By Fernando Alfonso III, CNN
One of the greatest sources of anxiety for Alaina Castillo has been the letter R.
Rolling Rs is at the heart of learning Spanish and one of its most challenging trills, especially for those unexposed to the language regularly as a young child.
This is a lesson the 21-year-old singer spent years learning in and out of school. And it’s one that has paid off for Castillo, particularly on TikTok, which has made efforts to embrace and foster its Hispanic creators.
The Houston native is part of a flourishing Hispanic and Latinx creator community that has amassed huge followings through videos that succinctly translate cultural traditions and history for a young and captive TikTok audience. One major factor to this growth has been Covid-19, which forced millions of Americans out of work and scores into lockdown during the early months of the pandemic.
TikTok called itself an “economic lifeline for many of its users,” according to a lawsuit the company filed against then President Donald Trump in August 2020 to prevent him from banning the app in the United States. It defended the app as a place for people to learn about “serious subjects, including political issues” such as George Floyd’s death and the plight of health care workers.
“TikTok is a window to the world around and beyond us, and we’ve seen people across the the Latinx and Hispanic diaspora connect with one another on the platform through shared stories and experiences,” Kudzi Chikumbu, TikTok’s director of creator community, told CNN over email. “Over the past year, people have seen more of their friends and families reflected in the oftentimes comedic, educational and entertaining videos from Latinx creators and have been inspired to join in.”
TikTok videos from Hispanic creators are also getting consumed more than ever.
TikTok hashtags #Latino, #Latina, #Familia and #Comida, among others, grew in use by more than 185% since last year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 each year, according to data shared by TikTok spokesperson Cynthia Dew. The hashtags #Latino and #Latina have more than 62 billion views combined to date, Dew added.
Millions of those views belong to Castillo, who joined TikTok roughly a year ago to share original Spanish and English songs, as well as covers.
When she started making music, Castillo thought she’d be singing in English. That changed after her family encouraged her to write records in Spanish after learning the language in high school, Castillo told CNN.
“There’s a lot of different opinions when it comes to Latinx or people like me who are learning Spanish, so I made it my job to write records that bridge the gap between Spanish speakers and those who want to learn but were never taught,” she said.
Providing an education
Fernanda Cortes never thought she’d be talking about Mexican volcanoes on TikTok.
At the start of the pandemic, Cortes found herself scrolling through TikTok for the first time and noticed that there weren’t many videos on the history-making Latinas she grew up learning about from her mother, she told CNN. Two of those women were María Félix, a Mexican film actress from the 1940s, and Selena Quintanilla Pérez, the “Queen of Tejano music” who was killed in 1995 at the age of 23.
“I decided to make my own series honoring these Latinas and to hopefully connect with other young Latinas,” said Cortes, who lives in California.
Some of the women she’s profiled are LGBTQ+ singer Chavela Vargas and Sylvia Rivera, an advocate for transgender and LGBTQ+ communities who participated in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. The clashes between police and protesters outside a New York gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, emboldened a generation of activists into creating a civil rights movement.
“If I can help carry on the legacy of women that have inspired me and hopefully a Latina out there finds my videos and sees someone they identify with and that they can be inspired by too, then that’s exactly what I hope to achieve with my series,” Cortes said.
Cortes, who is 22 and originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, recently started a series of videos where she discusses different Mexican legends and stories. One was about the Aztec legends surrounding Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, two volcanoes near Mexico City.
Cortes started her TikTok account in March 2020 and has since amassed more than 500,000 followers and nearly 31 million likes. In almost the exact same amount of time, Matisse Azul Rainbolt has danced her way to roughly 1.1 million followers and 26 million likes.
Of all the goals Rainbolt, 20, set for herself as a young woman, playing sports was not one of them.
Those goals were making people smile and sharing her Hispanic culture and dance, specifically baile folklórico, “folkloric dance” in Spanish, she told CNN over email.
One of Rainbolt’s most popular videos since launching her TikTok in April 2020 features her dancing in dresses from different parts of Mexico, including Jalisco, Yucatán, and Veracruz.
In other videos, Rainbolt, whose grandparents are from Chihuahua, Mexico, performs famous folklórico choreography like “El Huizache.
“It is an amazing feeling to know that so many people support Mexican culture. I can recall several times in elementary, middle and high school where I was made fun of for doing folklórico or wearing the traditional dresses when I dance. The TikTok community has had an incredibly positive response to my videos, which makes me, and other Hispanic people, feel loved and welcomed,” she said.
A perfect union
At the heart of why Hispanics find themselves drawn to TikTok is the importance the online community places on individual identity and direct social interaction, said Alcides Velasquez, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication studies at the University of Kansas.
The Hispanic community tends to focus its social media interest in apps that allow for creation and consumption of visual content, like TikTok, said Velasquez, whose research includes social media and political activism and participation among Latinos in the US.
“These types of applications and the content that is shared through them has become an increasingly important part of how members of different social group perform their identity,” Velasquez said via email.
One of the ways TikTok has helped Hispanics perform their identity is through specially made stickers like a crown, fiery pepper and avocado that creators can place atop their videos, the company said. This year TikTok also launched a series of live videos featuring Latinx creators celebrating themes like “La Comida” to “La Cultura Pop,” the company said.
One hashtag that TikTok has supported the last two years, and which captures the heart of Hispanic culture, is #FamiliaLatina, or Latin family.
The importance of family and its influence on social media habits cannot be understated, Velasquez said.
“In terms of how Latinos get introduced to Latino culture, family remains the most important source,” he added.
Among Hispanic TikTok users, Gipsy Rodríguez, 24, truly understands how important family is.
Rodríguez runs the TikTok account moda2000, which is named after the gown shop owned and operated by Rodríguez and her family in Anaheim, California. The business is perhaps best known for selling ornate quinceañera dresses worn to a coming-of-age ritual in some Hispanic cultures that marks a girl’s entrance into womanhood.
The centuries-old quinceañera tradition began as a ceremony to introduce girls to society on their 15th birthday and signaled that they were prepared for marriage.
“Due to social media, quinceañera celebrations have become more popular that now, more than ever, girls are deciding to have a party and go above and beyond,” Rodríguez said. “It has not been an easy process [or] journey, but it has been rewarding because everyday that we come into work we get to make someone’s face light up, their dreams come true, and most importantly, making memories with their family while celebrating their culture.”
After losing his job in early 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, one of Jesús Morales’ friends introduced him to TikTok and a community that would end up changing his life.
On Aug. 24, 2020, Morales took $100 and donated it to a local street vendor after being inspired by TikTok user Viridiana Serrano, who had made a name for herself through videos of her giving away money to hawkers.
Morales, 24, is the creator of juixxe, a TikTok account launched in early 2020 where he shares videos of himself meeting with vendors around Southern California. He has an audience of 1.3 million followers and has since collected more than $130,000 that he’s given away to vendors thanks to the generosity of TikTok users, he told CNN over email.
That support has also come from TikTok itself.
Morales, whose family hails from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, was included in the company’s second cohort of Latinx TikTok Trailblazers — a group of creators dubbed “the next-generation of Latinx digital entertainment leaders, nominated by the community for their creativity, passion, and authentic spirit,” the company said in a news release last month.
TikTok has also partnered with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation through #CreciendoconTikTok, a $150,000 grant fund aimed at elevating 30 small Latinx businesses across the US, the company said.
The positive response to his videos and generosity of the TikTok community was a complete surprise, Morales said.
“Street vendors have often been overlooked, but these videos bring light to some of their stories and their struggles,” he said.
In one of Morales’ most watched videos, he can be seen giving one vendor $20,000 in cash.
The vendor named Jesús “was recorded being harassed by a group of guys late at night” and it broke Morales’ heart, he said.
“I think that the community who watches can relate or connect to these vendors in a way,” Morales said. “The online community is extremely powerful and their support truly shows the strength of unity within a community.”
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.