🎙Interview: Alexandra Rivera
Alexandra Rivera (she/her) is a (vaguely) Mexican-American writer and TV producer turned podcast host, based in New York City. Her doc podcast, United Stateless Podcast, about returning immigrants to Mexico, is one of the top 30 podcasts in Apple Podcasts in Mexico for 2023. You can find out more on instagram at @unitedstatelesspodcast, on the website at www.unitedstatelesspodcast.com. And for memes, rants, and cooking videos, check out Alexandra's instagram @alexandra_x_rivera.
For more interviews, make sure to visit our Interviews page and subscribe below for future updates. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s go back to the day you decided to make this podcast. What’s the origin story?
This project has been through many phases. Professionally, I am a somewhat of a writer and producer in television, so it actually started out as a scripted TV show that got very far in the process of being placed on a streamer. And then some things happened, including the pandemic, and the show went away overnight.
As a solution, the production company I was working with had the idea to make it into a scripted podcast and then used the IP to go back to television that way. So I spent a whole summer of 2020 with a writer's room making scripts for a scripted podcast and got to work with like some really amazing people.
But with the production company…we'll just say that that relationship came to an end. And so I was kind of left with a bunch of podcast scripts and with this idea that had gotten so close to being made and then at the last minute everything fell apart.
I still wanted to do something with this idea, regardless of whether it went to television, and really champion the people in it. And so I realized that the easiest thing for me to do was a documentary podcast because I could just go to Mexico and do that myself.
I officially got the rights [to the show] back in June of 2021. I threw a party in my backyard. And then I got through a really horrible breakup and I was just like, you know what, I need a break from New York. I'm just gonna jump on a plane to Mexico in October. So that's kind of how it got started.
That’s a fascinating story!
One of the things that stood out to me when I listened to your show is that you said you thought that immigrants didn’t have identity issues. First, for those who haven’t listened yet, can you summarize what you mean by that?
I’m mixed and I'm also from a Latin background. My Mexican-American family has been in the U.S. for a few generations at this point. I personally always had a really hard time explaining that to people, especially because I grew up in an area where that wasn't a very usual story and everyone there was mostly came from a refugee background. Those are two just very different experiences. And so I really struggled with my own identity and I looked around and I saw this great community of people who had had this shared experience, and I was like, “oh, I bet you guys have it a lot easier than me, I bet you at least feel like you can fit in, in the Latin world.”
Like if you went back to Central America–because that's largely where people I grew up with were from–people would be like, “oh, okay, yeah, sure, fine, yeah, we accept you.” Whereas with me, oftentimes people would be kind of confrontational with me about my identity, weirdly.
But I mean, I should also say that I'm very blonde, so maybe that's part of it. But thought maybe if I fit in a little bit more…maybe if I had like more of a typical story, I wouldn't be feeling this way. But then it turns out that no one's nice to each other. No, I'm just kidding. [laughs]
It turns out it's really hard for everyone, and in very similar ways. I had thought that if there were struggles there, that they would be really different. So, yeah…
So now, having worked on this show, you understand–or it seems like you've come to this understanding–that identity is complicated and it doesn't matter what your situation is.
Yeah, and this was also like, middle school thoughts for me. I think when I met the first person who was like breaking down the amount of imposter syndrome that he went through being in Mexico, I realized that I was not the only person with my experience.
Even trying to fit in with a group of Mexican-Americans was kind of imposter syndrome in a way because I could feel there is a different experience there. So realizing that there actually is a lot of shared experience was like really eye-opening, and then also really comforting because suddenly I felt more at home in my identity.
It's okay that it's not totally in this like neat little box and package. You know, everyone's is kind of a mess.
You mentioned on the show as well that you had been going through an identity crisis, especially because you are so often asked, “What are you?”. Or put another way, “where are you really from?”
There are people who have for sure been asked those questions who will get it, but for those who haven’t, what’s a metaphor you would use to describe what it’s like to get that question?
There's an element, I feel like, when you get it, that's like, “hey, justify yourself.” Like, you know, “why do you exist?” Even if sometimes when I would give a quick…what I thought was a quick and easy answer, people would then have more questions. But the questions wouldn't necessarily be like, “oh, tell me more about that.” It would be like, but ”that's not quite right….”
There's also an element where someone is looking for some sort of a performance out of you of like, “Hey, tell me a good story, I need it to make me comfortable with you,” I guess. Yeah, it's kind of what it feels like.
I'm totally happy with someone asking me, “what's your background?” or “where did you grow up?” or “What is your cultural background?” You know, I understand those questions come up and those questions in general are fine. It's just how you ask them and also the follow up.
How did this podcast perhaps make you come to terms with, or process your identity?
You know, it's kind of amazing. I didn't realize how little I talked about it, in the way that I talked about it on the podcast, until I spoke with some friends afterwards.
And like, there used to be a section in there where I really, really went in on some of the stuff that I've experienced just like as a mixed person and some of the, I guess, pushback for being myself. It kind of made me realize like how much of that experience I kept bottled up and there's part of me that maybe wants to do another project where we talk more about that.
It also made me feel more at home in my identity because for the first time I was around a lot of Mexican Americans that I wasn't related to. I'd always perceived fitting comfortably into an identity as this club that I would like never belong to, or have access to. And then to talk about it with people and really have that deep conversation about shared identity issues really made me feel like I belonged in a way that I've never really felt anywhere. So yeah, it was good. And it was also good for the people I was interviewing because they felt—and people told me this—like they felt like not a zoo animal afterwards.
I'm glad that with the some of the people I was interviewing, that we could have this shared moment of mutual understanding, as well as them telling their story and getting their experience off their chest.
I'm really kind of in awe of all the people that I interviewed and what they've been able to process. And it's not all stories of overcoming things, but it's a lot of stories of coming to terms with things and making the best out of a really complicated situation.
You are planning to do a second season. What are some of the stories you are hoping to tell or maybe an approach you would like to take?
The second season as its kind of developing right now is slated to be a bit different than the first season because I think it's going to take place in a different country. The plan right now is that that country is El Salvador.
There's a lot of differences between Mexico and El Salvador, given their history and the reasons why people are returning, plus what is going on there politically and some of the more complicated local prejudices that affect returnees specifically.
For all its faults and for all its quirks, Mexico is–in comparison to parts of Central America–kind of stable and progressive place. And so for people returning to El Salvador, I'd like to talk to someone who is part of the queer community, because a lot of those folks actually wind up seeking asylum in Mexico if they've been deported to another country in the region. Or someone who has a lot of tattoos, which might be misconstrued to be gang related.
I grew up in an area that was very Salvadorian so I also think it would be interesting to talk to someone that grew up near me. I grew up with a lot of people that had left due to the civil war. I think with this season, we'll probably be confronting a lot of my perception about the country.
While we wait for the second season to release, what would be your pitch for folks to listen to the stories you have presented so far?
If you're not very familiar with Mexico or Latin culture or have misconceptions, you're going to learn something new. Also the show is really not as depressing as you think it sounds like it's going to be. I mean, some of the stories are, but I think in general it's a really fascinating deep dive into what's a kind of bittersweet, hopeful experience.
And I really, really love how everyone told their story. I think everyone who I talked to had a really beautiful way of expressing themselves.
Also if you want to hear my food recommendations for Mexico City, that's the second episode. Side note: There's a taco that I talked about that I had never seen in the U.S. that I just found it in Bushwick. It's like a fried cheese taco; the tortillas practically made out of fried cheese. It's amazing! So yeah, Put that on your radar.
Enjoyed this conversation about identity? Next check out my interview with Ronald Young Jr. of Weight for It podcast.