Kat Lazo is Latina director, writer, and actress from Queens, NY with more than 1 million views on her YouTube channel, a residency as a YouTube partner, and bragging rights as the first East Coast video producer for “We Are Mitu” a digital only media company for Latinos. Her webseries with “We Are Mitu”, The Kat Call has garnered more than 4 million views in its first season. By harnessing the power of her identity and creating video content for a group television often ignores, Lazo has found a way to undermine the lack of diversity otherwise around her.
The following is an edited conversation between Kat Lazo and TLL founder, Kim Hoyos.
On Her Early Life
What was your education like?
I went to a performing arts high school, Laguardia High School. I wanted to be an actress when I was younger. I wanted to be a dramatic actress. I looked up to Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts. So I got accepted, studied classical theatre- Shakespeare, did all of that for four years. In school there was a lot of blind casting- I was able to play any and all characters that I wanted. I graduated, then I got an agent and a manager and I was slapped with the reality of the industry.
No one gave a shit about my classical theatre background. No one gave a shit about me studying Shakespeare. All they wanted was for me to roll my neck, have an accent- so that took an emotional tool on me because in comparison to my other friends who were auditioning, my white counterparts, they would go in roles and play anything they wanted. Every time I stepped into a casting room it was almost like a chip away at my own self esteem. So that resulted in me taking a year off before I went off to college. I started working in casting for TV and films in New York. The best that I could do was have my frinds of color. Come and audition for roles but those roles were still super stereotypical and type casted so that’s not really changing shit. Then, I went to FIT, I studied Advertising, Marketing, and Communications once again with the mentality of “okay, maybe I can change the industry if I’m the one creating ads, creating commercials”. But none of it made sense to me. It felt very antiquated to me, very traditional. There was no intersectional lense.
What made you want to act?
Honestly, my parents worked a lot so my babysitter was a tv. I probably unhealthily consumed media, like tv and movies to a bad degree for a child. But that was my reality. When I did have physical babysitters my mom would tell them “take her to the movies. she really likes movies.” So I literally went to the movies like all the time growing up. Where I grew up was a middle class, white neighborhood in Queens.
How do you identify?
I mean I am a woman. I am Latina. I acknowledge that I am mixed race, meaning for me that I know that I am half indigenous and am also half white European colonizer. Specifically like that. I grew up middle class. Able bodied. Cis-woman.
Can you speak to when you realized your identity as a Latina?
Something I vividly remember is when I went to sign up for elementary school. I spoke both English and Spanish fluently because of my babysitters and for sure, also because of how much TV I watched. I remember the person who was signing us up said “Yeah, she’s gonna go in ESL.” And I thought “Well that shit doesn’t make any sense, does it?” She didn’t evaluate me. She had literally based me off of my parents but didn’t even talk to me. I remember being in an ESL class for maybe less than five days.
As I got older there were more and more instances like that. I will say probably my peak where I was fully aware of who I was, who I am rather, was throughout high school and a bit of college I worked as a hostess at a restaurant in Queens. Day to day to day faced not only like sexual harassment, you know stupid comments about like “Oh are you on the menu…..”, but also like racialized sexual harassment, right?
My mom is a housekeeper and so she would take me to work a lot with her. That’s probably a majority of my childhood, going to these apartments with her. So I was aware of microaggressions as a child. I noticed like “Oh okay, people are treating my mom differently.” Like just instances where she would try to defend herself and people would make fun of her English. Things like that.
How do you cater to the Latinx community in your writing?
A huge part of my writing, my number one priority it whatever I do, whether that is producing, writing, is to make things accessible. My thing is if my mom or my younger sister doesn’t get it, why am I making this? I don’t want to talk to other academic feminists, I don’t want to talk to people who already know. People who are already in the know will share it and be like “Yes” “Yasss” “I’m pro this” “Exactly what I’ve been saying.” But my intention for it to be accessible and for people like my mother or like my sister or my father, for my tias to be like “Oh, I didn’t think about it that way. Oh I get it.”
Are your parents proud of how deeply you’ve brought your shared identity with them to the internet?
My family is in support. I don’t think they fully understand. That also takes an emotional toll on us as a community because, yeah, my parents are proud because they’re great parents and they’re proud. But it is kinda weird when you realize your parents are proud but not fully aware of why. They’re not fully educated on why they’re proud. They’re not getting. It almost feels like they’re half-assed proud. My father is getting into facebook. He’s really into facebook now, like scarily into facebook. He’s posting way too many statuses and it’s so annoying. But yeah, now he’ll call me and be like “No hiciste un video no? No te has visto hacer un video?” “ You haven’t made a video in a really long time” and I’m like “bro, back up.” You’re putting so much pressure on me, like, chill out. “Cuando vas hacer un video”. But overall, they’re supportive.
How do you feel about Latinx representation in media?
I can only talk Latino creators in terms of diversity. I am currently working on a platform where all the videos producers are Latino producers. That is wonderful to know that in a sense you’re pitching ideas and people are going to get them. You don’t have to explain “hey, this is the culture aspect to this. This is why we have to do this, Trust me the audience will get it.” We’re making things from our perspectives which are valid for an audience who also supposedly comes from that similar cultural background.
How can all creators do better?
I don’t want digital spaces to fall in the trap of what mainstream, traditional Latino media has done, which was to whitewash us. We have so much power in terms of like changing that with the digital landscape that I don’t want us to fall into that trap. There are systemic reasons, there are institutional reasons why the marginalized voices within our community perhaps haven’t dabbled in video production or writing, creative writing. But I think it’s up to us as the folks that have the privilege to be in those, to have those seats at the table to literally knock down the f*cking walls to open the doors for those people to come have seat because they’ve never had a seat.
On Her Webseries
How did TheeKatsMeoww happen?
I had that breaking point of “Okay, I paid to go to school for four years and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I’m going to be welcomed in this industry- with my opinions and my thoughts” and it’ll end up being another auditioning process. So as a result, in my senior year, I created a Youtube channel. I had looked up to so many Youtubers like Laci Green and Franchesca Ramsey, folks who for me- I never went to school nor learned about gender studies or anything like that at college. For me, my “feminist awakening” came from tumblr and youtube and kind of just coming to the realizations of “oh that’s the word for that”, “that’s called street harassment” etc. I think in my senior year, just seeing people like Franchesca and Laci, I was like “Hold up, why is there no ‘progressive Latina’ talking about feminist issues like race politics and social norms.” So I thought “Okay, I’ll do it”.
How did you learn how to edit/direct/etc?
I just started creating videos and I started to get lots of freelance work. I became self taught in video production, editing and lighting. I had to teach myself, once again, that came from myself and from youtube.
We Are Mitu does some really incredible work- that’s how we found you! How did you start working with them?
I had been approached by someone at Mitu for like a year following me and was like “Hey, can you come work for us.” And it took about a year for me to be onboard, and yeah that’s where I am at. I’m one of their NYC video producers and I have my own web series, an continuation of TheeKatsMeoww called “the Kat Call”.
Is the Kat Call what you imagined?
The Kat Call is pretty much how I imagined it. I think maybe the only difference is that I’m working on the second batch of videos and I think the first batch was a little more conservative. It’s interesting to say how did I marry my frustration with microaggressions and my identity and the industry and media as a whole. For me it is this thing that is constantly woven together and I can’t undo the pieces and that’s just how I see things. And it’s kind of like my lens on a daily. There’s never a time that I can, unfortunately or fortunately I don’t know, that I can shut if off. So whether that’s me on a train and I am seeing, “Hey this guy is taking up a lot of space he doesn’t realize he’s been conditioned to” or whether that’s me watching a new show and I’m like “Hmm it’s funny that the writers are all white that makes sense” I can’t undo that. I think it’s a natural evolution. Also, I think that The Kat Call is a natural evolution from what I was doing on Youtube independently.
How has your process in creating videos developed over time?
When I do non Kat Call stuff, I have to be Camera A, Camera B, the sound person, everything! I’m trying to direct people to feel comfortable and talk to them. I’m one of two NYC based video producers for We Are Mitu, they’re based out of LA so the team is all there. When I go out to LA, there’s an intern who is running sound, people who are helping me lug equipment and it’s not just me lugging equipment. There is someone who is already going to set up the studio and I don’t have to set it up. I can focus on the script and directing. It’s amazing. There’s no creative process that’s going to come out well if it’s not collaborative.
How do you structure each video?
I start off thinking, “what do we need to address?”. I work with the title for each video first for example, “why are novelas so white?” I was like “WHY ARE NOVELAS SO WHITE?… RACISM.” I work from the title and then I realized, if you notice in the Kat Call series it’s always like a situation, a conversation is being had and I interrupt and I almost see that as a reflection of the comments. Like, in general of the internet. People feel safe enough to have these conversations about really problematic shit and it’s like “Yeah, well you know like what’s afro-latinos? They’re just like black, they’re not really Latinos”. And someone pops in like “Eh let me school you. Here’s some resources.” I almost see like I’m taking that and making it into a video. I’ll just write out “Why are novelas so white?” then bullet points and then I’ll start hashing it out.
On Online Hate
How do you feel about reading the comments online?
Personally, on my videos, it’s once again the comments that I get in real life too. It’s a lot of sexual hate speech mixed that’s also racialized and gendered. It’s always a mix. And when I made my own youtube for TheeKatsMeoww, I stopped reading the comments, just because I didn’t see anything good coming from that. And sucks because as a result I would miss some of the positive comments from people. It’s unfortunate because it’s almost drowned in all the hate speech.
Now with Kat Call, because I am so focused on making sure the series does well and also that there is a second season, I read the comments. I’ll read them a lot, and yeah they’re pretty bad. What’s interesting is like the Kat Call series, I believe the biggest difference is that that for me is specifically for a Latinx audience. A Latino audience. For us to really dive into our own identity, and our own issues. And our own shit that we haven’t really talked about or discussed. Literally within our community. So the comments for me are almost fuel for why I want to keep doing it, cause the ignorance and just the hate.
How do you deal with that ignorance?
I notice that it’s not malicious ignorance. It’s that we haven’t been exposed to these people or things in our society. We haven’t been exposed to like more than just a female male binary. We haven’t been exposed to afro-latinos. So ignorance in a non-derogatory way, but then there are people within our community who just that voted for Trump.
I know that right now my primary audience, the one that I want to talk to and I want to create content for, is the “Latinx community.” If you don’t get it, you don’t get it but my number one is us. So that’s who I’m going to give more attention to, try to make it more accessible and like “Hey you sincerely don’t get this topic, here’s some other resources, another video.” And also, I really just trying to reach them where they’re at. “Okay, you don’t understand this type of discrimination but based on you being a woman you do understand this type of discrimination.” And it’s kind of like walking people through that. I don’t have to be gay, I understand certain types of discrimination based on personal experience and so I know what it feels like to be marginalized because of my certain identities so it’s like why wouldn’t I be at the very least more open to listening to how other folks are marginalized? Why wouldn’t you at the very least have a seat and listen to someone else and try to understand what it feels like for them to be marginalized or discriminated against based on their identities?
In terms of analytics, you’re improving my engagement. If you didn’t like it and you wanted to like “stop my career” you wouldn’t do anything. That’s how you would impact me. But you say something dumb, you say something racist or sexist and then people in that thread are going to continue. That’s engagement, so you’re helping me. To those people, if I’m going to engage it’s usually just lots of sarcasm.
What was your biggest dream growing up?
I don’t know if I was encouraged to dream with intention. My parent’s dream happened when they came here to the states. It’s very much a mentality of “Anything from here up is a dream”. If I was a school teacher, it would be “This is it, this is the dream.” Never in a million years did I think that I would be able to call myself a video producer. To me that’s not something that I was like supposed to do. When people ask me, “What are the next steps?” or “Where do you go from here?”. I’m say, “I wasn’t even supposed to be here.”
It’s kind of personal, because there’s some opportunities that have come up and I think now I’m in a position where I don’t have to say yes to everything. I have had folks who I look up to, I turn to them for advice they’re like, “Well, you have to set your intentions. You have to literally write what is your goal and then you base your yes or no answer on these offers based off of whether they’re going to help you reach your goal, your dream.” And that’s really hard, I don’t know how to dream. I am where I’m at just because I was frustrated with all these things and it was an outlet and it became a career. But from here I’m like “I don’t know.” I mean, I would like to in the future produce, write and host like a millennial version of Soledad O’Brien or Lisa Lang’s docuseries.
Any advice for filmmakers?
Drink lots of water. When you’re editing at your desk make sure you have a big, fill up your water bottle with water. More advice would be: if you internet access you can have an education on whatever the hell you want. If you wanna be a filmmaker, at the very least we may not have the financial capacity to buy a DSLR camera or lights or whatever but you can at least educate yourself on the type of equipment you want to use, on how to edit things. Maybe if you’re on set helping, a PA on something you already know. There’s also resources you can use, for example, if you’re in New York and you have a library card, like a New York state library card you can have access to Lyndea.com and there’s free tutorials, more in depth. You don’t realize this people are just like me and you and they probably came from a similar background to an extent like “Oh I just picked up a camera at home and I started vlogging and now I ended up at Buzzfeed.” That veil of “No, it’s too hollywood, it’s too far away” is wrong. It is accessible and I think that is one of the things we have to undo: this idea of like things are unattainable. We really can, just due to accessibility and access to the internet and I think also community. Supporting one another, sharing the wealth, sharing the resources that we have. yeah, make sure to share. Sharing is caring.