being used in social media during the event, #PowerInUnity, underscores a political element in the event this year because of the presidential elections going on. On Wednesday the Latinovator award will be handed to actress and activist Rosario Dawson - one of the founders of Voto Latino, which works to register and motivate young Latinos to vote and participate politically. She also advocates for domestic-violence prevention and improving the lives of young girls. One of Bernie Sanders' most visible celebrity supporters, she has been campaigning for him and has made headlines for taking issue with civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who has argued for supporting Hillary Clinton.
One of the themes of the conference is highlighting and honoring Latinos who volunteer their time to make a difference in people's lives. On Tuesday night several Latinos will be recipients of the Positive Impact awards. This includes Doniece Sandoval, who founded Lava Mae, which provides bathrooms "on wheels" for the homeless in California. Educator and volunteer Veronica Herrera has provided job training programs and promoted diversity in Tennessee since 1992.
Sarahi Espinoza launched a website and app to provide resources and information for undocumented students interested in going to college. Rebecca Garcia founded Coder Dojo, a non-profit which teaches young people how to code and develop websites, programs, apps and games.
The Positive Impact awards "are a major program that is at the heart of what Hispanicize is about. If we don't tell these stories forcefully, more than ever, and the way we are doing through Hispanicize, who's going to tell these positive stories about Latinos?" said Manny Díaz, founder of Hispanicize, to NBC Latino.