Fierce Women Podcasters
By Flo Mitchell-Brown |
Good things happen when women come together, especially when it’s a conversation with women podcasters and filmmakers of color about how emerging Afro-Latina voices are reshaping our country’s cultural identity. At “Fierce Women Podcasters,” a webinar hosted by New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT), moderator Barbara Vásconez led a talk between Rocio Mendez, Mercedes Ilarraza, Grasie Mercedes, Ona Oghogho, Sola Adenekan and Julissa Contreras. All masters in their creative fields, they shared thoughts on struggling with identity, creating space for women of color and podcasting’s current power to effect change.
Questions of Identity
“I knew I was a Black woman, but the world didn’t give me the vocabulary to say I was a Black woman,” said Julissa Contreras, a Bronx-born writer, poet, actor, innovator and creator of the Ladies Who Bronché podcast. In kicking off that dialogue, Contreras touched on a difficult topic to which all participants could relate. “I didn’t call myself Black until college,” said Grasie Mercedes-Garcia, an Afro-Latina actress, writer, director and host of the podcast Not (Blank) Enough. “I never fit in anywhere, because I was not Black enough, not Latina enough, not white enough, not American enough.” The dynamic of straddling different worlds, often unsuccessfully, shaped early childhoods and had painful, long-lasting effects. “For so long growing up, I’d say, ‘I’m not Black, I’m Dominican,’ and it was this weird identity crisis,” said Rocio Mendez, an award-winning actor whose podcast focuses on embracing and celebrating blackness in the Dominican community. “Doing this podcast for me has been a journey of self-love and finding the community that I resisted for so long because of white supremacy.” She shared her struggle to overcome moments of childhood oppression, like being given bleaching cream for hair, and how growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood—which at the time was predominantly Puerto Rican, Jewish, Irish and Italian—led to internalized racism. “The only dark-skinned Dominicans I knew were my mom and sister,” said Mendez. For all the women, embracing Black or Latinx identities was the start of a healing process that led to finding their own voices.
Taking back power often starts by identifying where the deficit exists. “One thing I noticed while moving through media as a Black woman and Latina is there are so few of us in front of and behind the camera, so few who control distribution,” said Sola Adenekan, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founder of Transit Media, a podcast production company that creates socially driven content. “I had to do something to help fill this gap in our community.” Among other ventures, Adenekan teamed with a DACA recipient and went to Texas soon after the El Paso mass shooting in August 2019. “It was powerful to have our influence be behind the camera in the stories we were choosing to tell in different parts of Texas and Mexico,” she said. Ona Oghogho, the founder and CEO of Blk Pod Collective, a digital community for Black podcasters, remembered attending early podcast meetups and feeling discouraged by the lack of diversity. “I started asking, ‘Is podcasting for Black people? Am I missing something?’” she said. That question prompted her to dig into the existing landscape and craft new ventures that quickly took off, as entrepreneurs and organizations began seeking her advice on how to manage podcasts as part of successful marketing strategies. For Rocio Mendez and her business partner, the Dominican-born actor, writer and director Mercedes Ilarraza, the process of building a podcast community involved bringing together disparate “guests who are doing dope things who are Dominican,” like “the stylist celebrating our curls” or a historian who could help educate on Dominican history.
The Power of Podcasts
“Over the last few years, podcasting has revolutionized the way we consume media and created a new entry point for traditionally underrepresented voices,” said NYWIFT Board Member Zenaida Mendez, who produced the panel. “NYWIFT is thrilled to bring together some of the brightest new leaders in podcasting to discuss how the platform can amplify the Afro-Latinx experience, especially at such a critical time for inclusion in our nation’s culture.” For the women who took part in this discussion, the power of podcasting extends beyond its ability to change the current representation of mainstream media. “I want to empower the next generation,” said Sola Adenekan. As part of the Media Makers organization, she and others provide internship opportunities for college students of color who are interested in media careers. Ona Oghogho had what moderator Barbara Vásconez called “the quote of the panel,” when she said, “I am the sauce.” Meaning, as influential women in media, the goal is to empower others by giving away knowledge, information and ideas rather than living “in a place of scarcity,” while resting secure in the knowledge that no one else will be able to create the same work you did. No one else will have that secret sauce.