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Latino Bloggers: 5 Questions For 'Latino Rebel' Julio R. Varela

Image: Julio Varela
Julio Varela, founder of the “Latino Rebels” site. Daniel Ming

We are taking a look at Latino bloggers who are carving out a space in the national conversation. We spoke to the founder and editor of Latino Rebels, Julio R. Varela. The site is a mix of political and cultural commentary with a shot of humor, and if there is a Latino or Latin American story - even in a small or local publication - it's pretty certain they will be one of the first ones on it. Recently the "Rebels" started producing a new video series known as - what else - Rebel Report for the new online-only video site Flama.

How did a Harvard wonk who worked in educational publishing become one of the most bocón (loud) - and influential - Latinos in the digital space?

I grew up in a family that encouraged us to speak our minds. I come from a - how shall we say it - gregarious family (laughter). When my middle schooler states his opinion I get excited!

I started in journalism, and then in publishing, where I went into the area of ELL and bilingual education, eventually becoming Editorial Director of a reading and language arts department. At the time in the early 90s there started to be a call for a more authentic type of content that reflected the world of these students- what was it like growing up as a Mexican or Puerto Rican or Dominican kid in the U.S. In book publishing, no one was looking at those issues of culture and identity, especially in the school context. I got to edit and work with people like Gary Soto, Pat Mora, Carmen Tafolla and Rudolfo Anaya.

When the recession came and publishing went into a tailspin, I became one of those people who had to redefine their professional career. I started playing around with social media to help my brother with his new CD. I saw pretty early how Twitter could be an incredible way to communicate ideas, and I started blogging.

In early 2011 I was watching Jon Stewart - I love the show - and I thought, I do improv, I am a man of the arts and a political junkie. For bilingual, bicultural persons like me, I thought there was no intelligent, witty and humorous outlet on what it is like to be Latino in America.

I wrote "Latino Rebels" on a post-it note, bought the URL the next day, invited 25 friends that turned to 40, and that's what we did.

What's your typical day like for you and your Rebels?

We have an online private group that we all access. We're not hierarchical, we're spongy. We represent every major ethnicity in the Latino space, including geographically.

We're kind of living off the Internet and constantly pitching stuff. One of us will say 'hey, look what I saw on Twitter than happened in Mexico last night.' Then we have a small group of contributors and writers, it's almost like we crowdsource. I'm still editor and publisher and still the dude that says, 'ok, you can publish this.'

I see our newsroom as a museum that curates -everyone is in our space and we all make each other better. Welcome to the museum of the Latino digital space!

Because we're independent, we don't get caught up in the competition, or say we have to post a 6 things a day. We post at least one thing a day. It might be really intense for a week and then we say let's take a break.

Everyone thinks we have a money making venture; it's more like money sucking! No one is making a living off this. Eventually we could go in a different direction, but this whole perception that we are sitting on a pile of cash is not true. It's self-funded. Everything we do is all us.

Tell us about your new video venture, "Rebel Report."

There's a need for a smart voice with a little humor about on Latin American issues which the U.S. media doesn't cover. At the end of last year, we were approached by Flama, and video made complete sense to me; we want to extend the conversation to topics that matter.

We had the opportunity to do a 2-minute segment. We pitch our topics; It's an incredibly creative process. It's early days for us; our goal is to do it once a week and create and do the best we can do with two to three minutes on Facebook and see what happens.

I do think Rebel Report has the potential to become a strong voice with a different Latino vibe to it that very few people are doing. Would I want a half-hour daily show? Who wouldn't? We're here, and it's a long journey.

You live in the Boston suburbs, take your kids to soccer, yet you're close to your Puerto Rican roots and you keep tabs on struggles in U.S. Latino communities. Do you think this is typical of many U.S. Hispanics?

Living in that duality comes out naturally. We don't have to force feed culture down anyone's throat; that feels contrived. There is no surprise about the fact that many people are interested in Latino and Latin American issues. That's always been my life. Boston alone is so cosmopolitan in the Latino sense. I was literally at a dinner with friends from Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and I'm from Puerto Rico. We were having an intense conversation about Mexico, as intensely as we discussed the U.S. midterm elections.

That sensibility is where newsrooms and media outlets have to go, and they're only scratching the surface.

Do you see a need for a site like Latino Rebels for a long time to come?

I will say this as slowly as possible - we are the most underserved group of people in the country. Not from the economic perspective, but in the sense of feeling like we are part of the national conversation. I have a teenager and a teenager to be. They say to me 'Papi, what is happening in Mexico, we saw pictures on Instagram.' We talk about these things. If the website is my insane way of telling the kids where they're from, that's what it's all about. We fill that void.

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