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Latinos Welcome SXSW Spotlight, But Still Feel Marginalized (Update)

Kety Esquivel/Esquivel McCarson Consulting
The first ever Latinos in Tech event, which took place on March 6, 2014, was founded by the Kapor Center and Esquivel McCarson Consulting.

Update: KUT's Veronica Zaragovia's story on Latinos at SXSW Interactive aired on WBUR's Here and Now today. Listen to the conversation here.

Original story:  South by Southwest Interactive is underway in Austin. This year, there’s a focus on the Latinos innovation in tech – a field where many Latinos face significant barriers. 

When SXSW Interactive kicked off on Friday, people began discussing where Latinos stand in the tech world. Geographically, at least, they haven’t been at the center of SXSW events: the so-called Latinos in Tech sessions took place at a Holiday Inn about a mile from the Austin Convention Center.

At a panel there on Friday, as one blogger typed out tweets with hashtags like #LATISM  (Latinos in Social Media), consultant and Austin taco blogger Mando Rayo asked why they were so far from the action.

"What would be your suggestion to be more integrated into those conversations?" he asked. "The key players? The decision makers? Or being at the convention center?"

Becky Arreaga, a speaker at a session on“Chicapreneurs," said she too was disappointed with the location and low turnout.

"We need to find power behind that and demand next year that we’re at the convention center, because it does feel shameful that we’re over here," Arreaga said.

One of the most famous Latinos to demand fair treatment and inclusion was the focus of a session that followed. And the crowds rolled in.  

Titled “What Would César Chávez Tweet?” the labor leader's son – Paul Chávez –was a panelist.

Chávez says Latinos are heavy users of social media. But he wants more Latinos of all ages to use it for social justice. Low-income Mexicans living in the U.S. already depend on their mobile phones, he says, so older Latinos can learn the technology.

"What we’ve seen in agriculture is that Mexicanos have been using mobile phones for a long time now," Chávez says. "They got away from the fixed-line phones. Many of them have smart phones and they use it for wire transfers for the remittances. So we have organizers, especially young organizers, that are beginning to develop organizing campaigns using Facebook."

By no small coincidence, actress Rosario Dawson was in the crowd. She has a part in a movie about César Chavez that screens today at SXSW Film. She says Latinos are quick to adopt new technologies.

"Eighty percent of Latino adults use social media versus 70 percent of whites, 75 percent of African-Americans," Dawson says. "We really kind of shoot through the roof on every issue when it comes to technology."

But that doesn't seem to translate into Latinos working in the tech sector. A 2010 study by the Department of Labor found less than six percent of workers in computer and math jobs in the U.S. are Latino. 

That can leave Latinos that do work in tech feeling isolated. Deldelp Medina is president of a group called the Latino Startup Alliance based in San Francisco. She says the group has helped her find a human connection in the tech world.

"You can talk about conversion rates and you can talk about user rates," she says. "You can talk the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of how you’re building something and what’s one product versus another. We have those conversations, that’s not unusual but we also talk about the personal part of it. Like, ‘hey how are you doing?’ This is not an easy thing to do, so 'how are you taking care of yourselves?'"

Jennifer Arguello is a tech advisor at the Kapor Center in Oakland, California, which helped organize the Latinos in Technology event with Esquivel McCarson Consulting. 
She agrees that to get Latinos involved, it’s got to be about connecting.

"When you look back at our culture, it’s about familia, and so whether it’s Skype and you’re calling your abuela back in South America or it’s WhatsApp and you’re texting your cousin in Costa Rica like I do, that’s what I want technology to do for me, to connect me to my loved ones and those I care about," Arguello says.

But Arguello says one challenge to leveling the playing field for Latinos – when it comes to tech startups – is that many venture capitalists won’t talk to entrepreneurs who don’t already have some money to invest.

"It’s a network problem so they may not know enough people that can help them out and get the word out about what they’re doing. It’s also an education problem," she says. "And this isn't just for Latinos but the public education system is not necessarily teaching the skills that we need for the future workforce."

And organizers hope the networking and conversations events like this one at SXSW will lead to better – and more – opportunities in the tech sector for Latinos.

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