Paola Ramos keynotes GW’s 2019 Latinx Heritage Celebration.
By B.L. Wilson
Advocate and media maven Paola Ramos, the host of VICE’s “LatinX,” spoke of the “evolution” in coming to terms with her identity and learning to push against institutions that have tried to impose on her self-expression, at a LatinX Heritage Celebration Thursday evening.
“We are taught to look a certain way, to sit a certain way, to wear our hair a certain way, and to be female a certain way, and I did that for a long time,” she said.
She charts the transformation in her life by changes in the way she wore her hair, neat and tidy in her years as deputy director of Hispanic media for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and as a political appointee in the Obama White House and the 2012 Obama campaign. “My hair looks crazy now,” she said.
“I probably acted real straight a little bit, which is all privilege because I had the privilege of assimilating in that way,” said Ms. Ramos, a speaker with Lesbians Who Tech. “If I ever walk into that space again, I get to be me.”
Mid-September to mid-October was designated Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988 by the federal government under President Ronald Reagan. Thursday’s event at the George Washington University Jack Morton Auditorium was sponsored by the Multicultural Student Services Center (MSSC).
MSSC Director Michael Tapscott, speaking on behalf of university leadership, told the audience in opening remarks that GW is “proud to show our diversity and commitment to the Latinx community by celebrating what is currently the largest Latinx class in the history of GW with 380 first-year students.”
He introduced the moderators of the conversation, GW students Kayla Fermaint, a junior and first-generation student of Puerto Rican heritage, and Evelyn Arredondo Ramirez, a senior of Mexican heritage who is also the first in her family to attend college.
The theme of this year’s GW Latinx Heritage Month is “Juntos Somos Mas, Together We Are More” and Ms. Fermaint led the conversation by asking Ms. Ramos how the theme features in her media work.
“People are kind of allergic to [LatinX],” she said, in explaining that not everyone is comfortable with the term, a word derived from Latino that originated in the trans community. “But for the first time for many, that slogan is an invitation to people… who at some point in their lives, in history have felt left out.
“When I think of Juntos Somos Mas,” she said, “it means we have become more inclusive.”
She illustrated how she adapted that idea in a program for VICE on the HIV epidemic among young gay Mexicans in Brownsville, Texas.
“We need to document the most pressing racial, sexual and cultural issues facing one of America’s fastest growing demographics,” Ms. Ramos said. “I’m trying to [talk about the issues] that go beyond immigration… We will never not talk about immigration but this opened people’s eyes to things happening two feet from the border.”
Media and politics are not the only means of communicating, she said, particularly for young Latinx who feel too threatened by today’s political environment to engage in advocacy work.
Increasingly, she has focused on art and described traveling the country for more than a month doing portraits of “dreamers,” young undocumented immigrants who have been allowed to continue living in the United States.
“We wanted to show people, the real stories and faces behind ‘dreamers’ so that people understand that it is not just a talking point or bargaining chip people see on TV but real human beings,” she said.
She described a revealing experience she had participating in a Miss Gay America pageant in Arizona where a young Mexican did a spoken word presentation in drag. It provoked strong reactions from the audience, some of whom called him names and threatened to call immigration services. “That’s what he wanted,” she said. “He wanted people to see him.”
When Ms. Ramirez asked who were her biggest influences, she had a simple answer, “everyday people.”
“We are always searching. Who is the next Dolores Huerta? Who is our leader? I think the answer is there are many Dolores Huertas,” said Ms. Ramos. “There are many people doing so many incredible things.”
As for inspiration, she said, she thinks of her father, Jorge Ramos, an anchor for “Univision” who was pushed out of a press conference with presidential candidate Donald Trump and has been jailed and faced life-threatening confrontations in Venezuela, Afghanistan and other countries.
“If you are ever on a stage or face to face with someone who has a little bit of power you always challenge that authority,” she said he told her.