Babba C. Rivera’s Journey As A Swedish Latina

Babba C. Rivera is determined to be herself during quarantine. Working out of her walk-in closet in Brooklyn, the founder of by.babba, is dressing up every day in colorful dresses and power blazers. “I sometimes even play dress up between meetings,” she tells Emperifollá. Along with her husband Carl Rivera, she’s growing a new garden on her rooftop and taking care of their puppy Blue. She’s also bought herself a new camera to document her life as a successful entrepreneur trying to stay afloat in one of the most unprecedented times of modern history. 

But Rivera’s story is actually rooted in a time like this one – an unprecedented historical event that changed her family’s life. 

Our story begins in 1973, when President Salvador Allende of Chile – its first socialist leader – had just been overthrown by a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet. Millions would eventually exile during the 17-year period when Pinochet ran an ultra-right dictatorship. Sweden – Chile’s closest European ally – became a home for thousands of Chileans who escaped the pervasive poverty and oppression that ruled the country.  

This is how Rivera found herself growing up in Sweden in a community of Chilean immigrants, alongside her brother and her parents. The Swedish government estimates that over 50,000 people of Chilean origin live in Sweden today, and 27,000 of those are first-generation Swedes of Chilean parents, like Rivera. 

Today, Babba is an award-winning marketer, helming her own company by.babba with offices in New York City and Stockholm. She first began making headlines as a community manager for Uber, where she helped launch the app in her home country, and later moved to New York City to continue working for the ride-share company as a marketing manager. At 25, she was already a Forbes 30 Under 30 member. After a stint at luggage company Away, she decided to launch her own agency in 2017 and co-founded the community HER, which is focused on empowering women. Babba’s mission is “challenging the status quo,” whether that’s pushing for more diversity, female empowerment, sustainability or community building. “A definite commonality is how much I love advocating for women and hope to empower women who follow me to dream big,” Babba says. 

Sweden is notoriously a homogeneous country with little diversity in comparison to Babba’s current home – New York City. Since moving to the United States, she’s connected with the Latinx community, sharing her unique story and cultural identity. “To fuel Latin representation is something that has grown in importance for me lately,” she says, “I want to share more about my Latin background in the hopes that I can inspire someone from a similar background.” Last year, Babba hosted her first Latinx-focused event, called Latina Bodega, where her company held a week-long series of panels and workshops that explored various aspects of Latinx identity and opened a pop-up shop for Latinx-owned brands at SHOWFIELDS in SoHo, New York. 

But wearing her identity on her sleeve wasn’t always an easy thing for Babba. Growing up in Sweden, Babba remembers feeling “ashamed” of her heritage. Her parents only spoke Spanish at home and celebrated holidays that were not common in Sweden. When it came time to sign school papers or talk to teachers, Babba, like many first-generation kids, had to translate for her parents. “I learned to take responsibility from a young age, which provided me with a lot of confidence,” she says. 

She also struggled to understand her own values and identity, often facing culture shocks both at home and society. At school, she’d be encouraged to challenge norms and question even her own teachers. At home, her mom would say “¡Que atrevida!” every time she’d ask questions or dare to have an opinion. “I didn’t really know how to behave in order to be accepted,” she says, “which in part I think is why, today, I don’t take other people’s opinions too personally.”

One aspect of her Chilean identity she always embraced was dressing up – in and out of the house. She recalls the dress-up sessions her family would host, in which she’d channel her alter ego Loretita, named after her mom Loretto. “Whenever Loretita made an appearance it was show-time,” she remembers. “Mom’s lipstick, heels and hats were on, and I would walk down our stairs in slow motion in front of the entire family.” 

At 30, she still plays dress-up for no reason, wearing pieces that match her “colorful Scandinavian” aesthetic. There is a minimalist approach to her style that allows her to charge up her look with bold prints and colors. She often sticks to silhouettes that feel like home, like babydoll and A-line dresses, two-piece suits, and slingback heels. During our interview, she points out a row of slingback heels in her shoe rack, all in the same style but different colors. “I often do this thing where I just buy the same things in different colors,” she says. 

Lately, she’s been focusing on skincare and haircare, a focus she inherited from the women in her family. As a kid, Babba used to think beauty was a human right, noting one time when she invited a Swedish friend over and realized her hair wasn’t as done as hers. She recalled telling her mom, who allowed the two kids to raid her beauty cabinet, playing with lotions, soaps and hair care products. “Despite our humble beginning and lack of money, there was never a shortage of beauty products for me to indulge in,” she says. 

Her beauty routine is simple but effective, focused on using products that allow her own skin to shine. She famously doesn’t wear any foundation, despite always sporting a dewy, glowy complexion, and tries to keep her makeup natural. The ritual of beautifying is what she emphasizes, saying the shower is really her favorite part of getting ready. “It always puts me in a great state of mind, regardless of how I feel before stepping in,” she says. “I also love how hair and body products bloom in the steam of a warm shower.”

Babba’s journey from first-generation Swede that rejected her Latinx identity to 21st century founder and diversity advocate was carved out of her prerogative for curiosity and learning from anyone. But it’s also been about challenging the status quo and trite clichés, especially about what being Latinx is supposed to look or be like. “I think the part of me that is unapologetically myself is definitely stemming from my Latinx identity,” she says.

Editor’s note: As full disclosure, we want to let you know Emperifollá hosted an event at SHOWFIELDS – mentioned in this piece.

Frances Solá-Santiago

Born in Puerto Rico, based in New York City. She is the editor-in-chief on Emperifollá. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, NPR, Glamour Magazine, Numéro, Refinery29, Remezcla, and Bustle.

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