Saturday, November 12, 2011

Of Latinos, social media and talking about what matters

Dolores Huerta at the Latism 11 awards gala.

Thanks to Ana Roca Castro (@AnaRC), Elianne Ramos (@ergeekgoddess), Reina Valenzuela (@SOYLAMAR) and Elma Placeres Dieppa (@mzelma) I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the Latinos in Social Media (Latism) conference in Chicago this past Wednesday through Friday.

In addition to the obvious but somehow startling revelation that, yes, there are real people behind those twitter avatars with which I’ve become familiar by attending Latism twitter parties on Thursday nights (9 p.m., use #latism to participate) what was most interesting to note was breadth and range of this group of digitally engaged Latino professionals.

One of the interesting sessions I attended was a White House town hall on educational excellence for Hispanics. The brainstorming session brought together Latino bloggers and online journalists to voice their views on which existing educational initiatives are working, which challenges are being addressed and which aren’t, and the role social media has in meeting some of these challenges.

One of the strongest voices in this conversation was Vince Leung, whose uses crowdsourcing to form an information portal and streamlines the process of accessing authoritative research online. Another was Carlos Macias (@PorColombia) who spoke of the need to ease social media and access restrictions in schools in order to incorporate social media in enrichment of curricula. “Mommy” bloggers from Miami and Los Angeles approached the questions posed by José Rico (@HispanicEd) at the town hall event from deeply personal perspectives about parental engagement. The level of engagement during the two-hour session was remarkable, and the ideas flying around were both incisive and wide-ranging.

But in this conversation I missed the voices of those facing the educational challenges of neighborhoods such as Kensington in Philadelphia or parts of Coatesville in Pennsylvania -- those for whom digital access isn’t at all certain or regular, and for whom traditional forms of parental engagement in education are circumscribed by the actualities of multiple jobs, work shifts that proscribe participation and inability to pay for what would allow their children equal educational advantages.

While all of us participating in the town hall were cognizant of this sort of challenge to educational attainment for Latinos, we were all speaking from privilege. We were at a social media summit, after all, and most of us are deeply engaged in digital discourse in ways that many of the working poor members of the extended Latino community cannot even imagine, much less experience. In my opinion those are the voices the White House most needs to hear at town halls of this sort.

By their nature conferences attract those who have the means and ability to incur the costs to attend -- and that’s just the reality even the most high-minded organizers have to contend with. The Latism organizers, strongly focused as they are on social media’s ability to do social good, organized a number of panel presentations to try and address some of the realities born of income disparity, including one on the digital divide within the Latino community, which I imagine dovetailed with some of the educational excellence summit’s concerns (I could not attend it, so I can’t speak authoritatively on whether it did).

Predictably, for a conference informed and formed by social media, the days were rife with workshops and panels on optimizing use of Facebook, Google+, Linked-in, Twitter, Wordpress, and building traffic to web sites and blogs. Tony Vargas (@TonyTorero and, a self-described technology evangelist, earned rave reviews for his presentation at the conference and spoke of sharing some of his tips and insights on his web site.

I enjoyed a workshop on the use of Spanglish in marketing and blogging, led by Juan Alanis (@juanofwords) and with the participation of Spanglish Baby blog’s Ana Flores, Pamela Diaz of General Mills, and Manuel Delgado, the CEO of the Agua marketing group. I engaged in some intriguing discussions about the challenges of multiracial Latino experience with Kiki Lightbourn (@kiki_liki); the healing power of writing with Ezzy Guerrero-Languzzi (@ezzylanguzzi); whether unfocused sensitivity to discrimination leads to victim mentality with Jean Manuel Jimenez (@jeanmanolo) and Berenice Arzate-Marsh (@BereMar3); and touched on a number of newspaper/journalism questions with Hernán Guaracao (@ALDIACEO) and Vanessa Smith (@ImpactoLN).

One of the surprises of the conference, and consequent abiding sadness, is two-fold. While people like Julio Varela (@julito77) and ImmigrantArchive Project founder Tony Hernandez (@TonyHTonyH) tweet regularly about issues of concern to those of us deeply involved in advocacy for immigrants (and both of them were at the conference) there was only one panel that addressed the ways social media can counteract the worsening immigration debate and its impact on all Latinos, regardless of documentation status.

That panel (“Social Media for Social Change”) was slated for Friday afternoon, when many participants were already headed to the airport to catch flights back home (including me) so regrettably I can’t tell you much about it. Except that the moderator Cheryl Aguilar (@cheryl_aguilar) is, at a good 20-years my junior, the person I want to be when I grow up. The two panelists I had heard about, Tony Hernandez, and Pennsylvania Dream Activist María Marroquin (@MGM1987, read my earlier interview with her here) are strong voices for good in the immigration debate. I hope attendance for this panel was stellar, I hope more Latino/a bloggers came away from it with the commitment to shine a light in this dark place of our nation’s psyche.

That is certainly what the keynote speaker at the awards gala on Thursday night urged. Dolores Huerta (, already a hero to some of us through her historic advocacy for farm workers along with the legendary César Chávez, devoted a good portion of her keynote to highlighting the importance of the fight for justice for immigrants. 
The second part to the abiding sadness I mentioned is that I met precious few registrants from religious organizations whose work is tied to Latino communities. I was actually in the position to note this because I worked the registration desk almost all of the first day and a good bit of the second. I also realized in conversations with bloggers that though I’m aware of how involved churches are active both nationally and at the grassroots level in immigration advocacy, most people haven’t a clue about that heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking commitment by people of faith.

Like any conference, much of the enjoyment comes from meeting and getting to know people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. For me, one of those people was María Castrejon. Like me she’s been involved in journalism for most of her adult life, though she was in broadcast rather than print journalism. She knows, from the inside, how lopsided media coverage of immigration issues and its depiction of immigrants has tended to be.

I -- uncharacterically enough -- took part in a “30-second pitch” event in which I spoke about immigration advocacy -- its urgency, its primacy in safeguarding human dignity -- and how it can permeate every aspect of our creative and intellectual lives. I spoke specifically in terms of my work with Catholic advocates, my blog and my novel, Ink, which Crossed Genres ( will be publishing and releasing Sept. 2012. Afterward María sought me out. She understood exactly what I was speaking of. She wants to begin to make documentaries about the lives of the undocumented immigrants she’s met over her many years as a journalist. She wants to tell the stories she never hears or sees in the mainstream media.

And she will, I’m sure of it. Because the one thing I can say with certainty about all the Latism 11 participants I met is that they are passionate. And devoted. And determined. Overall, a rather amazing bunch of people.

The other certainty? Boy, they can tweet fast and often and never once miss a beat.

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