AUSTIN, Texas (WOMENSENEWS)–Alicia Rascon and Laura Donnelly met as journalism students in a spring 2002 University of Texas-Austin class on Latino-Latina culture and the media.
Talking together, they knew what was missing: Latina teens and girls didn’t have a magazine that was really about them.
"We had a stack of about 20 teen magazines and looked at all the covers," Rascon recalled. "There wasn’t a single Latina on the cover. We didn’t see Latina bylines."
"Most media for girls is not necessarily for all girls," added Donnelly, a native New Yorker of Cuban, Peruvian and Irish descent. "There were no youth-protagonists in films who were not like drug dealers, gang members. Even if you look at Jennifer Lopez, she’s only played a Hispanic once or twice, and that was to be a maid."
Now, four years later, both women have graduated and are holding full-time jobs. On top of that they are also producing Latinitas, "Little Latinas," the only online media by and for Latina teens and girls. It reaches readers throughout the United States and as far away as Australia and Peru.
Although 17 million Latinas live in the United States, teen magazines showcase mostly whites, say Rascon and Donnelly.
To the extent the magazines did cover Latinas, they found an emphasis on teen pregnancy and drop-out rates.
"I wanted something deeper on why this is an issue and how do we overcome it," said Rascon. "When we decided the theme of the magazine, we decided it should be success-driven and empower the girls, highlight the positive things; how Latinas are being successful and accomplishing their goals."
New Content Monthly
Latinitas is actually two magazines on one Web site: one for high school teens, the other for those age 14 and under. New content is posted monthly.
"I’ve gotten e-mail from the only Latina in her school in Australia," said Rascon, a native of El Paso. "She said that kids were making fun of her and that we were the one place that made her feel great."
Putting out the magazine is a community-wide effort in Austin, a metro area that is about 35 percent Hispanic.
Working with the city school system and local philanthropies, the two entrepreneurs run six regular weekly after-school workshops–one at a high school, one at an elementary school and four in middle schools–where adult volunteers act as coaches for reporting and editing, Web design and photography. Other schools also invite the group to run occasional workshops.
"By the end of 2006, we anticipate we’ll have served 1,000 girls through our direct programs," said Rascon.
Because many lower-income girls lack Internet access at home, Donnelly and Rascon are seeking advertisers and sponsors to add a print edition by late 2007. They say many Latina teens in their workshops want a magazine to take home and share with friends.
Rascon works in marketing at the Austin Children’s Museum and Donnelly is a public relations freelancer. Neither has earned a penny from Latinitas, on which they each spend between 10 and 40 hours a week. Beginning in June 2007, both will begin receiving a stipend, Rascon said, but it won’t be enough to let them to quit their other jobs.
The project’s annual budget of $50,000–raised from local corporations, individuals, fundraisers and earned income–mainly covers equipment costs. IBM has donated some laptop computers, locally-headquartered computer maker Dell donated $2,000 and Austin Energy contributed $10,000.
The founders hope to some day offer compensation, if only $10 an article, to their young writers.
The two women started Latinitas as a college class project, launching a first edition in spring 2003, which they and other student volunteers wrote. Computer science major Angie Ayala volunteered as Web manager, a position she still holds.
A health article on smoking, a first-person account of battling a negative body image by a self-described borderline bulimic and a review of a local Mexican American rock band appeared in the first issue. Next came a "day in the life of a college Latina," by a first-generation college student.
After the first issue was launched without any publicity, a Nebraska elementary school teacher and a California college professor contacted Rascon and Donnelly, eager to share Latinitas with their students.
The founders then registered the site with search engines and began receiving e-mails from readers who said they were excited to find the magazine. They issued a round of press releases and Latinitas in August 2003 received its first news coverage, in the El Paso Times.
When the media class–along with free university Web-site hosting–ended, the class professor, Federico Subervi, donated $500 to purchase Web site hosting and domain names so Latinitas could continue.
Rascon and Donnelly continued the project as a nonprofit, volunteer effort while they completed college and worked other jobs.
Around that time they also had another inspiration: If they were serious about encouraging young Latinas, they should involve them in the editorial process. "Instead of being for Hispanic girls, we wanted it to be by and for them, to engage girls in developing media," said Rascon.
That’s when they approached a Hispanic mother-daughter program sponsored by Austin’s Junior League, part of the national organization that began in 1901 in New York City, when wealthy women raised money to aid Lower East Side immigrants. The Austin chapter knew that Hispanic girls were attending college at lower rates than non-Hispanics and wanted to support activities that would change that.
At that first workshop, Donnelly and Rascon assigned the girls to write newsletters about themselves and then had middle-schoolers interview those in high school about how they were preparing for college. "We collected that work and published a lot of it," said Donnelly.
"They were echoing a lot of the same concerns we had," Rascon said. "All the girls on the teen magazine covers had straight, blond hair, blue eyes, and they knew they did not fit that mold. It really affirmed I wasn’t the only one feeling this."
The pair began thinking about how to create a structure for engaging girls and teens in the production process. The Austin school district welcomed their offer to create a weekly after-school program for middle-school girls, who would learn about writing for the magazine along with Web design and photography.
"I’m 35 and Alicia is 27," said Donnelly. "I work with the girls but we still don’t really know what their teen issues are. The nonprofit program allows us to get direct feedback from girls."
Latinitas still operates without a physical newsroom. Workshop students as well as readers around the country submit by e-mail to teen editors in workshops who mull over submissions. All the material then goes by e-mail to three-year volunteer managing editor Sandie Taylor, who works out of her home to ready it for publication.
Krystella Rangel, 16, last spring saw Latinitas publish her diary about her struggle to quit smoking. Recently, she wrote about her strategies for getting good grades. Among them: "Dodge class distractions" and "Ask questions without hesitation."
Suzanne Batchelor is a Texas-based independent journalist.
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