Read the 2010 Census and you realize something is changing about America. It’s our moms. Over the last decade, 56 percent of the nation’s population growth has been driven by Latinos. In states like Texas, Latinos made up a whopping 65 percent of growth. America’s national mom, you might say, is becoming a Latina mom.
That’s the provocative argument of Mamiverse, a new website that launches Monday. Mamiverse wants to be for Latinas what Oprah Winfrey was for African-Americans: a pal, a spiritual adviser, and, more subtly, an image changer. In a period when American-born Latinas have been caught in the national freakout about “border security,” Mamiverse offers them a new spokeswoman. She’s a particular kind of Latina mom—an English-speaking, all-American gal. “The young, acculturated, affluent, online Latina is speaking English, and is imbibing media in English,” says Rene Alegria, the site’s 36-year-old founder and CEO.
Alegria wants Mom—benevolent and wise, skeptical and demanding—to lead the political conversation. “We’re rebranding our community,” he says.
For more than 15 years, Alegria has been outlining a similar vision to the New York media. He was born in Tucson in 1975. His family is a case study in the acculturation process he now trumpets. Alegria’s grandparents emigrated from Sonora, Mexico, in 1955 and still don’t speak English. By the time he was 19, Alegria was living in New York and working at the publisher Simon & Schuster.
At 25, as a young editor at HarperCollins, Alegria founded Rayo, the first major Hispanic imprint in New York publishing. He insisted that most of Rayo’s books, from authors like Ray Suarez and Jorge Ramos, should be in English. “He’s one of the brightest people I’ve had a chance to work with in terms of idea development,” says Dawn Davis, the publisher of Harper’s Amistad imprint. After the departure of CEO Jane Friedman, HarperCollins reversed Rayo’s mission. The imprint began producing mostly Spanish-language books. “It ended up being the Telemundo of book publishing,” Alegria moans. He left in 2009.
Stars like Suarez and Ramos and Project Runway’s Nina Garcia followed Alegria to his new firm, Boxing Badger Media. Alegria was an agent on book deals. He turned his writing clients into spokespeople. But he was still mostly connecting the Latino audience with New York media companies rather than connecting Latinos with each other.
Alegria was dreaming of “something larger, something bigger” when his home state went crazy. In April 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070, which threatened to harass American Latinos in an attempt to discover illegal immigrants. Later, Alegria heard civil-rights leaders talk of boycotting Arizona, and he was horrified. It was as if a racist law had produced a boomerang insult—a wish to pretend Arizona didn’t exist. In January, Alegria had just returned from a Christmas visit to Tucson when Gabrielle Giffords was shot outside a supermarket, dealing the state another blow. Alegria decided he would not only found Mamiverse but locate its technical brain trust in Tucson. He took money only from Arizona investors, the first of which was his own mom, Mirna.
The next César Chávez, Alegria says, is going to be a Latina mom.
On the surface, Mamiverse looks like a bustling women’s site with the echoes of Oprah.com, iVillage, and the Huffington Post. All the content is in English. Former MTV veejay Daisy Fuentes will give advice on building a small business. The novelist Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez writes a series called The Cowboy’s Guide for Single Moms Raising Boys. Valdes-Rodriguez is dating a New Mexico cowpoke who is attempting to toughen up her son. “Together, we watched my kid ‘running’ down the street,” Valdes-Rodriguez writes. “He half-skipped, on his tippy-toes, with his hands perched out in front of him, like a T-Rex’s.”
“The Cowboy’s face registered manly concern once again.”
On Mamiverse, Alegria is trying to give traditional American Hispanic culture an update with new concerns about health. In a video segment called Cooking With Mami, author Maria Perez-Brown’s mom cooks a traditional recipe (arroz con gandules with pork) while Perez-Brown pines for the low-fat version (arroz con gandules without pork). "Why do we have to have the pork in everything?" Perez-Brown asks.
Mamiverse offers a chance for what radio host Tom Joyner has called cultural eavesdropping. The most moving essay is by Rose Arce, a senior producer at CNN, who writes about how she is repeatedly mistaken for her daughter’s nanny. Arce’s piece underlines the site’s mission. No one doubts at this late date that Latinos and Latinas are an enormous presence in American life. But when they surface in the middle-class universe Arce swims in, the population does Cheech Marin bug eyes.
Indeed, thanks to the psychotropic effect of the Mexican drug war and immigration laws like 1070, “Latino” and “illegal immigrant” have become synonyms. “When people talk about the Latino community in the mainstream news, it almost always has a male face, and it’s always conflated with immigration,” says Valdes-Rodriguez. “That image is not only not inaccurate, it’s dangerous for the rest of us.”
“I’d love to be the next Oprah,” says Maria Hinojosa, a broadcaster and syndicated columnist who is producing videos for Mamiverse. “Are you kidding? What Oprah did for the African-American community … she did that thing, ‘I’m just like you, and you’re just like me.’ We all talk on the same plane.”
Mamiverse attacks another moldy conflation: that of “Latino” and “Spanish speaker.” The Spanish-language TV networks like Univision have persuaded Fortune 500 companies to reach Latino audiences they must steer ad dollars to them. “People with good intentions just assume we’re being reached in Spanish,” says Valdes-Rodriguez. “We’re not.” Mamiverse launches with Target as its exclusive retail advertiser.
Alegria and his writers talk of finally being free of the filter of the mainstream media. “I can post whatever I want; I’m not beholden to any news corporation,” Hinojosa says. This allows a new complexity to enter the conversation, at a time when Latina moms face high rates of childhood obesity; high rates of attempted suicide among teens; questions within the community about what to do with immigration policy; and a bipolar political culture that casts them as power brokers at one moment and agents of American decline the next. “We feel visible and invisible, powerful and powerless, loved and despised, welcomed and unwelcomed,” Hinojosa says. “All in the space of a given day.”
Just below the surface of Mamiverse is a political opportunity. The site will provide news to Alegria’s hometown, and also Georgia and Alabama, which have passed 1070 copycat laws. To hear Alegria tell it, Mamiverse opens in a typically gloomy period for Latino voters: that is, near the end of a presidential term in which POTUS has let down the community. (Barack Obama promised to address immigration reform within a year of taking office; by this time in 2007, George W. Bush had tried and failed to do the same thing.) Mamiverse is nonpartisan, but its readers will form a cache of demanding, newly organized voters. “I always see these campaigns, they do so much in Spanish,” Alegria says. “But they’re not speaking to the bicultural, English-dominant Latino.”
“We’re the ones who vote. We’re the ones who spend money. We’re the ones who contribute to your campaign.”
If the economy continues to stagnate, Obama’s Electoral College firewall may not be Ohio and Virginia but the southwestern states of Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. “It’s essential that he does not lose ground in those heavily Latino states in the Southwest or Florida,” says pollster Matt Barreto. That means Obama must persuade Latinos and Latinas not only to vote for him but also to turn out in force. Alegria thinks Mom will be the one brokering the conversation. “The next César Chávez,” he says grandly, “is going to be a Latina mom.”
“Politically, oh my God, could Latinas become the next soccer moms?” asks Hinojosa. At the risk of using a little Spanish, get ready for the fútbol moms.