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Politics, Afrolatinidad & Representation, a conversation with César Vargas

César Vargas is a writer, producer, activist, and social media PR and marketing strategist. He founded UPLIFTT (United People for Latinos in Film TV and Theater) and was named one of 40 under 40: Latinos in American Politics. I met him back in 2013 when he played the male role in a poetry video directed by Erik Maldonado, a/k/a Advocate of Wordz , the first artist I managed.

My first impression of him it was just of a pretty boy who claimed to be an actor, yes I judged by first looks. We really didn’t interact as much.

Once we connected through social media, I discovered who César Vargas is.  Am educated Latino, who is constantly challenging mainstream media by engaging with his followers in conversations (which at times turn into heated debates) to think further, to educate themselves in what is going on around us.

He is not a charlatan and can back up his statements, he has no pelos en la lengua to express his views and is not afraid to engage in heated discussions, without losing his cool.  César is also an activist and through his organization UPLIFTT he continues his work to develop a “forward-thinking community based communication platform, to change the way the broader population sees us and how we see ourselves: as three-dimensional human.”

Without further introduction, my conversation with him.

WA: Tell us about César, where were you born, what do you do?

CV: I’m a Dominican immigrant who is more American than Americans at this point. I was born and raised in a small tourist town, Sosúa, in the Dominican Republic. For the first 13 years of my life, that shaped, to an extent, who I am today. I was brought to the States approximately two months shy of turning 13. I didn’t know a lick of English then. My family brought me to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, pre-gentrification. I was on a hunger strike for two weeks so I can be sent back, but my appetite for Pop Tarts and Lucky Charms at the time did me in. So I stayed.

I was very much a hick as a preteen, but very curious, obedient to a fault, and industrious. I used to build adult puzzles that would take people days to complete in an hour. I would build small towns with mud, pebbles, and sticks. I was pretty much left to my own devices to entertain myself as a kid like many folks grew up during the 80s. Although I did make my own toys, for the most part: trucks made out of milk cartons and bottle caps, for instance.

In the States, I quickly embraced the urban culture. As a survival mechanism and because I was fascinated by it. I learned Ebonics before “proper” English. Eventually, I read everything I got my hands on to “improve” it so I can navigate school and corporate America.

I obtained a film degree from Queens College after switching majors a couple of times. Initially, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Perhaps remnants of my younger years of building things and my obsession with technology pushed me there. Some people used to call me The Scientist as a kid and that sort of stuck with me for a while. Then I figured I didn’t want to be stuck in a room by myself designing toasters—that I wanted to help people somehow. So I flirted with psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Coming from a marginalized people, I realized that those were going to keep me from being upwardly mobile because there aren’t many jobs for us in those fields except for social work. They are Herculean but get paid very little for it. Too hard to live in New York City with that kind of pay. By chance, I saw that my school had a small film program and my grand plan of making it and helping our community formed. It’s a big gamble of hit and miss with it. I was so optimistic at the time that I went for it.

Today, I am many things. I am an image strategist for corporations, orgs, and artists. I get most of my income from there. I am also a social critic and advocate. I write about social issues and have been fortunate and privileged enough to have that published in many magazines—independent and mainstream. Some paid and some I volunteer-—depending on the platform.

I’m not the typical socio-political writer. Thanks to social media and a robust community support, I’m able to write with complete freedom—which feeds into the support and it encourages me to keep writing. I’m very grateful for that.

WA: Why was so important to you to create UPLIFTT (United People for Latinos in Film, TV and Theatre?

CV: UPLIFTT came out of a necessity to write about and stand behind Latino talent from an informed, unapologetic standpoint beyond culture and charity. I spend my time reading science and business articles, journals, and such. I’m well-read on research and wanted to give that an active voice instead of the passive voice from academia that hardly makes any noise to be heard outside those circles. That hit a nerve and took off running. Garnering thousands of fans in months and reaching out hundreds of thousands. The page is still very active, but our website has been dormant for a while. We’ve become more of a hub of information that we think is relevant to our audience.

WA: Latin or Latinx?

CV: I don’t think I’ve ever used Latin or Latinx. I still use Latino, as you can see from my previous comment. At first, I was reluctant of Latinx, just like when I found out I was Latino. But I don’t think I have much say in the term. It’s meant to be gender inclusive or gender neutral, and even though I know Latino is meant to be inclusive of both sexes, I understand why Latinx is necessary for some groups. It’s not up to me to decide that. I’d suggest folks look up the term and read from those who use it a lot more than from those who oppose it. They have the moral high ground and a better understanding of the meaning of words and how it affects us all.

WA: You’ve always been outspoken through your social media outlets about our culture and identity. How important is it for those living in America to speak Spanish to their identity? Is it necessary? If you don’t then you can identify as Latino/a?

CV: I understand, because of the nature of being immigrants and children of immigrants and how we are forced to assimilate, how some of us lost Spanish even though there are other things culturally that remained. Language is part of our identity, but not all or the sole decider. There are some non-Spanish speakers that are more protective of the culture and practice it more than some who speak it. Perhaps because they don’t want to lose themselves in an acultural world. I don’t think Spanish-speakers think much of culture as much as we do. At least to the extent we do as English-speakers and immigrants.

From my experience of living in Spanish-speaking enclaves, I didn’t see much shaming of those who didn’t speak Spanish. Most times I saw our own folks looking down on those who don’t speak English. I’ve seen viejitos asking for help and getting dismissed with contempt or disgust, perhaps because they don’t want to be associated with a group of folks who are seen as lesser than in this hierarchical world. It’s heartbreaking.

WA: Afro Latinidad, who gets to claim it? What does it mean to you and how it is perceived in our community?

CV: Black Latinos get to claim Afro Latinidad. It’s interesting to me that now that the term is being embraced and folks are finally acting brand new that Black folks from Latin America exist, Black Latinos are rejecting the term. They’re even rejecting Latino for more regional identifiers such as Afro Caribbean, Antillean, and the like. Perhaps because of the colonization and erasure, both terms bring them. I’d read more about it from other folks—especially from Black women since they are the ones leading the way there.

WA: As a writer, actor, producer, filmmaker what needs to be done to fight the lack of representation in the industry?   

CV: I’ve been very critical of stereotypical content: negative and positive. I’m also opposed to the platitude of writing our stories or writing what we know. As if Tolkien and Roddenberry lived in Middle Earth or deep space. I understand the importance of preserving our history, but when that comes at the expense of our imagination, when that limits us in what we create and fund, then there’s a problem. And no matter how we dress our stories, people hardly want to see them because they associate them with charity instead of entertainment. People will spend their hard-earned money on entertaining themselves before giving to charity and because we have that good ol’ Catholic mentality of “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” along with the myth of self-made, we hardly consume the content we create. However, there’s room for both, but ultimately, we have to give people what they show you they like and not exactly what they say they like. Those are two different things. You can create your dream project, but in the end, let that satisfy you. Don’t pummel others into supporting that. That drives people away. It’s a cycle of mediocrity we don’t seem to change, and unfortunately, those who get close to Hollywood executives do so because they use identity to get there so they perpetuate that. So we are stuck in this rut and going viral every five to ten years. It’s exhausting.

WA: Tell me about the documentary you are working on with Dorothy Bell Ferrer, when can we expect to see it?

CV: It’s not news that there is a lack of representation of Black voices in both English and Spanish-speaking media. I’ve been writing about it for years. Other folks have been doing this work for decades—way before many of us were born. I used the privilege that I have as a light-skin Afrolatino man, to uplift those who don’t. Dorothy has a very powerful voice that resonates, wounds and heals, and she’s very young as well. There are many young Black women who are as talented and some of them are getting profiled and exposure, but I noticed that Dorothy was getting very little despite her work going viral and that’s for many reasons that lead back to racism, sexism, ageism, and colonialism.

I wanted to showcase the next conversation—beyond Afro Latinidad. The media is always about ten years behind. As you can see the topics of music, the arts, hair takes much of the space, as opposed to socioeconomic issues and that’s because they’re safe. People can consume that content and not do anything besides working on representation. Even then there’s been little inroads. I’m fighting to keep her voice as it is and being very careful to not inject myself into it unless to uplift it. It’s a reason why I chose not to use myself, again, a light-skin Afrolatino man as the face of Afro Latinidad—because I am not. I’m constantly working on being aware of colorism and patriarchy and trying my best not to center everything that affects us around me even if I’m also crippled by those same isms. There are hierarchies, again, and Black women are at the bottom of them. There are plenty of Black women who can represent and speak with more authority than me about it and Dorothy is one of them. That’s why I chose to uplift her voice, with her consent.

Sometimes Black women invite me to speak like I did at a panel at Netroots with Anoa Changa, Michele Watley, Mary Hooks, and Rep, Barbara Lee, but they lead the way. I’m grateful they trust me enough to invite me into their spaces. I tell folks that my voice is monitored and approved by Black women. They empower me so I return the favor as much as I can. As much as I’d like that exchange to be equal, it’ll never be because I enjoy privileges that they don’t have, but I try my best to remedy that. That’s why I tapped Dorothy to do this. To give her a platform that she wouldn’t necessarily get on her own. It’s my small token of appreciation to Black women. I hope the opportunities I get allow me to continue to do more.

I’m not sure when Fusion will release it. I’ll definitely let you know once it is out.

WA: What do Latinos need more of?

CV: We need more business, media, and political literacy. We need more money or at least a better way to manage the one we’re getting to uplift ourselves. We need more caring, unapologetic leaders. We need more people to change, or even dismantle the system. We need more champions of women, the LGBT community, the poor, the young, the old, the infirm… We need to validate ourselves.

WA: What do Latinos need less of?

CV: We need less snake oil salesmen and charlatans. We need less identity parasites in Black and Brown faces. We need less pseudoscience and conspiracy theorists. We need less life coaches and inspirational speakers. We need less delusions and unrealistic aspirations.

WA: You were a big supporter of Bernie Sanders and once he lost the race you supported Hillary, which causes a lot of craziness on social media but I understood why you did that. Now, did you think Trump would become the 45th President of the US?

CV: I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Depending on who looks at it, I was either big, in between, or reluctant because I would also challenge him about things he was doing wrong—such as having a Latino staff at the last minute or not listening to his African American staff. One can’t seriously act like one is going to change things for the better, start a revolution, without bringing to the table those who have been more marginalized. Still, I believe that the policies he was proposing were way better for us than just having a Black or Brown face running the empire.

I eventually unendorsed Hillary Clinton after reading the leaks. I was backing her up, reluctantly, but that was because the other side was a million times worse. There were way too many unethical things done that I did not want my voice associated with. That announcement actually reached a hell of a lot more people than my endorsement of Bernie or Hillary. I think that was read by a few million people as it got about a quarter million shares in social media.

I didn’t expect Trump to win. I was shocked into silence. That’s because I tripped into the mistake of listening to mainstream talking heads. Nothing good comes out of listening to them. So I stick to independent Black and Brown sources now.

WA: How losing DACA impacts our community and this country?

CV: I think there are other folks who can speak with authority on the subject—way more than me. There are plenty of them that get media exposure. I’d listen to what they have to say. I do support them, though. They matter as much as anybody else.

WA: Now with what’s happening now regarding Harvey Weinstein, in the sports world, the #Metoo movement…as a man what are your views about this culture of silence that has been around for so long, especially in our communities? Obviously, women had enough and are fighting the patriarchy, by all means, necessary but how can men do better and also join the fight?

CV: I listen to women. I try not to inject myself too much into those conversations unless I’m addressing my friends. Even then, I echo what women are saying because I’m not the authority there. I couldn’t possibly be as man. I can sympathize, for the most part, and empathize as a marginalized person, but that’s as far as it goes. I’m as guilty of partaking. Not to the extent of a serial rapist, and even though I’ve gone as far as to take a couple of courses in women studies and read from women scholars, I’m still constantly catching and correcting myself. The road to consciousness could be long or short, and the short way to get there is by listening to women about these issues. I try to do that to the best of my abilities.

We’re all trying to protect ourselves to the point of hurting ourselves. Fighting patriarchy and rape culture is dangerous—even for men. So I understand why folks are silent in most instances. I understand why there’s internalized patriarchy. From what I’ve read, the burden is on us men to dismantle it. I think there are plenty of incentives, but we act like we don’t see them.

Men should definitely join the fight, but they shouldn’t grab the mic, become the faces of such movements. Not everything has to be centered around us.

Again, I’d read what women have to say about it and us men should work on holding ourselves accountable. Let women lead the way.

WA: Let’s talk about Colin Kaepernick, do you support his movement? (why yes or why not) Do you feel the NFL is trying to silence him for exercising his freedom of speech and to cover their racism?

CV: Colin Kaepernick is a movement. I fully support what he’s doing and I admire his courage. Police brutality against Black and Brown bodies is real. Being targeted, harassed, and executed is real. I’ve written about my own experiences and how I’ve been harassed for walking or driving while Latino. So I appreciate he’s using his privilege to bring attention to that.

I think it’s obvious he’s being penalized for what he’s doing. Anyone who fights for the marginalized is always penalized. We penalize ourselves. Extreme scrutiny and a million excuses are always used as a cover-up. Always be conscious of those.

WA: How does the future of our stories/history look like for you?

CV: At this point, many heroes are coming to be because of a necessity, but I wish that wasn’t the case. I rather we all lived in harmony, financial stability, good health, and peace than to look up to folks who are fighting to get us those. That’s ultimately the end goal.

WA: What would you like the next generation to know?

CV: The next generation knows a hell of a lot more than mine or the one before mine. They’re more educated. They are more conscious. They see bullshit from a mile away and reject it. There’s a storm coming. We either join them or get washed up.

WA: Writers read, correct? What are you reading now?

CV: I read mostly everything that comes in my path. Politics, social issues, business, culture, tech, science. I’m very fond of independent media and Black and Brown voices. I am also fond of peer-reviewed research. So I spend most of my time getting informed and consuming those. It helps me with my writing and to form my own opinions.

WA: What’s on your Playlist?

CV: I listen to everything. One day I might be in the mood for the Pixies, REM, the Cranberries, Tan Biónica, Shakira, and other days I might put on Miguel, Romeo Santos, Antony Santos, La Insuperable, Drake, Cardi B, Bruno Mars. I listen to Beyonce, 50 Cent, Britney Spears, Catie Waters, Tina Turner, Rihanna, Lil Uzi Vert, A Boogie Wit A Hoodie, Kodak Black, Biggie, Tupac, Lauryn Hill, My Chemical Romance, Tokio Hotel, and many others. My taste is eclectic. I’m not a purist and I don’t romanticize genres or times. There’s good and bad content coming from different people, genres, and epochs. That keeps me in tune with the times.

WA: What is next for César Vargas and UPLIFTT?

CV: We’ll continue to coast with UPLIFTT. Times are changing and my focus has been on other projects. I just finished writing a short fantasy that was commissioned by a good friend of mine. I got a $100,000 investor for my Shoeshine Boy story. I’m in Europe right now working on bringing my On The Road to Consciousness show back up—since the Some Kind of Spanish short I wrote and directed along with Dorothy’s mini-doc took most of my time. Those two were funded by Fusion and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. Too much, but there’s a will. I’ll make the way.

For more on César Vargas, follow him on social media: Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. 

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About wendyang

Wendy Angulo is a New York City born Latina, raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Wendy is a mother, writer, lawyer and the founder of Wendy Angulo Productions, an organization whose goal is to support, encourage, and promote poetry and visual arts in the borough of Queens. Wendy, re-discovered her love for writing in the summer of 2011 after attending a spoken word event in Queens. She then joined the New York City Latina Writers Group where she has been an active member and has taken on the role as the organization’s Program Director. Wendy is an essayist who is currently working on her Memoir. She has read her work at several venues throughout New York City, including Nuyorican’s Poets Cafe, East Harlem Cafe, Sankofa Sisterhood, Camaradas and has been published in the online journal Mom Egg Review; she is a 2016 VONA alum and the sole creator/curator and producer of Canvas of Words, an art and poetry showcase that birthed of Wendy’s desire to bring the arts back to her beloved borough of Queens. Wendy continues to scout for new talent and build new connections to perpetuate the arts and strengthen the literary community.

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