TFW I’m Latina: How Instagram Comedian LeJuan James Helps Me Navigate My Identity

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In 2016, if you want to tell someone a joke, you tag them in an Instagram meme. A few months ago, my cousin tagged me in this video, commenting, “wait. cuz. do u know LeJuan?”:

Hispanics Parents when you leave a mess in the Bathroom. Pt.1 "Towels" #TeamLeJuan

A video posted by LeJuan James (@lejuanjames) on

LeJuan James” is the nombre de usuario of dominicano and puertorriqueño comedian Juan Atiles. The caption on the Instagram video my cousin tagged me in reads, “Hispanics Parents when you leave a mess in the Bathroom. Pt.1 ‘Towels.’” It depicts Atiles, a bearded man in his 20s, impersonating an older woman, presumably a mother figure, after someone off-camera has used the “wrong” hand towels to dry their hands on — despite the fact that the hand towel he’s referring to looks like the only towel in the bathroom with which to dry your hands. It has tens of thousands of likes and shares on Instagram and Facebook, and counting.

If you don’t speak Spanish, you still might’ve laughed — the caption is in English, and Atiles is an excellent physical comedian, with Will Ferrell–esque facial expressions and El Chavo del Ocho–level timing. If you do speak Spanish, and especially if you grew up with Spanish-speaking parents from Latin America, “Hispanic Parents when you leave a mess in the Bathroom. Pt. 1 ‘Towels” might feel so familiar to you that it seems as if it were recorded from your childhood memories and restaged. When I watched this video, I felt this way — like it was the funnest, most familiar Instagram video I had ever seen.

When Hispanic Parents come Home and get Mad at you for No Reason. Ft. @leyodajames #TeamLeJuan

A video posted by LeJuan James (@lejuanjames) on

I grew up in a multicultural household. My mom comes from a big Cuban family who immigrated to Panama in the 1940s for my abuelo’s job — he was a mechanic who could fix a particular model of bus that had just been shipped to Panama. Like most of the Spanish-speaking world, my mother was raised fervently Catholic. My father was raised in Edison, New Jersey, by reform Jewish parents, and lived as a secular hippie for the majority of his formative years. My mom moved to New Jersey in the 1970s. They met at work, and were married in the mid-’80s in a Unity church in North Jersey, the same church my sister and I were “baptized” in. (This church used rose petals instead of holy water, so actually I might be damned.) They bought a house in northern New Jersey, gave birth to my sister and me, and hustled to give us a life.

My dad worked in the city and traveled for work often, and Mama was a stay-at-home mom until my sister and I were in middle school. She was the one who ran the house. I learned English and Spanish at the same time, my mother always making a point to speak Spanish to us at home. Comfort food to me is food my mother cooked: picadillo, ropa vieja, yuca con mojo, platanos verdes. I don’t get into a car or on a plane without whispering to myself, “En el nombre de dios.” I question every single person’s intentions because my mother’s No. 1 consejo to me growing up was never to trust anyone on sight, even if they are dressed up as a nun.

Physically, my sister and I look way more like my dad, which is another way of saying we look white, and throughout my life I have most often been perceived as white by other people. As anyone who grew up with a multicultural background understands, there is always pressure from the outside to identify with one culture over another, even if no one is demanding that you choose. In the vacuum of my interior self, I identify as both white and Latina. But identity isn’t determined in that vacuum, and as a part of society, in the typical multicultural-kid way, I have spent a majority of my life feeling, variously, just white enough, not white enough, just Hispanic enough, or not Hispanic enough, depending on whom I was surrounded by and what kind of situation I was in. But never one or the other.

There is one exception to this rule, though, and it’s when I watch LeJuan James videos. This is when I feel totally and absolutely Latina.

Hispanic Father's before their Daughters Go Out. #Consejo #TeamLeJuan

A video posted by LeJuan James (@lejuanjames) on

Atiles’s Instagram videos have made the 26-year-old a celebrity in the Latin-American internet sphere, with millions of followers across his various platforms (he started out on Vine, then moved to Facebook and Instagram). Over the phone, he plays it down: “I don’t care too much about the whole publicity [and] fame thing — I just want to be successful,” he told me. Most of what he does is similar in form to the “Towels” video — ten-second skits starring himself, sometimes with his mom, Ingrid (who goes by the genius handle @lemomjames online), or his girlfriend, YouTube influencer Camila (@camilaainc), which broadly and goofily dramatize situations familiar to many Spanish-speaking households in the U.S. There’s “the Hispanic speech every time we go out,” and “When Hispanic parents catch you listening to music they don’t like,” and “The awkward moment when you’re at your [white] friend house and they start arguing with their parents.”

The situations at hand aren’t by any means exclusive to Hispanic families — similar conversations have occurred in the homes of people of all backgrounds — but they highlight the way Hispanic parents grapple with raising their second-generation American children in a country whose society’s familial and cultural values so vastly differ from their own. Aside from the fact that, well, they’re in Spanish, Atiles nails the cultural tropes, props, and characters familiar to Latin-American families — there are the obvious ones, like the overdramatic mother, the bata, and the chancleta.

But Atiles also calls upon other, more subtle ones like Old World phrases (“que buena vida,” “te voy a dar,” “estas canas que yo tengo en la cabeza son por sabia, no por vieja”), and tiny idiosyncrasies like the way your abuela might rather blatantly lie to your face than be caught feeling embarrassed about falling asleep while watching the TV, or how your mother cannot sleep until you make it home. They often highlight (and poke fun at) moments when a parent overreacts to situations that a second-generation Hispanic child would not find irritating, like slurping to get the last sip of your soft drink, which, to many Latin mothers, is considered incredibly rude.

After seeing the towel video, which I immediately sent to my mom, my sister, my aunt, and, like, four cousins, I sat there watching video after video of Atiles’s, virtually in shock by how spot-on every single skit felt to me. On “Hispanics when you leave a mess in the bathroom pt 1,” 15,000 other people commented underneath the video, presumably feeling the same exact awe I felt:

#TBT Hispanic Parents dont believe in sleeping in ft. @_camilaainc #teamlejuan

A video posted by LeJuan James (@lejuanjames) on

One of the oddest developments in the field of jokes in the digital age has been the extent to which “relatability” and “humor” have become identified with one another. Think about the way jokes spread on Instagram: When we share memes and videos by tagging our friends in the comments, we’re not just saying “this is funny,” but also “I think you’ll find this funny,” or, at least, “I think you’ll find this laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji.” You don’t tag your friend who loves cats in this @fuckjerry post about a dog begging for food all the time: Before sharing the joke, you stop to consider which one of your friends will get the joke first. So much of this kind of humor — the kind that’s highly shareable — is about drawing boundaries around groups: I think back to middle school, when my friends and I would post inside jokes we had with one another on our Hometown AOL sites for other people to read and not understand — proof to the rest of the world that we could create our own community. Meme accounts like @fuckjerry or @beigecardigan or @daquan are similarly communal: Do you relate to this? Which of your friends does? Who is in this club? Essentially, they’re inside jokes that work inclusively instead of exclusively.

Throughout high school and college, I was not actively connected to a Latino community in my everyday life: My suburban neighborhood was predominantly white, and I would say more than half of my graduating class, and most of my friends, were white. I was identified by my classmates and my teachers as white, with “Latina” relegated to the status of fun-fact trivia — “Did you know Christina is half-Panamanian?” I was uncomfortable with the way my peers played down the Latina part of my identity, but I rode that wave for a while because it felt like the only wave to ride. One time in high school, when I arrived at a house party in a bad mood after a particularly incensed fight with my mom about my curfew, which was much earlier than any of my friends’, my white friend looked at me sympathetically after I told her why I was late and she said, “Don’t worry. She just doesn’t get that you are one of us.”

One of whom, though? I do find myself in Atiles’s videos, like the one about your Hispanic parents giving you consejos. If you grew up with a Latin parent, you probably gawked at your white friends rolling up to school in Old Navy flip-flops. You probably felt mad uncomfortable watching your white friend disrespect her mother while you were over at her house, and thought how if you spoke to your mother that way you would probably be, like, struck dead. The humor in “relatability” and identity-defining memes lies in their ability not just to resurrect a situation or feeling that specific, that intimate to you alone, but also to establish that the experience is shared — a realization that can bring a deep comfort, if not joy. On the internet, we value communal jokes, but crave to be on the inside — to belong, to be able to @ someone in a post as if to say, “Totally, right?” Past the exclusivity, past the good feeling that goes along with getting the joke, through Atiles I felt that sense of belonging, a connection to the Latin part of my identity and to the Latino community that had been absent in my life for a long time.

When Hispanic Grandparents fall asleep watching TV #DonFransisco #SGHastaSiempre #TeamLeJuan

A video posted by LeJuan James (@lejuanjames) on

Atiles is a second-generation 25-year-old, one of the millions of second-generation Hispanics growing up in the U.S. today. Some understand Spanish but don’t speak it, and some don’t understand it or speak it at all. Many identify as Hispanic, but also identify with another ethnicity or sub-ethnicity. Second-gen Latinos and Latinas are on the internet — we engage in dialogues about Latin culture and feminism, Latin culture and homosexuality; we contend with the way our parents were raised and the world we live in. Atiles’s Facebook analytics, which he shared with me, show that 1.3 million out of his 2 million Facebook fans are English speakers primarily — only about 200,000, the second-highest tier, list Spanish as their main language. That’s proof that his work hits home most for second-generation Latinos whose parents moved here from Latin American countries — connecting Hispanic-Americans with their Hispanic roots. “That’s why my captions are in English,” Atiles explained to me over the phone.  “[There are people who can] understand the joke, even if the language is in Spanish.”

I think this is part of what makes Atiles such a standard-bearer online for Latino identity: He spotlights the Hispanic parents grappling with the new world their children are growing up in, without diminishing their experiences. He describes reactions he receives as “genuine engagement — people feel like they know me as a friend.” Atiles says a large chunk of his fans are parents themselves — and the videos are for them, too. My mom, for one, adores him.

I am 27 now, and my mother will still become freakishly focused on superficial things like my appearance. A few months ago, she didn’t like the way I had put my hair up on the top of my head when I met my dad and her for dinner. She sat on this feeling for two days before calling me to let me know she had been feeling “really depressed” thinking about how little I cared about my appearance in public. She told me how, if I ever wanted to find a good husband, I’d need to start taking pride in my hair, for the love of God. She made me promise that por favor, que nadie te ve con ese pelo asi … Piensa en tu madre, y en dios que te dio ese pelo … Bueno …  

There is a LeJuan video about that. I didn’t let it get to me. I just laughed.

When Hispanic Parents criticize their Daughters Hair. #TeamLeJuan

A video posted by LeJuan James (@lejuanjames) on