Global City

How Latinx VR founders are shifting the future of storytelling for the Latinx community

Latinos in emerging technologies empower diverse voices in storytelling through democratizing the storytelling

When you google “VR Latina”, the entire first page is about virtual reality Latina porn. The first non-pornographic result, is at the top of page four – a Remezcla article about Rosario Dawson voicing a Latina teenager in a VR film. Then, it’s more porn.

Martha Mendizabal, the co-founder and executive director of TecnoLatinx, an emerging technologies lab that partners with organizations to make educational experiences for diverse communities using emerging technologies, is working to change that.

“We exist to shift that paradigm and empower diverse content creators, to celebrate diverse cultural stories, to change the narrative around diverse women in the emerging technology field,” Mendizabal said.

According to a Greenlight VR consumer study, racial and ethnic minorities are more aware of emerging technologies. The Hispanic/Latinx community is 13% more likely to be VR aware than their white peers. Many leaders in the field of emerging technology identify as Hispanix/Latinx, including Nonny de la Peña, the founder and CEO of Emblematic Group, known for their award-winning VR, AR and mixed reality content. De la Peña is known as the “Godmother of virtual reality.”

The democratization of storytelling

A major part of the ethos of storytelling using emerging technologies is the democratization of storytelling, a concept referring to empowering people to tell their stories and making it more accessible for them to do so.

For Robert Hernandez, an associate professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California and the founder of Jovrnalism, one of the ways to democratize storytelling is to democratize access to the technology needed for AR/VR content. “One of our mantras in journalism is to give a voice to the voiceless, but one of the problems of, and the reality is, who determines who gets a voice? We often do that, but the editorial leadership often does not reflect the community it is trying to serve,” he said.

According to Hernandez, the internet has decreased barriers. “I view emerging technologies as the next phase of that,” he said. “Regardless of your economic status or what your education is, if these tools get put into your hands, you have a story to tell.”

Jovrnalism is currently working to use emerging technologies to tell stories about the foster care system.

Empowering people to tell their own stories, even if they are telling them poorly due to inexperience, is an important step, he said. “That way, more voices are being heard, as opposed to only the ones that could afford the camera, or afford the headset, or could afford to go to university,” he said.

From Tijuana to Wall Street: How TecnoLatinx Became a Virtual Reality

In a way, the internet was an impetus for the creation of TecnoLatinx. Mendizabal was born in the United States, but grew up in Latin America, with Tijuana as the last city she lived in before moving to the U.S. “I had to start in the beginner levels of English as a second language, and that really impacted how I felt; a bit of an outsider and an immigrant, really, because I wasn’t able to communicate.”

A college student in the mid to late 90s, a time when the internet was already being utilized at the home and in schools, Mendizabal said she never used the internet until she was a college freshman. “I wasn’t exposed to it because the schools that I went to were Title I underserved,” she said.

She said this made her feel like an outsider. “I remember just having a class in computer science and building a website, but then not realizing that I was at the portal of this revolution,” she said. “That always stood with me and it stood out to me how foreign I felt in technology, if you will.”

Mendizabal met her co-founder, Nadia Muñoz, at a pre-law boot camp to increase diversity in the legal profession. After they both moved to New York, Munoz became an intellectual property lawyer and Mendizabal worked as a derivatives broker on Wall Street.

Working in finance, she said she began to notice how new waves of technology were emerging. “The new hardware, that new way of computing, reminded me so much of the Internet – like the basics of the computer, the PC, the software. If you understood the software, the opportunities were right there.”

TecnoLatinx’s work has primarily involved teaching emerging technologies students in East LA and Boyle Heights. During their Migrant Mamas collaboration with the Las Fotos Project, a non-profit that seeks to empower teenage girls from communities of color using photography, they had to create the first molcajete on Google Poly, a digital library where users can browse, share, and remix 3D assets. On one of the largest repositories of 3D images, they created a piñata among other images.

A VR piñata. (Google Poly/TecnoLatinx)

“By having a library that’s culturally available and that culturally relevant objects, we empower these future creators,” she said. “It’s one asset, many uses. The piñata that was created for us in a virtual reality experience could also be projected in an augmented reality way to different platforms and different uses.”

Bringing VR into the classroom

Ryan Reede became aware of TecnoLatinx two years ago, when visiting Self-Help Graphics, a Chicano/a art collective in Boyle Heights. Reede saw kids trying VR and noticed a woman, Martha Mendizobal, administering the tech. “I guess she thought I was one of the kid’s brothers,” he said.

In fact, he’s the CEO and co-founder of Teleportal, a platform that allows XR developers and content creators to share networked experiences in real time. He is currently focused on working on products, such as tools for filmmakers, better ways to do 3D scene layouts, etc. “A lot of this technology has become democratized from a hardware perspective,” he said.

Teleportal is the brainchild of Reede and Thomas Suarez, better known as 12-year-old app developer from a viral 2012 TEDTalk. Both grew up on the same city block in Manhattan Beach, California, but never interacted because of the five year age difference. Reede, 25, met Suarez, now 20 years old, through a friend that was the executive assistant to Suarez’s mentor, Stuart Krasnow. At their first meeting, Reede said they spent three hours geeking out over the tools at Islands.

“He didn’t really have anyone to geek out with because he was in high school,” he said. A string of fortuitous coincidences led to a new, innovative business, but not everyone is lucky enough to have the opportunity to get involved with emerging technologies at a young age.

"Maya's World of Wonder" was created by Maya, a participant of the S.O.Y. Artista summer program co-hosted by TecnoLatinx and Self-Help Graphics. (Google Poly/TecnoLatinx)

According to Reede, many of the students TecnoLatinx work with are in East Los Angeles. “Their unified school district is sorely underfunded and there’s just a lot of broken systems that these kids are growing up in.” He said that while kids growing up other areas, such as his hometown Manhattan Beach’s school system, might have access to these tools, other school districts are not so fortunate. TecnoLatinx is working to breach that gap.

Reede noted that this was the first time he saw children using VR. “They just pop in and the world goes away, and they are silent and creating.” He stayed in touch with Mendizobal and started volunteering at TecnoLatinx events.

“You very quickly realize why you’re doing what you’re doing when you give a kid their first opportunity to use VR,” he said.

“They just start trying it. They just light up.”