It all started about two years ago with a textbook racist joke.
"Why would you want a Mexican car? 'Cuz cars reflect national characteristics, don't they?" joked Richard Hammond, one of the hosts of BBC's Top Gear. "Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight ogre, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat."
Julio Ricardo Varela, a then 41-year-old Puerto Rican blogger who had recently left his publishing job at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, came across the video online and like many who watched it, wasn't amused. When BBC took it down from YouTube, Varela found a copy and uploaded it to his own player on his personal blog JulioRVarela.com.
Thousands who wanted to find the video came to Varela's site, where he accused BBC of trying to cover up the whole controversy, labeling the video "lame and racist." His blog was inundated with traffic.
And so the idea for Latino Rebels, one of the most talked about Latino-centric sites, was born.
One night soon after the Top Gear video incident, Varela saw an episode of The Daily Show which left him determined to create a site to fill in as the "Latino Daily Show." The next day, Varela, who once frequented Boston's improv comedy circuit, purchased the domain name LatinoRebels.com and out of pure coincidence, on Cinco de Mayo of 2011, the site went live.
At the time, Varela wrote that one of his primary objectives was to "expose those so-called patriots who are quick to use ignorance and hate to spread lies about Latinos living in the United States."
Latino Rebels took a red star with five points, a symbol sometimes associated with communism, as its icon. But Varela insists that the choice had nothing to do with a political ideology and that he picked it from a crowd-sourced design effort simply because it "felt cool and edgy."
On the political spectrum, Varela thinks of himself as moderate.
"We don't all drink the Obama KoolAid. I'm kind of middle-of-the-roader, which is funny, because everyone thinks I'm a leftist," he said. "I've learned to kind of ignore that."
His friend and fellow "Rebelde" Charlie Garcia pokes fun at Varela for being "the intellectual offspring of a liberal northeastern Harvard education and all baggage that brings with it."
"I'm resolved to make him feel uncomfortable in his little intellectual cocoon, indeed to break him out of it," said Garcia, a marketer and businessman who says he brings to the Rebels a political ideology "formed at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the mid-West" and "in the jungles of Central America teaching counter guerilla warfare to militaries trying to shake off communist insurgencies in the 1980s."
Garcia recently joined the Rebels, a group of about 30 bloggers that includes many of Varela's close friends. Despite their political differences in other respects, the Rebels say they are intent on "kill[ing] stereotypes with humor, insight, [and] compassion" and empowering the Latino community. Other Rebels include Efrain Nieves, Tony Vargas, Bella Vida Letty, Charlie Vázquez, Tony Diaz, Odilia Rivera Santos and Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria.
Varela said he was determined from the beginning to make the site not just about himself, so he publishes the posts of most bloggers under the name "REBELDES," although sometimes he himself contributes with the name "JULITO." (His father is also named Julio, making him Julito to friends and family.)
Latino Rebels' primary focus is not "hard journalism," according to Varela. Instead, the blog brings attention and commentary to controversies that affect the Latino community, calling "No Mames" (Mexican slang which loosely translates from Spanish to "Stop messing around") when politicians or corporations step out of line.
"We're kind of the 'Hey, look we found this' kind of place," said Varela, who is now 43.
Varela is also intent on engaging his online community through constant back-and-forths on Facebook, Twitter, and in comment sections. His persistence has resulted in the most active commenting community in the Latino media space. Nearly three-fourths of his traffic came from Facebook last year.
However, Latino Rebels is still fairly small, and its WordPress design still somewhat rustic. Since its inception two years ago, the site has gotten nearly a million unique visitors and has built a very engaged online community largely comprised of bilingual, bicultural young Latinos, according to Varela. For comparison, The Huffington Post, one of the most trafficked news sites on the web, boasts 250 million uniques a month, but much of their traffic stems from Google searches over community engagement.
Still, Latino Rebels in many ways shapes conversations about Latinos in bigger outlets by being the first, the fastest, and the most opinionated. Where many "legacy" news sources refrain from offering harsh critiques of the media and corporate America, Latino Rebels dives in head first, often with the loudest and harshest indictments.
Some of their first big stories include a post calling out the Coors "Emboricuate" campaign as being degrading to Puerto Ricans, a video of Puerto Ricans burning an American flag during President Obama's visit to the island, and a Facebook meme featuring a farmer named Jesus.
It's hard to exist in the Latino media space without taking notice of Varela and his site on a daily basis. He's a disruptor, and an agitator, and it's clear he loves what he does. I've long wondered, how many Rebels are there really? Why no by-lines? Does every Rebelde agree with every post? (The answer to the last question is no, not always.)
Varela and I have been engaging on Twitter and Facebook since earlier this year, but after I watched his site play an integral role in bringing down La Comay, a homophobic puppet on Puerto Rican TV, I knew I wanted to know more about the head rebelde in charge.
Julio, The Fighter
Moving from San Juan to the Bronx at the age of 7, Varela said he had to learn early to defend himself. When he moved to the Bronx to live with his mother due to his parents' divorce, he was picked on for being named Julio and called a "spic" at age 10 by one of his classmates at school.
"I fought, I had to defend myself, it was nasty," he said of his middle school brawls. Later in life, Varela had to defend himself against the charge of not being "Latino enough," because his mother is Italian American. He says it's taken him into adulthood to fully resolve his complex ethnic identity.
"I've heard it all, I've heard it all, it's like 'Oh you're American, you're from the Bronx, you grew up there, your dad is from Puerto Rico," he said. "It's just like 'I was born in Puerto Rico, mancha de platano, get over it, I'm a hundred percent boricua, get over it," he said, invoking the island's slang to his imaginary aggressor.