learning to speak up
Latinitas helps at-risk Hispanic girls find a voice through creative technologyand media
The news story punched me in the stomach like an ugly bully: a young girl brutally raped at homecoming by a gang of boys, while other students — including a bunch of girls — watched and recorded it on their cell phones.
It was only the latest in a series of similar stories I had encountered about vicious attacks on girls, with the extra nightmarish detail that none of their friends had gone to their aid. I looked back on my high school days, where my friends would have scratched out eyes to protect me from harm. As a news reporter, my gut instinct is to fight back — and if that doesn’t work, to use my voice and tell the story.
It struck me that those girls had, for whatever reason, lost their voices. They were either brutalized to the point of silence, or they’d never known they were allowed to speak up, or they had been taught that it was far more important to be liked.
Or, as my friend Laura Donnelly says, they thought such treatment was in the realm of normal.
"Their indifference comes from the barrage of images they see in media that normalize degradation of women," says Donnelly, a cofounder of the Austin-based group Latinitas. "And Latinitas is teaching girls to shift those perceptions themselves."
The story gripped me because I knew that if those girls had allowed that to happen to one of their own, they were not far from allowing it to happen to them. And that is a trend far too dangerous — not just for girls, but for women — to let continue.
In a society that already views women as second-class citizens, the worst thing that can happen to our gender is to lose our voice.
I had always been a “girl power” kind of a woman, but that news story — from far away in some California high school — pushed me to look for ways I could actively change this. I wanted to tell today’s girls: “Your voice is the single most important thing you own. USE IT.” Then, as if someone had whispered in her ear, Donnelly invited me to be on the board of directors for Latinitas.
Latinitas, as its name suggests, focuses on young Hispanic girls — the nation’s most silenced and struggling demographic among today’s youth — and seeks to empower them through technology and the media.
“They’re the least heard population in this country,” Donnelly says. “A lot of girls grow up in families where you are encouraged to be polite, don’t show off, all that. And for Latinas, that’s 100-fold.”
The Austin-based group helps them escape the chains of gang life and poverty and domestic violence and low expectations — which can just as soul-killing as a drug addiction. Latinitas mentors and club leaders teach them to write news stories and video scripts, to interview, to take pictures and use computers and build web pages.
These young girls produce the nation’s only online magazine for young Latinas. In short: the group teaches them self-expression, helps them formulate their opinions, gives them a forum to speak to the world. It teaches them that they can have power. Latinitas helps girls find their voice.
Cerece was an 11-year old at Latinitas camp this summer. The students were told to film something in nature, and then write a short abstract to be read as a voice-over. Cerece’s theme was “love.” She didn’t want anyone to see it. Nobody would want to hear it. Her thoughts didn’t matter. People would think it was terrible. Donnelly showed it anyway — that was part of the assignment, after all — as a terrified Cerece cried in the hallway, unable to watch the reactions.
Then, when she discovered that she had survived the ordeal, something amazing happened to Cerece.
The very next week at camp, she started stepping up to take leadership roles. She began writing letters to the editors of national magazines asking them why they insist on photoshopping women. She went on public radio with Donnelly to tell the world how media helped her express herself. Through her encounter with Latinitas, Cerece found her voice.
Why are young Hispanic girls, in particular, so in need of a group like Latinitas?
Because they are — more so than boys, and more so than African American and white girls — most in danger of being silenced.
Hispanic girls have a higher rate of suicide attempts than any other demographic. They also have the highest rate of teen pregnancy, the highest dropout rates, the highest rate of substance abuse.
“All the greatest threats to your health or wellness as a teen” plagues these girls more than anyone else their age in the U.S., says Donnelly, who co-founded Latinitas ten years ago at the University of Texas-Austin with then-fellow student Alicia Rascon.
Donnelly and Rascon came up with the idea in journalism school when they realized that Latinas are only portrayed in the media as prostitutes or maids or welfare queens and never as anything resembling role models.
Next month marks 10 years since the first magazine was published. Some 20,000 girls have gone through the Latinitas program, which has expanded to El Paso and now includes a paid staff, curricula for school districts and a board of directors.
“We get stressed out about the statistics,” Donnelly says, “but I also feel like they’re going to change, if given the tools. These girls are going to do amazing things.”
Latinitas is registered member of I Live Here, I Give Here. You can donate to Latinitas directly from our site using the new donation tool below.