An empty bookshelf and a stray bath towel serve as a makeshift background, framing a blonde 20-something in a bright yellow Colombian soccer jersey. “Today, I am going to tell you why I prefer to live here rather than in my own country,” says Zach Morris in Spanish.
These opening words soon catapulted the South Carolina native to YouTube influencer status in Colombia.
Since he posted it in 2016, Morris’ 5-minute video has racked up over 1.1 million views, and he’s amassed an army of 950,000 subscribers who comment, engage and reply to his frequent, light-hearted musings about life as an American in Colombia. When asked if he’s gained followers despite or because of his background, Morris opted for the latter. His audience likes seeing an outsiders’ perspective on their customs and culture, he told AQ, especially when that perspective is shared with high levels of enthusiasm and adoration.
Morris is part of an energetic group of American expats and former expats – often young, white men – who have made careers documenting their lives in Latin America in Spanish and Portuguese. Their videos range from deeply relatable to cringeworthy, but at their core, they are love letters to their adopted homes – with the added benefit of being a lucrative financial outlet.
“YouTube was the (social media platform) that people were beginning to notice it was possible to make money on,” said Seth Kugel, AKA Amigo Gringo on the platform, which he joined in 2014 when living in Brazil.
Kugel penned the “Frugal Traveler” column in the New York Times from 2010 to 2016, and lived in São Paulo, where he learned the language. Over the past five years, his channel has been a source of travel tips for Brazilian visitors to New York City as well as comedic relief for Portuguese-speaking audiences.
“I’m clearly in touch with more parts of Brazil now via people commenting on my videos and me responding to them,” Kugel told AQ. “Even more now than when I was a journalist in Brazil.”
Tim Cunningham also connects Brazilians with the U.S. on his channel Tim Explica, or Tim Explains.
In one video in his bare living room in São Paulo, he answers one question he gets from countless curious followers: “Why Brazil?” While working as a tutor in New York City, Cunningham started posting YouTube videos as a tool to teach English to Brazilian students – and gained a sizable following before ultimately relocating to Brazil. He now lives in São Paulo, and shares his language lessons mixed with satire and comedy with over a million YouTube subscribers.
In Mexico, Holly Tuggy, or Super Holly, holds eye contact with the camera, and it’s like the energetic blonde is talking and laughing with you. Cozy lights hang behind her, and graphics zoom across the screen as she switches between English and Spanish within the same sentence.
Tuggy’s mix of stories about growing up between the U.S and Mexico, tips on how to pronounce popular brands in English, and advice for learning English, Spanish and Náhuatl has earned her nearly 4 million subscribers. And her popularity has crossed Mexico’s southern border, with fan-created memes circulating in Honduras and Central America.
Argentines are also in on the fun with their own gringo influencer, Dustin Luke, a “yanqui” from Atlanta whose videos mix humor, cultural commentary and lessons on English and Spanish featuring his Argentine alter ego Facu (read: Luke in a wig). Luke went viral in 2012 with a video demonstrating his perfect Argentine accent, and he’s since amassed just under a million followers between YouTube and Instagram.
“One of the best parts of all of this is being able to go back and watch an experience that I had and relive this memory in a high quality way,” said Luke, who recently began making videos for Los Gringos TV, a group of young men from the U.S. who develop content for Latin American audiences. “And there are also a lot of people who write me and are inspired by it.”
Influencing in Quarantine
Since the coronavirus pandemic grounded flights and stalled travel plans worldwide, the gringo influencers have had to adjust their fun, often goofy videos about U.S. and Latin American culture to the circumstances.
In Mexico, Super Holly made a video introducing her Spanish-speaking followers to English vocabulary associated with the pandemic. Both Morris and Cunningham, who had travel videos planned, have instead documented their attempts to travel back home to the U.S., frustrated by canceled flights and long road trips.
In New York City, Kugel has explored new topics related to the pandemic, interviewing his cousin, an ER doctor, about the hardships of being on the front line. He’s also begun dabbling in politics.
“It’s always hard to know what to do about politics on these channels, and a lot of people simply avoid it,” Kugel said. “But with the virus I did my first ever video that could be interpreted as directly critical of (President Jair) Bolsonaro … Lives are on the line.”
The pandemic has indeed sent YouTubers like Morris for spin. After losing his job as a tour guide in Cali, Colombia, he has relocated back to the U.S. Meanwhile, stay at home orders are leaving many Latin Americans with more time to spend online, increasing the potential to find new audiences. The challenge, Morris says, is remaining authentic amid the turbulent circumstances and the pressure to create new content.
“I’m having to internalize the mindset of a creator a lot more than I’ve ever had to before.”
Hopkins is an editorial intern at AQ