As a kid in Orlando, Florida, Juan Atiles often wondered why his family’s household traditions were so different from those of his non-Latino friends.
Years later, the hilariously observant Atiles began good-naturedly parodying his family — especially his mother — on social media. Using his adopted moniker LeJuan James, the laugh-out-loud videos imitating Latino parents exploded online and generated millions of views.
On June 4, James is out with his first book, “Definitely Hispanic,” a collection of essays about growing up in a Latino family with rules and customs that may seem too strict or quirky to non-Latinos, but that he credits with anchoring his life with good, solid values.
James wrote “Definitely Hispanic” to show his audience another side of himself. “I’ve been doing social media for the last five years and have been fortunate and blessed to touch so many people,” he said. “Now I want to help push our culture forward, and showcase our values, our traditions, and the genuine love in Hispanic households.”
Of Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage, James is one of the top Latino “influencers”on social media. His viral videos have brought him more than three million followers on Facebook, 2.1 million followers on Instagram, and more than 180,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel.
In his videos, James portrays everyone from himself to his parents to a crazy ex-girlfriend. With over-the-top acting and wild characterizations, he shows what happens when Hispanic parents don’t approve of their children's music, what happens if a single dirty spoon is left in the sink, and a mom's well-meaning relationship advice to a daughter.
Yet his videos stand out for being clean and good-natured, and straying away from vulgarity or meanness.
Similarly, “Definitely Hispanic” pokes fun at the well-established rituals of Latino family life, with chapters on Hispanic Parenting 101 (Rule 5: Hispanic Parents Are NOT Our Best Friends”), a chapter on Abuela (grandma), and the role of el bochinche (gossip).
Explaining the common phrase, "Cuando yo me muera," (which loosely translates to, "Someday, when I'm dead"), James writes that all Latino parents and grandparents “will at some point resort to their own deaths to guilt-trip you into what they are pleading for you to do.”
Though this expression sounds startling when taken out of context, James hilariously writes that “for those of us in the Hispanic community, it’s as common as rice and beans.”
Though his public image is outrageous, James tells NBC News that in person he is quite different.
“When people meet me, they have a preconceived notion that I am loud and out there, but I am actually reserved in real life," he said. " There are two sides to me. There is my alter ego, and there is me. So I feel like people can see the best of both worlds in me, both humorous and also more serious.”
James never set out to become a social media superstar. In 2013, he was 23 and working at a Nike store when he heard about the Vine app from a friend. An early adoptee of the now-defunct platform that allowed users to make six-second videos, he noticed that his portrayals of his family were garnering thousands of shares. His online popularity led to hosting gigs, and then sponsorships by major companies like T-Mobile.
These days, James is glad that he is known for “positivity, happiness and helping motivate people.”
James is among an elite group of Latinos, like Lele Pons and Bethany Mota, who have leveraged their digital popularity into commercial success. His popularity reflects several trends: the Latino community’s embrace of social media, the rise of the digital “influencer” and the increasing interest of publishers in social media stars.
But becoming an “influencer” is not easy, according to Melissa Dodd, associate professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Central Florida. “Right now, we are at a time when there are more influencers in the market than there is demand,” she said.
LeJuan James stands out to Dodd as someone with a unique — and genuine — point of view.
“His parodies are about being Hispanic, so he has a market that he is speaking to," Dodd said. "If you are presenting your culture in an authentic way, it is more likely to draw in an audience.”
Latinos respond to Hispanic social media personalities, Dodd added, in part because they may not see themselves represented in traditional media. “Digital spaces are popular," she said, "because people can relate to multicultural content creators.”
Jim Milliot, editorial director of Publishers Weekly, said one of the key things that publishers look for in signing writers is a platform.
“This type of visibility, whether in new media or old media, is important — most publishers know you have to go where the audience is.” Milliot pointed to 2015 as a time when books by YouTube authors began to show up on the bestseller lists.
However, social media popularity is no guarantee of success as an author. “Just because you are on Instagram or YouTube does not mean that your following will translate into readers. Someone with a compelling backstory will translate better,” Milliot said.
In “Definitely Hispanic,” James deals with some serious topics, including the death of his beloved grandmother and the hardships his family suffered during the 2008 housing crisis.
In the end, James hopes that “Definitely Hispanic” will convey the joys of Latino family life.
“What I want is for people to identify with me. I want them to feel I am their cousin, their uncle, their friend," James said. " I want to highlight what our parents do for us, and show how it is motivated by love.”
James views his fellow Latino influencers and aspiring content creators with pride.
“When I see younger kids trying to do what I do, I think, the more the merrier," James said. "“For me, doing videos and social media changed my life. So why not be happy for anyone else who can do that as well?”