There’s something diferente about South by Southwest (SXSW) this year.
The annual Austin festival that brings in the who’s who and the up-and-coming in music, film, and interactive is launching a new section of the event that they hope will appeal to the nation’s fastest growing demographic — Latinos.
South by Américas (SXAméricas) will highlight Hispanic culture with themed events, including a conversation between actor and director Diego Luna and director Robert Rodriguez, the soon-to-be released film about civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, and music from Latin American countries including Uruguay and Colombia. Its purpose is not only to connect to a demographic that has long felt left out of the festivities, but to highlight what has already been going on in the community — a healthy and growing use of all things film, digital, and music.
Alicia Zertuche, a SXSW music festival organizer since 1997, has been selecting bands to perform at the festival from the tens of thousands of groups each year. In response to a thirst for more Latino participation, she has been doing it mainly in the musical arena.
Now, in her role as SXAméricas producer, she is grouping not only music but Latino-themed films, lectures and events at the world-renowned and iconic festival.
“Let’s look at the trends and let’s be real,” said Zertuche. “This is a call to action. We researched and read our surveys, both good and bad. This is the first year and we’re pretty nervous about it. Everyone is excited about it and they love the name.”
In addition to the Luna and Rodriguez talk, events include a panel on "Can We Beat Dreamworks and Pixar from Argentina?" and Latino-themed films such as "Que Caramba es la Vida," (loosely translated, it's "What the heck is Life") a film about the handful of female musicians in Mexico who perform in the usually "macho" world of mariachi music.
In a way, SXAméricas has been a long time in the making. With the growth of the nation’s Hispanic population comes connectivity. According to the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of Latinos use social networking compared to 70 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 75 percent of blacks.
While U.S. Hispanics became more connected and increased their use of social media, organizers at SXSW went beyond and traveled to Latin America and Europe to speak at conferences and panels. In the past five years, organizers have been to Argentina, Mexico and Spain to network, after word got out about the festival through websites and social media.
“The Spanish government reached out to do events similar to SXSW,” Zertuche said. “Lots of people have replicated our model in Latin America and that opened an exchange.”
Back in Austin, Latinos have been working on creating their own programming either as part of SXSW or to accompany it. Kety Esquivel, principal at Esquivel Consulting and the Kapor Center for Social Impact, organized the Latino Technology Conference held Thursday, the day before the festival began. Esquivel, who has attended SXSW since 2008, said that while there has been an increase of Latino panels and panelists through the years, progress had been incremental.
“To make a change, we had to do something we hadn't done before,” Esquivel said. “We have made great strides but there is still a large opportunity.”
On Thursday, the Latino technology conference was packed with people on waiting list who wanted to get in to hear speakers such as Maria Hinojosa from NPR’s Latino USA.
“If we succeed, we would love it if SXSW reflected the demographics of the nation,” Esquivel said. “Success for us is that you see large numbers of Latinos integrated into the conference as speakers, panelists and thought leaders.”
Estuardo Rodriguez, principal at The Raben Group, a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm, agrees. He participated in the conference last year, and he returned this year with a panel, "What would Caesar Chavez Tweet: Latinos in New Media", focusing on how to use social media for grassroots mobilization.
“Latinos as consumers are quick adapters to technology,” he said. “We use it as a way to keep in touch. It really is about communication and the ease to communicate with family. So, social media and technology makes sense to us.”
Zertuche says the plan is to continue SXAméricas in years to come. But this year's success could determine its size and influence.
“We need a sense of urgency from the Latino community to be present. So far, the response has been positive.”