Almost nine years ago, Jessica Torres launched a style blog to help build her resume as an aspiring fashion journalist. A self-described plus-sized Latina from the Bronx, she didn’t see herself reflected among staffers at the magazine where she interned. She eventually came to the conclusion that the path to success would require striking out on her own.
Today, Torres has 138,000 Instagram followers. Instead of writing stories, she’s paid by the likes of Sephora and Ugg to promote their products, raking in as much as $25,000 for posts and projects on behalf of some brands. But Torres isn’t your typical online influencer: She’s part of a wave of Latinas looking to expand their online footprint and boost corporate respect for one of the largest U.S. consumer demographics.
Especially in the realm of beauty products, Hispanics are increasingly driving and shaping the industry as consumers and business owners. In 2020, Latinos spent 13% more than the average shopper on beauty and personal care, according to research firm NielsenIQ. And there’s a growing number of internet personalities and Hispanic-owned startups getting the message out, from influencer Mariale Marrero and her 6 million Instagram followers to Treslúce Beauty, a makeup brand launched in June by Billboard top 5 Latin female artist Becky G.
Now 31, Torres finally does see herself — she’s part of a burgeoning group of Hispanic entrepreneurs and social media stars. “It’s been really cool to see how much power Latinos are having — and taking,” Torres, who is Ecuadorian-American, said. “It’s game changing.”
This growing prominence in the retail space has accelerated a push to dispel media portrayals that often ignore the diversity and evolving identity of Latinos. Hispanics boast a wide range of skin tones and hair types, which means that no single commercial approach can meet all beauty needs.
“There’s still a lot of education that needs to be done,” said Marrero, who was born in Venezuela and last year launched an eye and cheek palette in collaboration with Too Faced. She said there’s still an outdated idea “of what a Hispanic or Latina has to look like.”
Natasha Pongonis is the CEO of multicultural consumer research firm O.Y.E. and a partner at marketing agency Nativa. She said most advertisements featuring Hispanic models don’t reflect the wide spectrum of Latino looks, like hairstyles ranging from locks in tight curls to pin-straight. The range of shades for certain skincare and makeup products also remains limited, while marketing campaigns by big skincare companies often feature models with lighter complexions, Pongonis said.
Representation of Hispanics in content across platforms was 6% in 2020, according to analytics company Nielsen, even though they make up almost 19% of the U.S. population. And when Hispanics do appear online or in a magazine, they’re often depicted as “exotic,” according to Deyanira Rojas-Sosa, an associate professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Indigenous and Afro-Latino people in particular get little representation in personal care and makeup ads, said Danielle Alvarez, founder of public relations firm The Bonita Project.
Despite the rise of Hispanic-owned brands, they’re still a small part of the beauty market. In a recent panel featuring Latino entrepreneurs by think tank Ready to Beauty, 88% said improved access to capital was critical to expanding the sector. But some entrepreneurs are done waiting for investors.
“I think many people are going ‘well, what the heck? I might as well just do it myself,'” said Margarita Arriagada, who served as Sephora’s chief merchant for nine years.
Arriagada, 68, launched refillable-lipstick company Valdé Beauty in the fall of 2020. The name is an homage to her mother, Carolina Valdelomar, who immigrated with her children from Peru. She always wore lipstick as a “glamorous coat of armor” while working three jobs to make ends meet, Arriagada said.
Then there’s Latina music star Rebbeca Marie Gomez, better known as Becky G. Her song “Mayores,” featuring Puerto Rican sensation Bad Bunny, has racked up more than two billion views on YouTube.
A former CoverGirl, the 24-year-old realized she didn’t just want to be one mainstream brand’s Hispanic face, saying she’d rather show that Latinas could start their own product lines and craft their own narratives. Like Torres, she too saw minimal representation of people like herself in the media and advertising.
Her makeup brand Treslúce features an eyeshadow palette that nods to her heritage, infused with blue agave from Jalisco, Mexico, where her grandparents hail from. Shades boast names such as grateful and diosa, or goddess. The name Treslúce itself blends the Spanish word for three (the singer’s lucky number) and the term luce, which roughly means “that looks good on you.” In one social media video, the artist coaches followers on the pronunciation — giving a break to those who can’t roll their Rs.
“There’s a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of English, because that’s very me. It’s very representative of both sides of who I am,” she said in an interview. “My mission and commitment is to being a vessel for genuine representation.”
A poll by cultural insights firm ThinkNow found almost half of Hispanics are looking for that kind of authenticity. Purchasers of beauty products rated diversity in skin tone offerings as very important when making buying decisions, and a significant number valued brands that highlight people of all shapes and sizes — as well as companies committed to inclusion.
“It’s not enough to offer relevant products,” Arriagada said, “if the customer does not perceive the brand to see us, hear and understand us.”
Some of the bigger retail brands have been taking steps toward broader diversity in products, marketing and investment. Given that Latinos account for 18.5% of the U.S. beauty industry’s dollars, according to NielsenIQ, there is a clear revenue incentive.
Since last year, Sephora’s Accelerate program for beauty company founders has increased its focus on diverse entrepreneurs. Desiree Verdejo, the Black and Puerto Rican creator of serum line Hyper Skin, is among recent graduates. Verdejo’s product focuses on treating hyperpigmentation and using formulas that work well on all skin tones.
Sephora said it’s also broadened the set of influencers it works with, known as the Sephora Squad, with 79% of this year’s group identifying as people of color compared to 51% in 2020. In addition, the company said it is developing Spanish content for several social media platforms. “The option to pick one’s preferred language is a simple way we can tailor the experience to be more welcoming,” the company said.
Estee Lauder said it recently held internal panels and classes aimed at retaining Hispanic talent. And Ulta Beauty invited Latino founders to share their stories with its employees. Even Target launched a collection showcasing Latino-owned brands for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Yet, misconceptions across the industry endure. Women — who as consumers purchase the majority of all beauty products — bear the brunt of marketing stereotypes that continue to present Hispanic models through a White prism.
Alba Ramos, an influencer who was born in the Dominican Republic and identifies as Afro-Latina, started her YouTube channel in 2010 after seeing a lack of haircare advice that applied to her. Online, she shared her journey to repair her curls from heat and chemical damage. Now she dispenses advice on natural beauty products on Instagram, where she has 328,000 followers, posting in both English and Spanish.
But even as people like Torres, Becky G and Ramos seek to effect broader change by diversifying the marketplace, the Hispanic community is still grappling with colorism and related issues of discrimination based on skin tone or other physical characteristics. Darker-skinned Latinos are more likely to report they’ve experienced discrimination, and subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to straighten curly hair (often with dangerous chemicals) is still arguably commonplace.
“We make each other feel like one is better than the other, or ‘I am more Latina than you are, or he is more Latino than you are,'” Ramos said. “It’s not right, but we get trapped into that mentality, because it’s done to us. And then we do it back.”
For Torres, her quest has centered on body image. She’s advocated for body positivity for years, yet she said it’s been difficult to discuss her experience as a plus-sized woman with relatives. She’s readying a Spanish episode of her podcast “Fat Girls Club,” which she’s hoping will prompt conversations across generations and appeal to more Hispanics.
Torres had previously avoided recording a Spanish episode. “At my family reunions, I was talking about things here and there, but we never had a full conversation.” However, she’s cognizant that “the biggest change that we can create is going back and talking to mom and dad.”
But more broadly, an increasingly nuanced approach by the beauty industry toward Hispanic consumers may help pave the way to greater understanding and acceptance at all levels of society. And Arriagada said that cycle should start with companies.
Large legacy brands “really need to embrace wanting to engage with our community and understand us and represent us better,” she said.