Even when Varela got to Harvard, where he graduated cum laude with a degree in History and Literature of Latin America, he didn't stop fighting. Varela took out loans and worked for six years in his publishing job to pay off his Harvard education. He also spent a year scrubbing dorm toilets as a freshman. It wasn't until his grandmother left him money in her will that he was able to pay off his education in full. Varela is incredibly proud to have worked his way through Harvard, listing his alma mater as his first descriptor on his Twitter bio.
"On graduation day, they just handed me an envelope with a piece of cardboard in it," he said. When he returned seven years later with the last payment for his education, they finally awarded him a diploma. "They blew the dust off of it and handed it to me. It was a great feeling."
Varela is also the descendant of fighters, he says, including Congressman Mario Biaggi, a New York City cop and U.S. Congressman who was an outspoken representative for the Bronx from 1969 to 1988, but ultimately ended up serving 2.5 years in prison over corruption charges.
Varela's passion -- which he claims as his greatest strength and greatest weakness -- has been channeled more productively through Latino Rebels, he says.
"Opinions in certain situations can either harm you or help you. I'm somebody who says the emperor has no clothes a lot -- and sometimes people don't want to hear that," said Varela, who became a paid contributor at NBC Latino last year, after Latino Rebels took off in its first year.
"Love Us, Hate Us, You Can't Ignore Us"
As with many opinion-makers, not everyone agrees with Julio. Latino Rebels has some outspoken critics, probably the most vocal of which is Think Mexican, a Tumblr blog which aggregates news and culture relevant to Mexicans in the U.S. The blog has repeatedly accused Varela of trying to capitalize on the plight of Mexicans and or of working for big brands, including Fox News Latino.
"For those not aware, @latinorebels is the work of a Puerto Rican marketer using the image of Emiliano Zapata to appeal to Mexicans. Scam!," the site tweeted back in November of 2011.
Varela defended his site from their attacks in this post, and ended up blocking the Think Mexican account, and sending its leader a letter from his lawyer.
"How do we make money? From our clients," he wrote. "We make no money from our followers, nor do we ask them for money. Clients hire us to run their social media accounts and to get to the key under 25 demographic of Latinos in the US and Latin America."
Although Varela is guarded about which brands he currently represents (he says he can't name some of them under contract), he claims that at least one is a Fortune 500 Company and none of them are Fox News Latino. Varela formerly consulted Univision on Spanish-language social media strategy.
His consulting work allows him to pay the bills at home, along with his wife who works full-time. With their two middle-school aged children, Varela and his wife live in Milton, a suburb of Boston. His consulting also allows him to offer about $50 in compensation to some of his bloggers for four posts. The Latino Rebels site doesn't sell ads yet, and so doesn't make money from their content.
But, Varela says that what some like "Think Mexican" don't understand is that for as diverse as Latinos are "we have more similarities than we do differences." It's important we stick together, he says.
And for as much as his critics dislike him, his supporters adore him.
Latino Rebels has over 13,000 Twitter followers and 33,000 Facebook subscribers.
Charles Garcia, the Latino Rebels contributor and co-founder of the "Latino Rebels Foundation" as well as "Latino Rebels Radio" with Varela, says that "Julito" is "fearless," an hard worker who often pulls "all-nighters," a "deep-thinker," and a "giver" who "has never been driven by money."
The new Latino Rebels Foundation aims to fight discrimination against Latinos in the media and politics and provide scholarships to young Latino journalists and filmmakers. Its board members include journalists like Rick Sanchez, Pilar Marrero, Adrian Carrasquillo, and Fernando Espuelas, among others.
"You have to understand that Latino Rebels is not a money making venture – it's a money and a time suck, a bottomless pit," said Garcia. "So Julio spends a lot of time doing secondary ventures in order to keep food on the table, while Latino Rebels is this other part of his life, like an all-consuming hobby he's deeply passionate about."
But even some who say Varela's heart is in the right place, don't always agree with his outspoken opinions. Laura Martinez, a blogger who covers Latino media and will also sit on the board of the the new foundation, says sometimes Varela is just too sensitive.
"[Latino Rebels is] giving Latinos a voice they haven't had before, but I don't agree with them all the time," she said. "And that's okay."
Martinez thinks Varela was misguided when he went on Colombian radio to argue that Sofia Vergara was damaging the image of Latinas in the U.S. Similarly, Martinez disagreed with Julio when he went after The Daily Show (the initial inspiration for his Rebels site) for a skit on Cinco de Mayo. Julito called it "condescending" and said "it didn't work." Martinez thought it did.
"The bit was not only funny, but why can't we be doing that?" Martinez asked. "Why can't Latino media be making fun of this kind of stuff, parodying American's ideas of Cinco de Mayo and all that. I thought it was brilliant."
But Varela welcomes the criticism. "Love us or hate us, you can't ignore us," he said of his critics. Not everything has to be a hit, he says.
"We take risks, 9 times out of 10, or 99 out of 100, its the right risk," he said. "We'll miss one or two, but you know what, so does the AP."
One of those risks might even be a change in direction, redirecting the focus of the site away from just Latinos and to a broader general market.
"I think the problem right now is that I'm also interested in stories that are not 'Latino,' but the problem is by creating a niche for Latinos, you get noticed," Varela said.
"I'd rather stop talking about immigration and media perception of Latinos, because it means if we can stop talking about it, that means we've done our job. Eventually, in five years, if I change the name of LatinoRebels.com to Rebels.com that means we've succeeded.""
But some think the Latino community needs him too much.
"I think it's a bad idea for him to move to the mainstream," said Laura Martinez. "We don't have a Latino Al Sharpton, we need a Latino Al Sharpton. He's the closest thing we have to it."
It's doubtful that Varela would ever stop defending "Latino" causes in this lifetime. He says his new Latino Rebels Foundation will be his next step to inspire future generations of Latino leaders.
"I'm done just complaining. I want to do something about this," he said.