Journalist Paola Ramos dives into Latinx identity issues with new book

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Paola Ramos // Photo courtesy Paola Ramos

Paola Ramos is a political operative and journalist who has spent the last few years working with Vice, Telemundo, MSNBC, and just wrote a book Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity. Here’s our chat about the state of America and Latinx issues.

Can you tell people about your journey and where you are now, what sort of work you’ve been doing, why journalism has been working for you?

Yeah, so I’ve been very heavily focused for two to three years on understanding the Latinx community. Truly drilling into this idea that we’re not a monolith and seeing what that means on the ground. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to young Latinos about mental health and other taboos. I’ve talked to Latinos on the border and what it means to be waiting on the other side of the border when you grow up thinking that the American Dream is achievable and yet the current government has completely closed its doors on you. I’ve spent time in the Central Valley, not covering immigration but covering this huge meth epidemic that is affecting Latinos there, something we don’t really think about. I’ve spent much of this election in the battleground states. I’m in Florida, spent way too much time here. I’m talking to QAnon supporters and Cubans who have been brainwashed by conspiracy theories, and the same in Arizona, talking to so many Trump supporters and trying to understand the psychology behind that. My life has been in politics and trying to understand it.

What have you taken from conversations with lunatics? I’m not calling a Trump-supporting Hispanic person a lunatic, but the QAnon thing—you have a spectrum here of complicated conspiracies to deal with; what have you learned from that and why do people identify with it?

When I go into these conversations, my instinct is rejection, and it is to call them lunatics, right? That is my gut—I don’t see in anything in common with you, I don’t agree with anything you’re saying, and I don’t understand it. This is an alternative universe that I could never be a part of. But then you start to get into it a little bit, and at least in the case of the Latino Trump/QAnon supporters, you do see that, at some point in their lives, they’ve been left out by the system by both parties. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats were there for them at a certain time. In Trump and in these conspiracy theories, they find something that they’ve been missing their whole life. I don’t agree with it, I don’t get it, but it does come from—at least from the Latino perspective—it does come from a deep desire that someone wants you, that you belong. That’s what I’ve been trying to get to here in Florida. That’s sort of like the Trump—I’ve met so many Black Cubans and Afro-Latinos who support Trump and they’ll tell you that he is just like them, and they want to be part of that because that’s what they’ve been aspiring to for years.

Let’s dive into the book here a little bit; would you like to plug it and tell the audience what it is about?

Yes, so the book is called Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity, and the idea originates exactly four years ago. It’s 2016, I’m working on an extensive campaign. I thought I knew the Latino community, I thought I knew who we were as a voting bloc, I thought I knew that, at the end of the 2016 election, the headline would be that Latino voters would overwhelmingly show up and ensure that Donald Trump wouldn’t make it to the White House. Obviously, we were all wrong, the polls were wrong, and that’s what prompted me to write this book. When we were traveling to these battleground states, it was like, “Who are we missing? How have we changed in the last thirty years, and who is always being left out?” The book became this cross-country trip; I went from California to the East Coast, from the border to the Midwest, and I tried to look into these subcultures that, honestly, I barely even thought of while growing up. There’s a lot of conversations with Afro-Latinos, indigenous Latinos, trans-Latinos, people who are never part of the conversation. So It’s kind of a portrait of what I think is the new Latino voice. 

I work at a publication that puts out a monthly magazine. I have a two-week turnaround time between sending that to press and it hitting the streets. I lose my mind over what’s going to change in 2020 in two weeks because day-to-day, it can be a new world. How do you go about writing a book about an election before an election and have any confidence that it’s going to make sense in a week’s time?

I mean, to me, the timing was perfect. There was always this doubt—I just had nine months to do this research hand write the book, which again, this is my first one. From what I’ve been told, it takes years, but I had to do it in nine months. I researched and did stories, and it is relevant in that sense. What I have found in the book doesn’t change; the narrative and the stories are like, “Oh, this is how young Latinos are voting on the issues that matter to them.” “There’s fifty percent that didn’t show up, why is that?” I talked to Latino Trump supporters in the book and now there’s this shocking realization in the media that Latinos are voting for Trump and truly, it shouldn’t be shocking. I do feel proud of being able to capture something that now mainstream media seems interested in. It’ll be the case in the next two years; the story is there, we just never really dug into it.

So between what you were covering and the fact that you worked in the Clinton campaign, looking at this election and how it was playing out, do you think that Democrats learned anything from last time, or did we just eek by, here? Having worked within Clinton, I’m sure you know how things worked internally with Biden—are there still serious missteps in terms of connecting with this group of people, or have they learned?

I think both; they learned, and they learned too late. It’s the same mistake that every single campaign makes. They did invest a lot of money in Spanish-language media, they did have a lot of money, they did incredible digital ads, which I think is always really smart. If you look at the Latino online outreach during the last month of the Biden campaign, it was amazing. The message was right, and I think it worked. You combine that with a lot of the narrative that the President was saying in terms of the promises that he was making for undocumented immigrants and Dreamers, and the fact that he was going to reunite the families with now 666 kids, that was very strategic. That should’ve started happening a few years ago, from the moment he started campaigning, that will always be the biggest mystery. The idea is, once again, once you stop thinking about the Latino vote and in these border states, Latino voters are there, and they can make a difference. That’s always a big problem, and I think they realized that too late.

What are the most important things that a Midwest audience can take from your book, not about connecting with the Latinx community as voters, but as human beings and understanding that identity perhaps in a way that it is a new idea to a lot of them?

When I approached that chapter, I called that chapter “Home” because when I was trying to travel to the Midwest, I was thinking that this was a part of the country that doesn’t feel very Latino, and I was completely wrong. It was the opposite, right? I allowed myself to learn through that chapter. Whether that was Latinos in the music industry, whether it was artists and painters in Minnesota, the food industries in Illinois, people in religious communities in Iowa, the idea is that Latinos have been there—not for the last year but for decades, building and building and building. It’s a culture that everyone is benefitting from: whether you’re white, Latino, brown, or Black, you are taking in a culture that Latinos have been building for years. That would be my biggest takeaway—take a look around you and see the scene that you’re taking in, the food that you’re taking in, a lot of it has been produced by an immigrant or a Latino. The minute you start realizing that, then things start to feel less foreign. That’s why I named that chapter, “Home,” because of all of my travels, the Midwest surprisingly felt very much like home. I felt very loved, I felt very safe, I felt very me. I didn’t expect that. I loved writing that chapter.

On page 232 of your book, you write about this person called “De’Ara Balenger.” It’s a really touching part of the book and I want to know: did De’Ara Balenger have any issue with the first 230 pages not containing information about De’Ara Balenger? [Ed note: Balenger and Wilbur work together on a podcast.]

She has been so supportive. De’Ara and I met in the Clinton campaign and that’s when we started dating. One of the things she would always tell me—she’s Black and Mexican so she’s a Blacxican. We were on the Clinton campaign and I remember that we’d have these Latino meetings and she’d be like, “Well, what about me? I’m Blacxican, so why aren’t I included?” She pretty much was the first person to push me into breaking my own stereotypes about what this voting bloc means. It all started with her and how she emphasized that she didn’t feel part of this community that she grew up with, what beauty meant to her versus someone like me, what it meant to grow up in Minnesota. She deserves a lot more than two pages, for sure. She deserves a whole book, but that’s for the next one.

De’Ara kept saying about you, “Oh well, she’s popping off to another state that has the highest spike in cases and then she’s coming back to me.” What was it like to be a journalist in this year and doing as much interstate hopping as you were doing?

PR: In the beginning, I was quarantined, and in the first deployment, I had an assignment in the Navajo Nation. That was hard because they were, at that point when we went there in April, the Navajo Nation was having the highest infection rates per capita in the entire country. To go from New York, from this little apartment with Giara to fly over there and see the death around you, it was a lot. I think the thing with the quarantine is that it allows me to have more time than I’ve ever had, which is good. I function so much like, Go, go, go” on planes and stuff like that. With this, I have two weeks to sit and take it all in between the trips. I’ve never had that or thought about it like that. I’ve spent four years on the road, to have two weeks to process what you see and take in these stories—and all of them are nightmares, all of them. I’ve been back to the Navajo Nation two times in five months, and every trip that we go back, someone has died, somebody has lost someone. That’s been the case with every story; we go back, and it just gets worse and worse. Yes, it’s a personal risk to be flying, but to me, taking in the loss of these families has been—I don’t know if I’ve been able to truly process that. 

In talking about a book about identity, we seem to be in a time of a wildly escalating lexicon of what identities can be. Three or four years ago, a friend of mine from Portland changed their pronouns three times in three months and settled on a pronoun that I’d never heard of before. I was like, “Okay, so things are going faster than I expected.” Do you think that the things you consider identity now and you write about in this book, do you see them spreading or hyper-specializing? You even talked about your partner who had an identity that wasn’t identified by the Clinton campaign four years ago. Where do you see the Latinx identity going?

People are finally talking about identity among our community. That’s something we haven’t done at all, we don’t even talk about it. We don’t even have the language. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve talked to older folks and people my age and when you say the word Black in Spanish, negro, they whisper. We’re very much in the beginning. The perfect example for me was this week, Eva Longoria was on MSNBC and she was trying to talk about Black votes and Latino votes, and she messed up, right? She didn’t have the language in that moment to underscore how, among Latinos, there are Black women too. So, when you talk about Latinos, you have to make sure to talk about Black people and we don’t know how to do that yet. We’re learning. So, she got scolded, people went after her on Twitter, and then she went back on TV and said, “I’m sorry, I’m learning.” That back and forth amongst us, I believe that’s going to be the next step where people will be talking to us Latinos and telling us how they want to be identified, how they want to be seen in this community and the role that they played in this election. That’s good. I have to be open to criticism, I have to be open to learning, and that’s a good thing. I expect a lot more of it. I do think we’re going through this sort of identity crisis in the Latino community. Truly, it’s interesting. People don’t know how to identify right now: are you Latino? American? Cuban or Mexican? We don’t know, there’s not one term right now so it’ll be an interesting thing to see what emerges from this conversation. 

Finally, what is one thing that you’ve done to keep your sanity in 2020, that other people might be able to try?

Oh, wow. It’s going to be so boring—I’ll go through my list. I’ve picked up running, which I didn’t really do before, and those thirty minutes of running to myself have been so crucial. Giara, like most good millennials, started cooking a lot. I’m awful, awful, awful at cooking but I’ve been helping her. We went through all sorts of phases: “We’re just doing Mexican,” “Vegan-Mexican,” this and that. Being her sous chef was amazing. I feel very isolated in this whole thing from my friends and family, so every day I carve out thirty minutes to talk to my family and that makes the distance a little more bearable. That’s it, pretty basic but it keeps me sane.

Categories: Politics