Jonathan Chavez is at a crossroads.
The social media comedian just turned 23, he’s nursing a broken heart, he’s searching for a new audience, and he’s just dropped a new single.
“Yeah, I’m going through a lot of changes right now,” Chavez tells NPR, fanning himself on a recently blazingly hot day in Los Angeles.
In the plain parlance of the Instagram and TikTok class that he’s part of, Chavez wants to be more famous, which he confesses with a laugh and a coy drop of his sunglasses.
Though influencerdom has largely remained the domain of white content creators, Chavez is part of a booming Latinx community that’s diversifying the landscape while racking up millions of followers. Many, like Chavez, are first-generation kids who grew up with Spanish-speaking parents, and their videos, art and skits touch on their heritage and experiences living in both worlds.
The problem with mainly Latina moms loving your videos
Over the last few years, Chavez has steadily built up a loyal following – he was even featured in Vogue Mexico. But he’s aware that after nearly four years in the business – “that’s like forever ” – his fame remains pretty niche.
Having more than 2.2 million combined followers may seem impressive to the lay-social media user, but it’s far from where the ambitious Chavez wants to be. And he wants to reach a different audience.
“I would go out and people my age would be like, ‘My mom loves your videos!’ But it was never them,” he says, sounding more than a little disappointed.
For the uninitiated, the videos are years worth of wickedly funny impressions of the Mexican mamás and señoras that first-generation immigrant kids have grown up with living in the U.S.
One of his more recent posts is called, “Latina moms when you don’t know their email passwords.” As the title suggests, the skit starts off with a mom asking her son for help logging onto her email account. (Chavez plays both characters.) In a matter of seconds, the mom goes from zero to 11, losing her temper and scolding him for not knowing her secret password. “Pos ustedes todos saben! Se la pasan todo el dia en esas cosas y nomas les pide uno un favor y no le pueden ayudar a uno, verdad!” she yells.
Translated, it’s something along the lines of, “How could you possibly not know when you’re always on these things but the second I ask for a favor you can’t seem to help?”
But putting a summary of the skit down on paper seems to dull its biting wit. That’s because the appeal of Chavez’s mamá character is all about the cadence and delivery, and the familiar borderline-bullying tone that some children of immigrants endure as their parents depend on them to help them navigate or interpret the world they now find themselves in.
Chavez acknowledges that when he first started posting the short skits on Twitter as a high school senior in Denver, they were largely inspired by his own mother and the other matriarchs in and around his family. But he disagrees with the idea that he’s channeling any single person.
“You know, it’s everyone who was always around. The nosy neighbors your friends’ moms, all the señoras that would get up in your business,” he says, laughing.
If you build it in English, will they come?
When he was first starting to get recognized out in the world, it was thrilling, he recalls. Now, based on the interactions with his older fan base, he’s decided it’s time to branch out.
“Like no shame, no offense to anybody, but, when people told me they thought I was older and when people were calling me their age and dragging me into their generation, I was like, ummm… no, I’m younger.”
To remedy that particular problem, Chavez has devised a new strategy. Over the last few months, he’s put away the t-shirts he’d wrap around his head when playing the quick-to-anger Mexican mom, and instead has begun experimenting with new, English speaking characters. The plan is to attract younger and non-Spanish speaking fans.
“So that they get who I am, who I really am,” he explains, adding that he “was triggered” every time fans told him they thought he was in his 30s.
He has started doing versions of the types of people in his orbit. There’s the friend who never pays because they’ve conveniently forgotten their wallet. The friend who’s chronically late. The party girl who can’t stop perreando (partying).
It’s been a terrifying transition and really, it’s too early to tell whether the chase for a new demographic will have been worth it.
“When I first started doing the English videos, I lost followers on Instagram right away,” he says, adding that it did throw him into something of a panic. Eventually, though, he began to make up for the losses by gaining exactly the kind of new followers he was going for. And, although he’s not necessarily ahead of where he was a few months ago, Chavez considers it a victory.
“Because I outgrew it kind of, and I’m also growing as a person. And I find other things more interesting and I have different interests,” he explains.
Entering his ‘Taylor Swift phase’
Those interests increasingly include music.
Chavez isn’t shy about sharing that he “went through a heartbreak recently” and the experience sent him into his “Taylor Swift phase.” Rather than sit and simply wallow in all the feels, he wanted to channel the grief and loss into songwriting, as the pop star has been known to do.
The lyrics tell the story of a dysfunctional relationship. One in which the protagonist is caught in a cycle of “ignoring the bad and pretending it’s all ok.”
“It’s the first time I’m being really vulnerable like that,” he says. In general, he adds, that’s what he’s after in this new chapter of his life.
Taking up space and becoming a ‘Latino King’
Chavez’s desire to have people watch him has always been there. But, deep down, he didn’t really believe it was possible for someone who looked like him. He was obsessed with pop culture even as a child. He says he would daydream in his room about being famous, being interviewed and on television or in movies.
“Now that I’m in L.A., I’m like, Oh, this is something that could happen to me. I could be on TV, I could be in these spaces, you know?”
Chavez recently wrapped on a short film, called Warehouse, performing a part he says was written with him in mind based on some of the new characters he’s been posting on social media. It follows a Denny’s campaign that featured him earlier this year, marking his acting debut.
During the early days of the pandemic, Chavez signed up for a package of online acting classes, but he quickly lost interest because it all seemed too abstract. The film set, however, was a different story. Watching other actors work made something click in his head, and Chavez credits the director with teaching him how to authentically get in touch with his feelings.
“That’s basically it,” he says. “I just want to be more of who I am, you know. I want to take up space, I want to your Latino King. I want to show every part of me,” he says, without a trace of self-consciousness.