The Jefa Has Entered the Building

Before the 2016 election, the landscape for Latinx empowerment was worlds apart from what we see today. There were almost no Latinx fashion and beauty brands featured on the top magazines, while online stores rarely catered to the market and networking conferences became increasingly white spaces where girlbosses– the Sheryl Sandberg-type working woman that leaned in– thrived. Then, Donald Trump won, racist hate speech became the norm, and Latinx communities feared for their safety more than ever before. 

The 2016 election created a ripple effect of Latinx-owned fashion, beauty, culture and lifestyle businesses that flew their flag for the sake of empowerment. Brands like Hija de tu madre, Rizos Curls, and Viva la Bonita were born offering Latinx women, in particular, a chance to support purpose-driven businesses that made them feel both empowered and connected to their cultures. 

“Something that’s very important to me with Rizos Curls is curls, community and culture,” says Julissa Prado, founder of haircare brand Rizos Curls. “Sometimes people think they have nothing to do with each other, but to me, they do.”

The rise of these businesses gave way to the self-made Cinderella stories of girlboss-like personalities, like Julissa Prado of Rizos Curls, Patty Delgado of Hija de tu madre, and Ada Rojas of Botánica Beauty. With the help of social media and direct-to-consumer strategies, their businesses soared, helping Prado, for example, reach a Target distribution deal in 2020, and Rojas to reach $1 million in revenue. (Editor’s note: Ada Rojas is no longer with Botánika Beauty and has since launched Vecina Couture.) It was all surreal. Suddenly, the girlboss had become the jefa, and similar to the rising entrepreneurs of the early 2010s– think Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso and The Wing’s Audrey Gelman–, the jefa had entered the building. 

I remember vividly the first time I set foot inside The Wing. I was filming a video for my then employer People Chica, featuring The Bonita Project’s founder Danielle Alvarez. The space was quiet with an almost library-like silence that felt intimidating rather than inviting. I looked around to find one woman who wasn’t white and only found them working behind the counter. Three years later, The Wing was hit with a train of allegations of racism and mistreatment to employees of color that forced its founder Audrey Gelman to exit the company.

Gelman, along with entrepreneurs like Glossier’s Emily Weiss, Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe, and the girlboss herself Sophia Amoruso, launched a pink-hued movement that subscribed to Sheryl Sandberg’s teachings: thrive in the system, don’t complain about it. They promised female empowerment through direct-to-consumer brands, networking events, conferences, and pink… so much pink. (Editor’s note: Yes, I am aware Emperifollá’s branding includes a pink shade. Thanks.)

All of that came to a reckoning in 2020, when the Black Lives Matter Movement, the economic collapse brought by the pandemic, and social chaos confronted the pink-colored glasses of feminism we all saw through. (To be honest, I firmly subscribed to the #Girlboss set of principles for most of my early 20s, attending conferences like Cosmopolitan’s Fun Fearless Life and following Amoruso’s teachings imparted in her 2014 memoir #Girlboss.) Writers Amanda Mull and Leigh Stein dedicated essays to the demise of the girlboss in The Atlantic and Medium, after Sophia Amoruso exited her girlboss empire, Emily Weiss was confronted by diversity and racism issues inside Glossier, and Gelman left The Wing. 

“It becomes inescapably clear that when women center their worldview around their own office hustle, it just re-creates the power structures built by men, but with women conveniently on top,” Mull wrote. “In the void left after the end of the corporate feminist vision of the future, this reckoning opens space to imagine success that doesn’t involve acing performance reviews or getting the most out of your interns.”

But girlboss culture is not dead among Latinx communities. It’s rebranded and reclaimed itself in Spanish as the “jefa,” the literal translation of “girlboss.” Accounts like The Jefa Mindset, Jefas y Jevas, Jefa Behavior, and Jefa Life try to digitally showcase the jefa ethos through inspirational posts, entrepreneur profiles, and memes for daily jefa vibes. Then, there is the creation of “Jefa Day”– celebrated on March 31– by the brand Hija de tu madre. 

“It’s more like a way to wear my culture around me in a way for me to, like, own my own bossy-ness or my own power,” says Vanessa Miranda, the head of engagement at Cyber Collective and self-declared “jefa.” “I think it gives me power in a way that I get to showcase my culture.”

“Empowerment” seems to be at the forefront of this movement, one that’s been positioned as a tool for Latinx women to reclaim their power inside American power structure and spaces that are dominated by white people. Their thinking is that by identifying as a “jefa,” their entrance into these spaces comes with a pact to themselves and their community to not sacrifice heritage for success. 

Take The Jefas Crew, for example, a group formed by Julissa Prado, Patty Delgado, and Shop Latinx founder Brittany Chavez with its own Instagram account back in 2017. Prado says that, at the time, the three Angelinas were building their companies and trying to find the confidence to do so successfully. Since then, the three have sold and created products with the jefa ethos and slogan attached, from “Make Jefa Moves” planners and necklaces to “Jefa” pins. 

For Prado and Delgado, the jefa mindset even took them to host their own JefaCon in 2020, in partnership with Smashbox. The day-long conference promised to celebrate “the immense power of all women and honors the numerous interpretations of the jefa mindset,” featuring speakers like Oprah Daily’s Arianna Davis and poet Yessika Delgado. 

“I think we all do our own respective things within the industries that we are to try to open doors and bring more power, awareness and uplift our other Latinos,” says Prado. “I was just very, very honored with their support as a company to bring this vision forward of empowering, spreading this message and creating a platform to educate women.”

While the jefa movement is paving new ground for Latinx entrepreneurs and creators in the United States, many argue that it still resembles the millennial pink empowerment the girlboss movement created back in the early 2010s. Beyond the proliferation of merch and #jefa inspirational content, the jefa movement is largely mirroring a largely white feminist approach that still leaves behind BIPOC individuals within the Latinx communities. At the end of the day, the girlboss playbook was created to rise within the system, not change it. 

“Jefa culture offers an important departure from the traditionally white, privileged girlboss brand,” says Ludi Leiva, a Guatemalan-Slovak artist. “And while it carves out space for Latina-identifying people to vie for financial and professional empowerment, it is still fighting for a seat at a table that didn’t really want us there in the first place—so what happens when we do get there?” 

That’s one question that studies, reports, and articles year after year continue to raise: what is the value of Latinas in corporate America? It’s an ever-growing concern, one that’s propelled by a higher rate of Latinos graduating college, launching businesses, and ascending through the corporate ladder. Nielsen’s 2017 “Latina 2.0” study proclaimed that “signs of the ‘Latina ascent’ are everywhere,” especially in buying power, which outpaces the rest of the United States, their expertise of social media, and their affinity to their heritage. Nielsen found that Latinas “set their own standards of community, beauty, and style.”

But what happens when the jefa continues to uphold systems that were not designed for her to thrive? This is another way the jefa movement is continuously resembling the girlboss movement. Leigh Stein, the author of the essay “The End of the Girlboss Is Here” says that, in the beginning, the Sheryl Sandberg-like generation knew that systemic issues within corporate America were put in place to work against women, but decided to ascend through it rather than smash it. “It’s not that Sheryl Sandberg is unaware that systemic issues for women exist,” says Stein. “It’s just she’s explicitly said ‘This is the path I’m going to take’.”

And that path resulted in the massive implosion of the girlboss movement we witnessed last year with BIPOC women claiming their space and denouncing the hoarding of wealth and opportunities for a majority white feminist cohort. That’s perhaps why the emerging generation of jefas making it in business today have created their own table in the form of digital platforms, online shops, and brands that celebrate their heritage, rather than suppress it, inviting corporate brands to tag along their jefa mindset, and ask aspiring jefas to dream en grande, just  like they did. After all, Julissa Prado left Nestlé to pursue her dream of a million-dollar hair care brand. Danielle Alvarez left a top public relations agency to start The Bonita Project. Regina Merson left corporate law to start her Target-sold makeup brand Reina Rebelde. They leaned out, rather than leaning in, and that’s powerful for a generation of Latinas that’s now been shown that a seat at the table might not be the ultimate goal. 

While the girlboss and jefa movements cannot be lumped together, the mirror effect is there. After 2020, the cautionary tale is evident, and now that the jefa has entered the building, one needs to wonder: what will she do there? 

“It can be easy to hold onto the promise of jefa culture because it’s a sentiment of empowerment and hope that’s been boiled down to one very digestible word,” says Leiva. “Aspiring to become a “jefa” without a more nuanced critique is, to me, a starting point, but not enough to really help us transcend the circumstances many of us find ourselves in.” 

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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