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Desert Companion

Making their voices heard

latinos_who_lunch_by_krystal_ramirez_3.jpg

Photography by Krystal Ramirez

Lunch mates: Emmanuel Ortega, left, and Justin Favela have inspired dialogue - and laughter - with their podcast.

On their podcast, Latinos Who Lunch, Justin Favela and Emmanuel Ortega mix food, pop culture and identity politics into a defiantly brown voice for the Trump era

Two days after the presidential election, Las Vegas artist Justin Favela is in his Downtown studio, fielding calls from friends and family during a special edition of Latinos Who Lunch, a podcast he cohosts with his friend Emmanuel Ortega. Normally, he and Ortega are lunching in the studio (the title is a take on the song “Ladies Who Lunch,” a nod to the queer aspect of the show), but his cohost is out of town, and their laughter-infused discourse on pop culture, art, family, world history and identity politics is on hold, as is the audible chewing and bilingual banter.

“We usually come out every other week, but with all the events happening right now, we thought we need to get this out,” Favela tells listeners somewhat solemnly. “I’m calling a bunch of people, trying to get people’s thoughts just so I can figure out what I’m feeling.” The president-elect’s inflammatory rhetoric has half of the country on edge, and that gives this episode, titled “Call Your Raza,” a special focus. (Raza means race.) Cousin Celeste, the first caller, compares the hate in America’s divided sociopolitical climate to drug addiction’s rock-bottom moment — that is, a requirement for getting better — to which Favela interjects: “We’ve hit rock bottom, now we have to go back to rehab.” His brother Brandon, disappointed in himself for not voting, says he wants to learn about the electoral college, and is in step with the assertion by other guests that calm and civility is the appropriate response to the election of a candidate who famously made harsh comments about race, particularly regarding Mexican immigrants, maligning them as “rapists” and “killers.” Nobody wants to feed into Trump supporters’ expectations of them.

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Eventually, Ortega calls in from Albuquerque, where he’s finishing his PhD in Ibero-American colonial art history, and laments the “display of white supremacy in comfortable shoes.”

“The hoods are off,” Favela says. “It’s showtime for a lot of people.” Later, he adds, “We need to make sure our presence is known.”

 

Brown power

Beginning with the first episode, recorded in Ortega’s home on borrowed equipment, presence has been the thrust of Latinos Who Lunch. In more than 20 episodes, Favela (aka “FavyFav”) and Ortega (“Babelito”) have championed brown podcasts and amassed a multicultural following, as well as nods from Latino podcasts. They’ve broken-heartedly mourned the death of flamboyant Mexican singer Juan Gabriel, critiqued Frida Kahlo’s mainstream popularity, deconstructed the Olympic ceremonies in Brazil, discussed the white male privilege of land art, talked about the problem with Hamilton and delved into the complexities of identity and culture. Episodes begin with food, some chewing and a note about what they’re eating: huevos from a Central-American restaurant, Mediterranean tacos, turkey sandwiches, pizza or arepas. So casual is the show’s vibe that the crinkling of bags and food wrappers is audible. Long pauses and sighs are not edited out. The show is designed to reflect the realness of the conversation between the two friends, and they want to keep it genuine, calling each other “gurlll” as they bounce between intellectual discourse, giggles and occasional ribbing, sometimes fumbling with the recording equipment and wondering if the show’s actually being taped. Guests and callers often come from within their own circles, and conversations might end on a personal note — “I love you” or “Say hi to Mom.”

As queer male Latinos, well-versed in media, art history and divergent elements within different Latino communities, they are, as one listener put it, adding “brown to the sea of very beige podcasts.” A review on iTunes called it, “Smart, witty. Everything my Mexican-
American self always wanted.”

“We are doing this podcast for us and for people like us,” Favela says, sitting next to Ortega in his Downtown studio a week and a half before the election. An artist-in-residence studio at Juhl, it’s a spacious, high-ceilinged storefront covered in piñata-inspired artworks, some of which are headed to the Denver Art Museum, where Favela will be featured in a February exhibit.

“There are a lot of white people, a lot of my white friends, who listen to the show and love it because they say they learned a lot, or they didn’t realize certain things, and that’s really awesome. But when Babelito and I started thinking about the show, we thought, We’re not going to cater to white people, because everything is for white people. If we focus on making something for us, for people who sound like us, for people who look like us, talk like us and smell like us (laughs), eat like us, people are going to be able to relate to it. I’ve lived my whole life having to code-switch and to put on a filter so that white people aren’t uncomfortable. Now it’s my turn to be comfortable, and it’s okay if white people don’t relate.”

“The podcast at least interrupts people’s thinking for one day,” Ortega adds.

It also serves as a reminder of paradoxical race logic, as when Favela points out during the “Call Your Raza” episode, “You can’t be the crazy brown person. You can’t be the crazy black person, because no one listens to you. But you can be the crazy white person and be elected president.” The frustration of that logic pours through at times during the show, which is one of hundreds linked to on podcastsofcolor.com. The show has made it onto Latino USA’s list of podcasts to listen to right now, and in September, Latinos Who Lunch was Google Play’s podcast of the week. According to Audio Boom, their shows have had 18,000 listens. Favela says the podcast averages 1,000 downloads a week on Audio Boom and iTunes. He and Ortega advocate for other “brown podcasts,” linking to their favorites, interviewing other hosts and even collaborating with podcasts such as Super Mamas and Tamarindo Podcast in Southern California.

“We’re connecting with other podcasts around the United States, and we’re pushing each other to become better, for our voices to encourage other voices to become part of the conversation,” Ortega says. “What we’re trying to do is encourage this conversation outside of this medium.”

Lunch mates

Filling in the blanks

The two met at The Cosmopolitan’s Liberace exhibit, where Favela was gallery manager. Ortega, an academic who doesn’t like to call himself an academic, is California-born, his family moving to Las Vegas from El Paso and residing in Juarez before that. Favela, a Las Vegas native and local history enthusiast, received his BFA from UNLV. He was the only Nevada artist represented in last year’s prestigious State of the Art exhibit hosted by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and was one of 17 Southern Nevada artists featured in Tilting the Basin, a show of Silver State artists compiled by the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno.

Theirs is an engaging matchup. Ortega is more comfortable speaking Spanish and Favela with speaking English. When the podcast launched seven months ago, both were already consuming podcasts by people of color. “We have been hooked on black podcasts for a while, and we wanted to hear that in our community.”

The two are filling in the blanks of an American story in real time, or, rather, squeezing in notations where there had been no room for them: “In this country, they never teach us Latino history,” Favela says. “They teach us black history because you can’t ignore the fact there were slaves here. You can ignore the fact that they lynched thousands of Mexicans after the Great Depression because they didn’t need us anymore. They don’t teach us that in history class.”

In an episode about the Life Is Beautiful music festival, where Favela turned the entire front of a Downtown motel into a pink piñata, the artist explains that the project used Mexican symbolism to create visibility for Latinos in Las Vegas: “There are so many brown people working behind the scenes, making the city run. Construction, cleaning. A lot of my family built the casinos that are up. And we’re not part of history. Nobody’s talking about us. So making a building that’s covered in a piñata — that’s visibility.”

But issues concerning all people of color are addressed unabashedly. An example: In the same episode, Favela reports that some white people wore Native-American headdresses to Life Is Beautiful (there were also whites in dashikis and Afro wigs). He began filming them, asking if they knew that what they were wearing was offensive to some people.

“Why don’t you put on a bonnet if you want to represent your own f--king culture,” he says.

“All these appropriations, it’s disgusting,” Ortega adds.

They’re not just critical of white people. The episode “Cholosploitation Nation” — chola is a complex cultural term that sometimes indicates gang affiliations, amid other meanings — takes on a chola “workout video” that features a comedian exercising in his backyard, an offense — it seemed to be a mocking stereotype — that resulted in the hosts inviting Favela’s tia Jessica, aka Cha Cha de Chola Pinup (her name as a member of the nonprofit organization Chola Pinup) into the studio to discuss the treatment of cultural stereotypes, even by someone within the culture.

“Let’s get to the point,” Favela says in the episode. “We’re recording this podcast after I saw some really f--ked-up shit on Facebook, just to be honest. … I watched like 30 seconds of it, and I just had to turn it off. But people tag me in these videos because hey they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re Latino, don’t you think this is funny?’”

“Cholosploitation Nation” quickly becomes a fascinating podcast, with tia Jessica, who grew up in the ’hood where Favela also grew up. She shares her personal history of being chola and discusses the evolution of the cholo culture from that of violent gang reputation a few decades ago to one of community, family and advancement: “Now we’ve grown up. We want to be positive in our community and give back.” In reference to her mother, who is now a college student, Jessica says, “You can’t spell scholar without ‘chola.’”

 

‘I felt like I knew these guys’

Some of the episodes, much like Favela and Ortega themselves, are smart, sincere, casual and blunt. “There are certain things that we’re trying to open the dialogue for in the podcast, and there’s a lot of things we’re trying to do,” Ortega says. “We’re not going to be careful with what we say to each other, because I’m having a conversation with Justin in the podcast, and that’s it.”

That is a big part of the appeal of Latinos Who Lunch, says Luis Octavio, who operates the L.A.-based Tamarindo Podcast with Brenda Gonzalez and says he loves the mutual support and praise of brown podcasts by other brown podcasts. “The moment they started talking, I felt like I knew these guys. I felt like they were my friends. They were so relatable. I just felt like they were talking to me.”

Octavio, who has worked in media, says big corporations put out content for the Latino community that’s very formal, news-oriented and on the straight and narrow, while other outlets put out jokes and nonsense. Latinos Who Lunch is different, he says. “They deliver important information. They educate the listener in a fun and engaging way.”

On the air, they humbly mention being approached by fans and note humorously that the fan mail coming in is no longer just from their friends. Their negative comments about white people, they say, are presented within specific contexts and are not blanket statements about all white people. “I’m not racist. I have three white friends,” Favela says with a laugh. But beneath the sarcasm is a serious intent and the desire to share their slice of reality.

“The reason that we’re doing it is because Favy and I have been having these conversations for two years, and we sit down in a coffee shop and talk, and we’re both so stimulated about what we’re talking about,” he says. “Finally, we’re like, We got to record this shit. We got to record these things, and sometimes I don’t think about who’s listening. Sometimes I forget that we’re recording.”

To those shocked by the election results, Ortega, in “Call Your Raza,” reminds listeners that America is not living in a post-racial society just because it elected a black president: “This is proving everything we’ve been talking about, and people have not been listening and paying attention.”

During “Call Your Raza,” while the two discuss how to respond to the election of Trump, their conversation is interrupted by a call from podcaster Juanita Monsalve, from the show Choices & Chismes.

“I was literally on the phone with Babelito,” he tells her on the air.

“Oh, that punk,” she says warmly.

Favela introduces Monsalve to listeners and says, “I told Juanita to call me today because I wanted her voice on our podcast because it’s such an amazing show that they have, and I really want to know what’s on Juanita’s mind.”

Her take: “This is real,” she says, talking about the way that “this random man” rallied people together under the umbrella of racism, adding, “A lot of people need us to be there,” for podcasters to come together, create community and protect one another.

After which Favela tells listeners, “If you’re thinking of starting a podcast, now is the time to do it. Stop messing around. Go get some cheap mics. We need more brown voices out there. We need to be heard.” 

After which Favela tells listeners, “If you’re thinking of starting a podcast, now is the time to do it. Stop messing around. Go get some cheap mics. We need more brown voices out there. We need to be heard.” 

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