May 20, 2013 -- 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.
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.