Latinitas: Teaching Girls Empowerment

Editors Note: This story originally appeared in Digital Issue V. 

A group of young girls type away on a computer after school on a sunny afternoon at a local school. These girls express their voices as part of a program that allows them to write content and contribute to an online magazine for issues that matter to them and their peers such as beauty and college.

Story by Angela Bonilla

Photos by London Gibson

  Tallulah Wilson, Maia Rodriguez, Sophia Karamer and Marcie Hernandez.

Tallulah Wilson, Maia Rodriguez, Sophia Karamer and Marcie Hernandez.

Co-CEOs and University of Texas at Austin alumnae Laura Donnelly and Alicia Rascon started Latinitas as a class project in 2002. Over time, it grew to become a non-profit that continues to help young Latinas. According to their mission statement, the purpose of the organization is to “empower Latina youth by using media and technology.”

Latinitas serves young Latinas from kindergarten to 12th grade throughout Texas. The organization uses technology to help young Latinas become successful in the future. Latinitas is headquartered in Austin and El Paso. “It was started as a service learning project to help the Latino community in media and communications,” Rascon says.

  Maia Rodriguez, Esme Moreno-Bernacki and Tallulah Wilson play around before they get to work.

Maia Rodriguez, Esme Moreno-Bernacki and Tallulah Wilson play around before they get to work.

Donnelly and Rascon were first introduced to one another in a Latino media studies class through their professor. “I wanted to create a magazine that addresses the lack of representation of Latinos in images and the newsroom,” Donnelly says. Rascon grew up loving teen magazines but also noticed there wasn’t enough diversity in those publications. “I thought it was important to give young Latinas a voice,” Rascon says.

As journalism graduate and undergraduate students respectively, Donnelly and Rascon began their class service project geared toward the Latino community, particularly young Latinas. “We did focus groups and we surveyed,” Rascon says. “We definitely got a lot of feedback from Latina teens that felt that mainstream media was not reflecting the Latino community.”

In 2003, the first issue of Latinitas offered content for young Latinas and was written by college students. Since the second issue, the writers for the magazine have been the girls who come through the program. “We have published our magazine online twice a month so we continue to publish the magazine for girls to have an outlet to express themselves,” Rascon says. She adds that the magazine gives hundreds of girls a chance to have their voice heard and express themselves.

  Hannah Pirie listens to instructions on how to make a podcast.

Hannah Pirie listens to instructions on how to make a podcast.

Donnelly and Rascon decided to take it a step further and start a non-profit in 2006 by creating an outreach program to the community. Since then, the program has grown regionally. Rascon is now the head in their El Paso headquarters and Donnelly leads the Austin headquarters. Some 20,000 young girls have come through the program. “In Austin, we work with 12 schools with 200 girls in the program,” Donnelly says. “We currently work with 4,000 girls a year throughout Texas.”

Latinitas offers programs that promote advancements in technology and media. These include after school programs, a weekend workshop in public housing, summer camps and the Chica Conference. Through the different programs, the non-profit goes to different schools four times a week, mentoring young girls and exposing them to different technologies such as coding. “In Austin, there is an increase of technology and we want the girls to be able to not only do media but also know how to code and do robotics,” Donnelly says. “The girls do art projects, photography, ideas, graphic design, and they learn about app design and web design as well as coding,” Rascon adds.

Conferences are held on weekends and give young girls the opportunity to hear from guest speakers on topics like health, business and higher-level education. “We work with different universities to get our programs out there and expose the girls to different college campuses,” Rascon says. This year, the Austin conference will teach the girls to code their own app.

  Charlie Ortiz, Claudia Guerrero, Ella Williams, Maia Rodriguez and Marcie Hernandez pick sound effects for their podcast.

Charlie Ortiz, Claudia Guerrero, Ella Williams, Maia Rodriguez and Marcie Hernandez pick sound effects for their podcast.

Donnelly says she has seen girls get a self-esteem boost when they build a website. Girls that come through the program feel like they have a place to express themselves and build their confidence in learning new things. Many of the girls are inspired to go to college and better their future. Donnelly recalls the story of one former Latinita who ran away from home because her family tried to stop her from attending college by throwing away her college acceptance letters. She now attends Texas State University.

Girls in the program also benefit from being around other girls like themselves. “Girls come in the program and think it’s cool since they have not been around girls a lot,” Donnelly says. Past participants have returned to Latinitas as mentors. “They have said that we are part of the motivation that encouraged them to go to college and start thinking about their future, which is very exciting for us,” Rascon says.

Past writers of the magazine are now working as writers for national media as well as local media. “That’s really exciting for us to see them spreading their wings, growing, and being a strong voice for our entire community,” Rascon says.