NB: How, as a Latina, has your background played into your work?
ESL: I’m an El Paso girl; it is and will always be my home. Even as I have made other homes for myself, El Paso is where my family and loved ones continue to reside and where I go to see my parents, my brother and my primos. It’s a really special place and I feel so grateful to have been born and raised in a binational community that is truly on the border – and to have the benefit of being both Mexican and American. I know that makes me a better and stronger person, and it makes me who I am.
I left El Paso at 18 years old to go to college at Stanford University, in the Bay Area. It was the first time that I lived outside of a majority Latino community, and faced the challenges that come with that. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go to such a great school and to understand the broader world around me.
I am not a first-generation college graduate, but I am the first generation in my family to leave home for college and to have that experience. I’m very grateful to my family for letting me go, for overcoming that fear of the unknown and letting me be the first in my family to blaze a new trail. They didn’t put up any barriers for me; in fact, they told me to dream big and supported my decisions.
Thinking back on what it was like to leave home at 18, and not having that precedent in my family, makes me feel proud of myself. And that is a feeling that I’ve continued to have while being the first one or one of the few, if any, Latinas or women of color in my career. It continues to be a part of my experience, especially working in a corporate environment.
Going to Stanford, and leaving El Paso for Northern California, was the first time that I found myself out of that safe element of being with my people, and needing to find my self confidence. I had to believe that I belonged and that there was a reason why I went to Stanford, and I’ve kept that belief in different environments professionally and personally since then.
NB: Any words of advice for those who might feel the same, whether in college or in corporate America?
ESL: I will give the advice I still give myself: We deserve to be where we are; we add value from a different perspective, and it is actually a superpower to be someone in the room with a different perspective.
We’ve seen, and hopefully will continue to see, more appreciation, especially for the work that we’re doing. I think it’s everybody’s role, no matter where you’re coming from, to be a strong communicator, to reach other people and be cognizant of different communities and cultures.
I’ve found that being Latina helps me understand and be more open about how to reach other demographics, even if I’m not a part of them. There is power in being different and in lifting up others who are different in other ways, too.
NB: Coming from a Latino community, you have a very good sense of inclusion and bringing others to the table. How does that play in the work that you do now?
ESL: There’s so much diversity just in saying that we’re Latinos. We are from different countries, we are Indigenous, we are Black, we are Asian and white. We contain multitudes.. Though there’s a special unity in being Latino, we’re not monolithic.
In the work that I do now leading social impact campaigns at the MTV Entertainment Group at Paramount, I am very privileged to think about how to engage our audience, how to educate them and how to activate them on some of the most pressing social issues.
For example, when we develop a new campaign related to youth voter engagement, a big part of the MTV legacy, I think about including the many different kinds of Latinos but we also look to engage young people of color, young queer people, and those coming from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s an expansive view that is critical to the success of the work that I do and the overall success of a large media company that, given the power that we have as Latinos and our focus on young people, needs to be multicultural.
NB: Looking at your work, I saw a quote that I loved: “It’s not only comedy critique, but rather comedy constructive.”
ESL: Every brand at the MTV group at Paramount seeks to leverage comedy. When I started working in the company, I was the first head of social impact for Comedy Central, and I really relished the opportunity to go beyond the punchline and not just get the laugh. Of course, the primary focus of the Comedy Central content is to be super funny, but I feel really proud that I found opportunities to go beyond that and inspire the audience to take action, whether related to a voting campaign or something else, like mental health.
A major area of focus for my work is mental health. Helping people take action for their own emotional well-being or helping them learn to take care of the people around them is a part of shifting our culture of mental health from awareness to action and it’s work I’m very proud of.
NB: What was your ‘ponte las pilas’ moment?
ESL: All the time! Ponte las pilas was not a phrase I grew up with. I learned it from Latino social media accounts, and when I first encountered it, I immediately thought this was a version of my family’s “échale ganas”.
One of the most life-changing career events for me was the Sandy Hook shooting. I was working for a nonprofit issue advocacy organization funded by Mike Bloomberg, and that tragedy made me and so many other people do something about it. Out of that, a new movement of Americans working to address the really critical problem of gun violence was born, and I’m really proud to have been part of the founding team, and to have built and executed the communications strategy for the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country: Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
I think that’s one of my strengths, being able to recognize opportunities for what we can do, even in a crisis. It is something that I’ve done throughout my career, even beyond the tragedy of gun violence in America: seeing a problem and figuring out, no matter where I am and what I’m doing, if there is something that we can do to be part of the change necessary to fix it.
That’s part of the MTV social impact campaigns that I lead, and I feel lucky to think that way and to know how to leverage what I have at my disposal. In a media company, we have the power of our brands, our shows, our talent, and the partnerships we make at our disposal to create change on the most difficult social problems. I am grateful that my life’s work is focused on these kinds of challenges.
NB: Who is your Atrevida/o/e preferida/o/e?
ESL: I want to highlight both of my grandmothers, my Mexican “abuelitas” who shared the similarities of not being handed easy lives but through resilience and love, made the most of their time they were given.
On my mother’s side, my “gramis” Dolores or Lola. She immigrated to this country and was a homemaker and built a really strong family – something I’m very proud of. She had a lot of limitations in her life and, even still, her strength of character, faith and positive spirit through difficulty is a significant part of who I am.
And on my paternal side, my grandma Amalia or Mollie. She was a small business owner. She started her own medical collections company and it was a very radical thing for a Mexican-American woman to do in the 1950s. Even in El Paso, she was an anomaly and I am really inspired by her example to be bold enough to do new things, even in the face of other people around you not necessarily thinking that’s for you to do. She really showed them.
NB: ¿Suerte o sudor? What percentage do you attribute your success to in terms of luck vs. hard work?
ESL: My balance is in hard work. I know that I’ve put in a lot of work in any accomplishment that I’ve achieved but that does not discount being in the right place at the right time or meeting the right people that can help you get there. Now having grown in my career, I understand that I can, and hope to continue to, play that role for others. But meeting the right person or being in the right place at the right time was also an outcome of my hard work.
I think the critical element is the sudor, to putting in the work of figuring out what your skills and strengths are and building on those muscles. I feel grateful for the luck, too, and know that they work together in tandem. But the first part requires putting in the mental sweat and effort.
NB: Is there any last piece of advice that you want to share?
ESL: It’s the advice I give myself, consistent with this conversation: believe in yourself.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to talk about my grandmothers because, in those moments when I feel uncertain or unsure in my position, I remember how they believed in me and how my parents believed in me. I don’t think that my ancestors could have imagined who I am today. And every time I have to prepare for a presentation, an interview, or any other challenge, I remember them and how much they believe in me — and with that, I can believe in myself.
I hope that everyone watching, listening or reading this conversation can remember their values and believe in themselves, too.