Text by Carlene Majorino
Between this year’s gigantic, media-hogging Comic-Con and last month’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, geek culture is blossoming, going well beyond the realm of the outsider. For too long, geeks were defined by that guy down the hall in college who still played D&D and went to Renaissance Faires. But there are geeks of all stripes. There are immensely smart underdogs who hide out in basements and brilliantly inventive pioneers who face public ridicule for the passion they have about chess-playing computers.
Then there are the geeks of a lesser god—people who feel strongly and almost romantic about … superheroes who wear watches. And there was Einstein, a relativity geek. There’s Steve Jobs, a tech geek. Bill Gates is a philanthropy geek who wears much less geeky glasses now that he’s rich. On the other hand, hipster geeks wear glasses from the ‘80s—the very ones Gates would deride now as too geeky. Ultimately, no matter their caliber or financial status, they all have something in common: they pursue their passions with the intensity of a full-time job.
Despite the fact that the word “geek” can be derogatory (Random House Dictionary says it’s “a term … often considered offensive when used by outsiders”), it can also connote wealth and success. If what a geek fetishizes becomes trendy (or gets made into a movie), they’ll wear the geek badge proudly. But if the subject matter is impractical or too complicated, the “geek” might as well hide out with his companions in the deep recesses of a vinyl store, where tumbleweeds gather.
When people imagine such geek gatherings, they probably picture a lot of white people. But these days, many geeks are Latinos. In fact, geeking out is actually an adaptation to the unique challenges of Hispanic life today.
There have always been visible Latino geeks, of course. The Casualities. Dora the Explorer. Hugo from Lost. Even the Smiths and their passionate L.A Latino fanbase. But behind the scenes there are countless Latino specialists who are committed to their fields—writers, producers, directors and inventors.
Only the most loyal fans probably realize that one of the Star Trek series’ main writers, René Echevarria, is Cuban. (Maybe he’s the guy who came up with the half-Mexican character of B’Elanna Torres from Star Trek: Voyager.) In addition to his writing/producing gig for Star Trek, Echevarria was the executive producer of several series during his career—but the guy barely has a Wikipedia. This year, Echevarria has an MTV series coming out, but you might not hear his name at all.
And we can’t forget, of course, all the Latino geek heroes of the comic book world, like Joe Quesada, Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Publishing for the last 10 years. He’s the first-ever EIC of the company who’s also an artist. Before his editing days, Quesada drew and wrote for many comic books globally known today, like Batman, Daredevil, Iron Man and The Amazing Spider-Man.
Then there are Los Bros. Hernandez, who, in the 1980s, created comics that reached out to the middle-class and grabbed the attention of Latinos and non-Latino comic geeks alike with their cliffhangers about modern life and romance. Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez grew up in a big family in California and saw some tragedy and some heartbreak—and the characters in their most famous series, Love and Rockets, reflected such experiences. That’s what made the Hernandez brothers popular—their characters were everyday people, and they were relatable.
Especially compared to a skinny dude in tights who becomes a spider at night.
Look beyond Pedro Sanchez in Napolean Dynamite and you’ll discover more serious indications of Latino adaptation to geek culture. There are numerous signs that Latino culture is embracing the high-tech lifestyle more than other ethnic groups. A recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that, among study respondents, just 33 percent of Caucasians used cell phones with Internet access, while 51 percent of Latinos did.
The difference may be attributable to dissimilarities in usage styles. According to a July story on NPR’s program Tell Me More, Latinos are using their mobile devices for a larger variety of features than do Caucasians, in addition to using them in more frequently.
Mark Lopez, chief operating officer of Terra Networks USA, one of the country’s largest global digital media companies specializing in producing bilingual content, told Tell Me More host Michel Martin that there are practical considerations behind the trends.
“Really, it is about the utility of the device,” Lopez said. “Can that device get me closer to a family that’s far away in my home country? It definitely can. I can send video. I can send pictures through the device, some things that a few years ago, I couldn’t do with my mobile phone.”
Since many Latinos have family internationally, they’re using features like MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) more often than simple SMS (Short Message Service, aka “text messaging”) in order to interact with their loved ones far away.
“For us, it wasn’t a surprise,” Lopez said. “Latinos tend to overindex in consumption of content on the Internet as well.”
Lopez’s company conducted a later study of Latino Internet habits and found that Latinos also blog in greater numbers than Caucasians do, and utilize more social media. Out of necessity, therefore, Latinos have become tech geeks.
Blogging about pop culture is common among Latinos in the U.S. because it draws connections between young Latinos’ roots and their day-to-day lives. The most popular Latino-created websites about movies, books and technology attempt to make connections between aspects of American pop culture and that of Hispanic countries.
A WordPress site called Actualidades has a slogan that reads, “LEARN SPANISH THROUGH POP CULTURE,” and its multiple daily posts feature everything from music videos to news stories to comic strips which are then turned into language-learning activities. Whether it’s a description or interview in Spanish that accompanies each post, the learning begins after, when the author defines the highlighted key words and lists questions à la “critical thinking” for the reader to answer in Spanish.
And for those who already know Spanish, Actualidades, which translates to “current affairs,” can double as a standard geek culture news site: On May 25, Actualidades celebrated El Dia del Orgullo Friki—Geek Pride Day. The post included a proper translation of the often-misinterpreted word friki, some history behind the holiday and a video made about the occasion that features small children giving synopses of various geek staples.
Even bloggers who don’t tailor their content specifically to Latino or Spanish-speaking audiences make their heritage known. Ef Rodriguez, a social media strategist from Colorado, has his own blog whose subhead reads, “GEEK CULTURE. SOCIAL MEDIA. BOULDER. LATINO FLAVA.”
Aside from blogs, there are large websites that bring “Latino flava” to the masses. The popular film-review site Latinoreview (funded by ads for companies like Toyota and Amazon) is for the Latino audience and by the Latino audience.
The site’s “About Us” section provides some insight into the concept: “In 2000, the Latino population consisted of 32.8 million residents in the United States, not including Puerto Rico, representing 12 percent of the total U.S. population. We want to bridge the gap between the misrepresentation that is quite obvious in the entertainment industry. Despite having 12 percent of the United States population, we make up only 2 percent of all the characters that appear in television and movies, according to a report released by the Hollywood Reporter. It is our goal to help the Latino community bind together and let our voices be spread.”
Strangely, almost none of this ideology is apparent on the site. From the home page to the profiles to the reviews, it seems to be pop culture journalism by Latinos. The site’s Latino presence and ability to create its own unique coverage of what’s largely created by Caucasians is what makes the content potent. It spawns interest in Latino culture—and in geek subcultures, too—and gets non-Latinos thinking about why it’s so important that Latinos have their own pop-culture review site.
Are the guys at Latinoreview geeks? Are they part of a multicultural renaissance in geekdom? Only they can answer that, and they should. Because those of us who are geeks—and we wouldn’t be writing for this magazine otherwise—we need all the amigos we can get.