Julio Ricardo Varela is an author and blogger whose social commentary is concerned with Latino identity and literature and Puerto Rican politics. The Milton resident has written a soon to be published novel “Franky Benítez: A Story of Love, Pain and Hope from San Juan to Boston.” After his recent appearance on a WBUR program “Whole Foods and the Future of Jamaica Plain,” Varela has become a much listened to voice in the great supermarket debate. Patch recently had the opportunity to meet with Varela.
What are your thoughts about a Whole Foods store replacing the former Hi-Lo supermarket in Jamaica Plain?
I think that Whole Foods is good for JP but I also think that the criticisms and concerns about it are very valid. I am concerned about gentrification. I think the voiceless need to be heard. The issue of Whole Foods becoming a true cultural community partner is really important for people and I hope that they do it and not just pay lip-service to it. But I also think that it’s a done deal. I really hope that the people who are against it put their energy into making this neighborhood even better. Unfortunately, I think that it’s gotten ugly. The stances of some pro-Whole Foods groups have bordered on cultural snobbery and lack of knowledge about why the Hi-Lo was so important to so many people. It was more than just a supermarket. It was a cultural institution. But I also think that there’s hope. I think a group like JP for All is doing a really great job. To me, they represent the majority of the neighborhood.
How do you see the future of JP’s Latin Quarter?
I believe that if it’s done right it can become a destination neighborhood. This is an opportunity to revitalize the area. There are pockets of it that are great! ,, and the bodegas. There’s a part of me that feels there could be more of a strategy and a formal effort by the City to call it the Latin Quarter, make it the Latin Quarter, and celebrate it!
When did you write “Franky Benítez?” Is it an autobiography?
I started writing “Franky Benitez” in November, 2010. I’ve had the story in my mind for fifteen years. I’ve always loved the story of how my parents met. Here was this Puerto Rican guy meeting this Italian woman from the Bronx. If you remember West Side Story, the Puerto Ricans coming from the island in the 1950’s were troublemakers. One of Franky’s great-grandfathers comes from Spain and he showed up in Puerto Rico when the Americans invaded the island. He was going to get a job in a sugar factory. So in the book, I make him land on the day when the Americans blow up the U.S.S. Maine in Cuba, starting the Spanish-American War. His entire life just explodes. The same thing happens with Franky’s Italian grandfather, coming to Ellis Island. Franky’s great-grandfathers act the same way as Franky does now, living in this urban world, with a Harvard degree, growing up in the 21st century, and living in post 9/11 America. I explore politics, Latino issues, and Puerto Rican history. I’ve already published the first thirteen chapters online, and I’ve had an incredible response. And what’s happened with Franky is that he’s become my personae.
I understand that your brother is a talented singer. Can you tell me about his accomplishments?
My brother Fernando came out with a CD three years ago called “Dare to Live.” We knew that we were going to do a Facebook page, and it was at the time that Twitter wasn’t big yet. And I said that the only way we’re going to sell your songs on iTunes is through social media because we have no advertising budget, and we’re not going to get a record deal. He’s got an amazing voice! When he was 22, he met Pavarotti’s arranger, and he sang for him. The arranger said, “I met Pavarotti at 22, and you’re better.” His version of “Por Ti Volare” outsells all others on ITunes. If he wasn’t good he wouldn’t be getting the following that he’s getting now. He’s got over 23,000 fans on his Facebook page. About three weeks ago we did a Spanish version of Coldplay’s “Yellow” that the two of us wrote the lyrics for, and I’ve gotten about 4,000 hits on my blog. We’re going to release an HD Video of it. It’s all been done through social media.
In what other ways have you used social media?
On Cinco de Mayo, we're launching Latinorebels.com. We’re calling it a “Daily Show” on U.S. Latino issues. I’ve brought in about twenty-five Latino social media influentials, some of them are comedians, video producers, bloggers, political analysts, and satirists. We’re going to present the Latino world through comedy. We have a Facebook page and a Twitter page, and we already have over 2,000 fans without any advertising.
What is your position on Puerto Rican statehood or independence?
I’m totally against statehood for Puerto Rico. It’s as simple as that. Puerto Rico is not a part of the United States in a lot of ways. Even though we’re U.S. citizens, we weren’t willing U.S. citizens. We were invaded. I don’t think a Latino state could even survive in this political climate. There’s an option called free associated state where there are some ties to the United States but Puerto Rico could control its own future.
What do you see as the most important issues facing Latino identity?
The biggest issue is how to organize ourselves politically so that we become a force without being a fractured force. The problem with being Latino in the U.S. is that there are so many countries and cultures. There’s always been a history of division. I’m concerned that what’s happening in Arizona is happening in other states . . . the "show me your papers" type papers mentality. There’s no true attempt at true immigration reform which I think is the biggest issue for Latinos to unite politically.