Masks and Resilience: How Latino Artists are Breaking Stereotypes During the Pandemic

Atecnegra protective masks Latinx BELatina
Photo Credit IG @aztecanegra

COVID-19 has profoundly impacted  the Latino community in the United States. We are not only one of the demographics with the highest infection and unemployment rates, but we are also a community that has had to adapt deeply rooted traditions to a new way of life. Among them, covering our faces.

In early April the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending the use of homemade protective masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Many Hispanics and African-Americans made the inextricable link between bandanas and the bandit stereotype –a deeply held racial prejudice in the United States.

“We have a lot of examples of the presumed criminality of black men in general,” economics professor Trevor Logan, who is black, told CNN. “And then we have the advice to go out in public in something that … can certainly be read as being criminal or nefarious, particularly when applied to black men.”

As the Los Angeles Police Department  explains, colorful bandanas or rags are a “system of identification” for Hispanic gangs in the region, and the decision by a person of color to wear these types of protective masks carries significant risks, especially in a country where racial profiling is an everyday problem.

But the Latino culture is not only deeply rooted, but it is also porous; it mixes and disperses, forming its own new and interwoven fabric wherever it goes. 

To counteract stigmatization, support those in need, and to bring out the good in our community, plus size fashion designer and winner of Season 14 of “Project Runway” Ashley Nell Tipton and Marisol Catchings, founder of the Afro-Latino Azteca Negra jewelry line, have joined initiatives with other Latino designers in transforming their ateliers into centers of mask production, this time with an impossible-to-miss historical and cultural touch.

Among Frida Kahlo’s designs, lottery tickets, national flags, and even the Puerto Rican coquí tree frog, these artists have decided to promote pride in Latino culture in an original way.

“We have to wear them to be able to go out, and I thought why not be able to wear something that I love deeply,” said Nell Tipton in an interview with NBC Latino. “I want people to wear it and just feel safe and be proud.”

So far, her team has donated around 5,000 masks to health care workers and sold over 2,000 to retail customers.

“When people buy these masks, and they put them on, they have pride,” said Andrew Bisaha, Tripton’s manager and her company’s Chief Financial Officer.

For her part, Catchings sees this as an exceptional opportunity to highlight the Afro influence in Latino culture.

“They get to wear something really awesome that they feel represents themselves,” she told the media.

Finally, Cuban-born fashion designer Alberto Ravelo has been making masks for several weeks now in his studio in Miami. They not only protect against the virus, but they are also a way of communicating.

In an interview with the Washington Blade, Ravelo said he decided to launch his first production with various patterns, using synthetic and natural fabrics like polyester and cotton.

Alberto Ravelo BELatina Latinx
Alberto Ravelo (Photo courtesy of Alberto Ravelo)

” I am also using more elegant fabrics to embellish them and make them a fashion item. I have created a design where everyone can draw or put the message they want, making the masks a means of social expression,” he said. .