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How Spotify's 'Identity at Play' podcast deconstructs what it means to be Latinx today

Nicole Forero   

How Spotify's 'Identity at Play' podcast deconstructs what it means to be Latinx today
  • The podcast, hosted by Leslie Ambriz, Manolo López, and Esteban Gast, has open conversations about Latinx representation.
  • The hosts talked to Insider about why representation matters and their own experiences coming to terms with their Latinx identity.

For Leslie Ambriz, Manolo López, and Esteban Gast, there isn't one single dictionary-backed definition to words like culture, identity, or belonging. With their podcast Identity at Play, the hosts set out to deconstruct and explore what it means to be Latinx today, and why it isn't an all-encompassing term.

The Spotify Original podcast echoes the sentiments of longtime Latinx podcast favorites, like Futuro Media's Latino USA and NPR's Code Switch, which have, for years, offered insight into conversations about race, society, culture, and how they relate to the Latinx experience.

With featured guests like US Senator Alex Padilla, author Julissa Arce, and actor Robin de Jesús from Lin Manuel Miranda's 'tick, tick... BOOM!,' Identity at Play talks about everything from representation and assimilation and the cultural divisions within the Latinx community to using creativity to rediscover your heritage.

It took a few iterations before the podcast got off the ground.

Gast, a comedian, writer, educator, and most recently star of the TV show Jungletown, airing on VICELAND, and Ambriz, a multimedia journalist and reporter, met in 2017 while working at Justin Baldoni's Wayfarer Studios. The duo became close friends.

Four years later, Gast met López, a chef, activist, and creator of pop-up restaurant Mofon•GO. They talked about starting a podcast and brought Ambriz on board.

They created a pilot for a limited podcast series and got backing for another one, which aired a couple of episodes but was canceled. It wasn't until they pitched Identity at Play to Spotify that the project took off.

The hosts say the podcast led to a journey of healing.

Apart from working in different industries, the hosts come from different backgrounds.

Gast was raised in a Colombian household, but grew up between the US and Puerto Rico. As an adult, he lived in Panama for a few years.

Growing up, he said he struggled with his hard-to-define identity. Having dealt with moving and trying to fit in, Gast said he didn't have a clear sense of where he belonged culturally. Identity at Play became an outlet for him to affirm the fact that it's okay to doubt and to grapple with who we are, especially when he connects with guests who've had similar experiences.

"I think I'm always reminded of how human people are and how often they had moments where they really rejected or were unsure of certain parts of themselves," he said. "And a lot of it is tied to culture."

Ambriz said she relates to this feeling, as well. The Los Angeles native said she wasn't proud of where she culturally came from for a long time. "I tried to be everything but, and it has been very healing in terms of reassurance for future generations to see people like Priscila García-Jacquier, Kat Lazo, Yesika Salgado, who have been proud of who they are from almost the very beginning."

"It took a lot of re-falling in love with this city and falling in love with myself, and learning to blend all of that love together and being very proud of where I come from," she added.

Manolo López, a born-and-raised Puerto Rican and steadfast champion for the Island, said that it's the hosts' differences that sets their podcast apart.

López moved to New York in 2011 and went on to create Mofon•GO, a popup restaurant that celebrated Puerto Rican culture. But, as he remembers, his generation didn't see a lot of mainstream Latinx figures.

"Every Latinx story matters and every Latinx journey is the one that's going to teach the upcoming generations the way," he said. "We didn't have that. We're just figuring it out, and now that we get to step into that space, we know we have a big responsibility."

The podcast, in a way, has dignified who he is and the work he does, López said.

Finding support for the podcast meant learning from those before them.

Ambriz said the journey to launching Identity at Play wasn't easy. "Being in the industry, it's hard to get things that are Latinx centered pushed to the forefront regardless of if it's a streaming network, network television, or even a podcast," she said about the representation of Latinos in media.

She praises people like Gloria Calderón Kellett, Tanya Saracho's Ojalá Productions, and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez for being pioneers in the creative industry.

"Their journey has essentially led to all the rest of these different outlets in the media taking off and seeing the success and seeing the weight that Latinos have in the industry," she added.

Landing investing for projects like Identity at Play can be a hassle, and the podcasting industry can turn competitive. But it's a different story for Latinx-led projects.

"This industry can be a lot of: 'I'm going to benefit myself and if it doesn't benefit me, then 'sorry, not sorry,'" Ambriz said. "But within the Latinx community, it's a lot of 'let me grab your hand and pull you up with me. Let's work on this together.'"

The hosts have seen a great fare of support from other Latinx creatives throughout their careers.

"I've had other people championing me and helping me, and putting my name in the rooms that I currently cannot walk into, and they're mentioning me there,' Ambriz said.

With their growing platform comes a greater sense of responsibility.

"I think for us, what it's like to be in entertainment as someone who's Latinx is that implicitly, even if you don't choose to be, you're placed in an activist role," Gast said. "We look around and there aren't many podcasts like ours, and Spotify hasn't supported many podcasts like ours."

Still, Identity at Play's unique position within the podcast community and Spotify allows them to tell stories that otherwise would be missing from the platform, Gast said.

"If you're telling stories from a particular viewpoint that hasn't been told, no matter what, you're showing up and you have to do it in a way that's thoughtful because it connects with people more than you may believe it can."


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