Vanessa Toro is a doer of many things. Vibrant and imaginative, she works a corporate job and is also the founder of two companies: Revel Forces: Parties for the People and Rabble & Rouse: Give All The Damns. I first read about her in an article about Signs of Solidarity ATL, a public art project fighting exclusivity, and was intrigued to find out more. Clad in a fabulous yellow cape, a colorful head wrap, and bright blue earrings, she met me for coffee to share her thoughts on why she fell in love with Atlanta, why the Latinx community must get involved with Black Lives Matter, and why she calls herself a “reluctant entrepreneur.”
Where are you from?
I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, but my mom immigrated here from Colombia. My father’s Puerto Rican. My mom would have to go back for stints during the visa process, and I was with her, of course. I definitely grew up Colombian. I didn’t learn English until I was enrolled in school.
What part of Colombia?
Pereira, it’s in the central region, at the foothills of the Andes. My mom’s one of 11, and they were nearly each born in a different city or town, due to the migrant nature of work.
What made you want to move down to Atlanta?
I don’t know that anything made me want to. I kind of wound up here – like a lot of people do. Atlanta’s definitely a city of transplants, and I’m no different. I was living in New York, and my partner lived here in Atlanta; we were doing the long distance thing. When that became insufferable, he moved to NY. In 2008, we were kind of over New York but didn’t know where to head next. The economy tanking helped us make the decision. He owned a house down here with his cousin and he said, “Well I’m paying a mortgage in Atlanta, why don’t we live there for a couple of months until we figure out what we want to do next?”
I didn’t really have any view of Atlanta other than stereotypes or movies. I actually had some concerns about moving here as a Latina, but I came down determined to embrace it with an open heart. I told myself, “whether I’m here three months or three years, I’m going to uncover what this place has to offer.” And then it didn’t take a long time.
I fell in love with it, and I said, “We’re staying. This is where I want to be.” Which I’ve never said (and I’ve lived in NY, San Diego, and Miami). So what drew me here was simply a temporary opportunity, but what made me stay is that it’s probably the first place that felt like home. No matter where I’ve lived, I always felt like a transient, a visitor – I’ve never felt rooted anywhere. I don’t know what it is about the South, but it’s been very different in that regard. I think part of it is the community- finding my people, the art, the spaces I fit in. This is the place for me, at least right now. I’ve been here for eight years.
What does your current work life consist of?
I’m a creative strategist at an advertising agency. What I essentially do is represent humanity and the consumer. When a client says, “We really need to talk about x product,” or “we really need to talk about this investment,” I’m the person that is responsible for saying, “People don’t care about that. That’s about you.” It’s a unique opportunity to really stand up for what they should be doing, the way society and culture are changing, and what people care about.
And then I have a t-shirt company, Rabble and Rouse, which is a platform for continuing to shape culture and pushing it.
So, Rabble and Rouse is against the idea of apathy and people not caring about what’s happening in the world. Why do you think people are drawn to that feeling of detachment?
I think what they’re drawn to is the perception of not caring. I am very “no fucks given” about how I dress, how I live my life – I’m very unapologetic. I think that’s a great way to live. But when there are so many things occurring in our culture and people’s response is to not care . . . I just don’t understand that.
I think part of it is maybe a way to protect themselves from the difficulty of being a human being. It can be a lot, right? It’s very overwhelming to care, especially right now that there are so many things going on. I think people feel like not caring makes them look cool or somehow above the fray, but it does not absolve them of responsibility. So I look to the half of registered voters who did not show up on Nov. 8, and I’m like, “You did this.”
I have huge problems with apathy. I especially find it confusing with “millennials,” given that they do care about so much. They give to causes. They care about the companies they spend their money with. They hold them responsible. They want transparency. Millennials deeply care, so why didn’t millennials vote? I’m not sure of the answer, I don’t know if maybe it has to do with simply not believing in the electoral college and voting anymore. But it’s something I want to focus on this year as the midterms roll around —getting millennials to vote.
Would you mind sharing some of those plans?
It’s still very much in the beginning stages. Like everyone else who’s like WTF since January 20, I called a meeting together with like-minded individuals who feel that we need to do something, but we don’t know exactly what. There’s also so much information about what needs to be done, that it’s hard to know where to start.
I’ve only had one meeting, but it was trying to gather folks to see what can we do. What do we want to do? And, more importantly, how do we mobilize other people? Activists are going to activist; we’ve been doing this, and we’re always going to show up – but how do we get those other folks who are distanced and detached to engage?
One of the big things we talked about was voter registration. That’s still a really big deal, especially with how much effort is put into keeping folks from voting.
What work did you do with the Signs of Solidarity ATL Project?
I was asked to do a banner, which I did, and it was kind of hard to choose a loving message. When I was first asked and they said ‘Signs of Solidarity,’ I said, “Oh hell yeah! I got my peoples’ backs, I’m ready to do this.” And then they gave us the guidelines of hope and love and inclusion – which I’m all about – but I was also very angry.
I think it’s important to be a part of that project and anything that is not passive about the [election] results. So while I keep hearing, “Let’s just accept it,” I’m not going to quietly submit. Acceptance and submission are two different things. I will resist as long as this administration is in power.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle facing Latinas in the South?
I think there’s an interesting black-and-white dichotomy here that is much more stark than in other places around the country. Here, everything is black or white – literally and metaphorically. I feel like all race discussions break up just like that — very binary — and there are no other levels.
It did take me a little getting used to to not really see myself in others. I would have to go to Buford Highway to get a taste of home or to hear a familiar accent. I have now gotten my whole family to move here, but prior to that, I legit would go to Buford Highway, Plaza Fiesta, just to be around that. It’s weird because I would never look for mi gente in other places because they’re around, but here, in the absence of it, I ached for it. Hearing familiar sounds and smelling chicharrón can cure you for a few weeks when you’re homesick.
One thing that’s been really motivating when I go to Black Lives Matter protests is seeing so many non-black people of color. I feel like we’re finally collectively getting to the point where we realize our liberation is tied to each other’s, and we don’t need Latino Lives Matter and Native Lives Matter and distinct, separate movements. Black Lives Matter. Everything falls out of there. Because until everyone matters, no one does.
So speaking of intersectionality and what we need to wake up to, what does feminism mean to you?
Feminism to me is sovereignty and autonomy, whatever that means to you. You want to have many kids? You don’t want to have any? Do it. It’s about not having your life dictated. The conversations we have about women and their bodies and their children . . . it simply never comes up for a man. “How do you balance being a dad and having a job?” Like, what? That doesn’t happen.
So you’re a very busy person. Through everything you do, what makes you feel strong?
Part of my busy-ness is a need to do something in response to the world. I don’t wake up and go, “Hey, you know what I want to do? Have a t-shirt company.” If something I want or I’m thinking of doesn’t exist, I create it. I’m a very reluctant entrepreneur, but it’s gone so well for me in terms of creating what I want to see in the world. Cliché as it is, that’s definitely my philosophy. And to see it come to life and manifest? That anything I think of, I can do? There’s a rush in not having someone be able to stop you. In not needing somebody else in order to accomplish it. And that’s not to say I do things all by myself, but there’s little reliance on someone else saying yes.
It’s a really rewarding feeling. It’s even more rewarding when people want to be a part of it.
Why do you think it’s important to give a voice to the Latina experience of being a Southern woman?
I don’t think it’s an articulation that we’ve heard. You hear about Latinas and you hear about the South, but that intersection is not really explored. It’s a different nuance; it’s a completely different situation.
So much of my activism is centered on countering anti-blackness because it’s rampant in this country, in our own Latinx community. While I am very involved in immigration issues and things that are very particular to our culture, if we can tackle [anti-blackness], everybody wins.
Photo provided by Vanessa Toro.
This is the sixth in a series featuring Latinas and Latinx in the South by Isabella Gomez.
Isabella Gomez is a second-year Journalism student at Georgia State University. She is also pursuing a double minor in Film & Video and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. A native of Venezuela, she will probably speak faster than you can understand in either English or Spanish, but will happily oblige if you ask her to slow down. Apart from going to school, Isabella enjoys fighting the stigmas surrounding menstruation, binge-watching movies and TV shows, awkwardly dancing at concerts, and hula-hooping. Follow her on twitter @isabellephant