When he was 15, Jeffrey Almonte started recording his opinions and posting them on YouTube. He’d been on the platform since age 11 or 12, he says, but it wasn’t until a few years later that he “started getting into the whole ranting about current events.” Five years later, he’s still ranting—and his social critiques have garnered the attention of thousands.
One of those critiques screened in September at the 2016 Official Latino Short Film Festival in New York City, where the Harlem-based artist came away with a YOUNG TRAILBLAZER AWARD. “I Am Not Spanish” challenges people to examine the names they give themselves and others, focusing particularly on untangling some of the questions confronted by black Latinos.
Jeffrey sat down with me recently to talk about this film, the slipperiness of labels, and what he wants to do before he dies.
Hip Latina: In your video “I Am Not Spanish,” you deconstruct your identity, being careful to draw the distinction between your nationality—American—and your ethnic and cultural heritage. It’s interesting because even as you devote so much of your work to identifying the nuances of these identities, you seem equally invested in distancing yourself from them, debunking the labels. Is this a conflict for you—wanting to understand labels but also wanting to reject them? Or do you think that understanding labels is the only way to be free from them?
Jeffrey Almonte: Well, yeah, of course. You have to know your enemy in order to destroy it. I have this whole video where it’s like, “Race doesn’t exist.” And people look at it and they’re like, “Oh, so if race doesn’t exist, then why do you always talk about this? And you’re always ‘race-baiting.'” Yeah, race doesn’t literally exist. It’s not an actual thing. It’s just how you look, a class structure. It affects us. I remember one comment, “Race doesn’t exist but racism does.” That’s basically the simplest way that you can put it. It’s the same thing with sexuality. Sexuality is so fluid. Sexual orientation—those labels, you know, “gay,” “straight,” “bi”—doesn’t actually exist, but homophobia does. The stereotyping and the concept of that label and trying to categorize someone, that’s what does actually exist.
HL: Kind of continuing in the same vein—this paradox has come out a lot during my interviews for [Hip Latina]. So, for example, Latino actors will speak about the stereotypes they’ve had to deal with in the industry, casting directors who want them to appear as the embodiment of the, like, “perfect Latina”—like, “darker skin, sexy, wears dresses”—and the ways that this kind of thinking has inhibited their authenticity. But then in the same interview, later on, they might say something about how they’ve got that “Latin passion” or like, “You know, I’m Latina, so I’ve got—” some stereotypical quality that they’ve clearly embraced as a positive thing. So there’re these two conflicting conversations happening concurrently, and I think there’s truth in both. How do you reconcile the notions of individuals as supremely unique and individuals bound by these shared experiences like gender and cultural identity or sexuality?
JA: Yeah, there’s culture. It’s funny because we label ourselves and then we get mad when other people use the same labels. But I think when we label ourselves, it’s more of a reclamation of those labels. It’s almost like the word “nigga.” I think it’s just that, we want people to understand, this is us, this is what we’ve built, yes, this represents us. Like, yeah, us Latinos, we have that nice flair, but at the same time, don’t make it seem like that that’s all that we are. I’m myself as well. It’s the conflict between individuality and society. The anarchic mind of, “Yeah, I wanna do me, don’t label me with these people.” But then, if we get too isolated, it’s like, “Wait. I want to be part of this.” So, it really is, like you said, a paradox. But I feel like there’s a balance. There’s a middle ground.
In terms of the industry, I feel like people just want to do it themselves, you know what I’m saying? They want to write their own characters. They don’t want someone else to say, “This is what Latinos are.”
HL: One thing I like about your work is its ability to hold multiple perspectives at once. This comes out a lot through your representation of different characters that you splice together. Do you remember when you started to develop this device in your performances?
JA: Probably since I started rants. Even when I didn’t realize, I would make voices of other characters. That’s when people actually were like, “Oh, you should make skits, because I feel like you’re a good actor. You make these weird impressions of different people in the neighborhood and you should do that.” I didn’t know what a skit was. And that’s when I started to make different characters into skits. For as long as I can remember, when it came to my videos, I would always do that to show some kind of perspective: say my opinion, say a counter opinion by impersonating someone.
HL: Is there also an element of, like—when you do those different characters—are you kind of acknowledging some dissension from the viewpoint you’re arguing?
JA: Yeah, sometimes it’s inner conflict. Like when I’m formulating my own opinion. I like to think of opinions and beliefs as separate from actual entities—the people. So it’s kind of like, when you would say that someone is racist, it’s not that they’re racist—they’re just a person that has been subdued by racism. It’s an idea in their mind that’s controlling them, but it can be easily separable once you show them different perspectives. There’s kind of the same thing in my brain, where I’ll have an idea, and I’m like, wait, is that idea truly correct? Bring up a new perspective, try to put yourself in a completely different set of shoes, and it can either destroy your initial opinion or it can strengthen it.
HL: Any future moves for you? Like, what’s your vision?
JA: I want to revolutionize the way people think about their opinions, and their relationships to their opinions. In terms of before I die? I just want to be known as the best writer of the 21st century.
–Anna Cherry is a writer and editor in New York City. She tweets @unacereza.