The world changed during the coronavirus pandemic: millions of people were fighting for their lives in hospital beds or fearfully confined to their homes, suffering the radical changes in their personal lives, education and work. In San Diego, California, a 26-year-old Jesus Morales lost his job at a gym and spent nine months barely surviving on aid checks. He watched videos on social networks such as TikTok, moved by the hardships of the Latino community and especially street vendors who defied death trying to make a living.
"One day I was passing an elotero [a seller of seasoned corn cobs] on my street and it occurred to me to give him 100 dollars and make a video. When I handed them to him, the boy was very grateful, knelt down, thanked me, and said, 'God bless you.' At that moment I knew I wanted to do this," says Morales, who calls himself @juixxe on networks such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.
The Hispanic 'influencer' Jesus Morales.Jesus Morales
Since that first donation, in 2020, Morales has built a successful career as a creator of content in networks: only on TikTok he has more than five million followers and exceeds 138 million likes. In total, he says he donated $400,000 to recording his videos, which is a full-time job.
"We are not many people, really. I have two cameramen and my family helps me, but sometimes it's a lot of work. Maybe one day we can have a bigger team, but that would be later," explains Morales, who declined to specify how much he earns for his work on social networks.
The young man has toured Southern California, organized activities in the Mexican cities of Tijuana and San Luis Potosi, and even recently in El Salvador. In his recordings he mixes life stories, economic aid and the warmth of direct contact. Vendors of tacos, sweets, fruits or ice cream often appear that he chooses at random: after a brief conversation in English or Spanish, he surprises them by buying all the merchandise to give it away, or gives them tips of thousands of dollars, which triggers large doses of drama when people burst into tears or tell them about their hard lives as migrants in the United States.
"Our people are good and want to get ahead in America. They come for an opportunity and with my videos I just want to show that they want to work for this American dream," Morales told Noticias Telemundo in a video interview from California.
Morales often gets emotional when he recalls that his parents arrived from the Mexican city of San Luis Potosí to the U.S. with nothing, like thousands of migrants who cross the border every year in search of a better future. According to figures from Customs and Border Protection, at least 91,000 people were intercepted at the southern border during the month of August, the highest number since May 2019.
"My parents came here with a dream, they had nothing else, not a peso. And they had to sleep in a basement on pieces of cardboard, they are incredible people who have sacrificed so much to be here," he says.
In 2021 he was included along with other prestigious Hispanic content creators, such as Sofia Bella, Leo González and Jonny Morales, in the official list of the Latinx TikTok Trailblazers "for his creativity, passion, and authentic spirit," according to the company's statement.
His success has allowed him to work with brands such as Intel, Ally Bank, McDonalds and Cricket Wireless. "A few months ago I partnered with Modelo to celebrate the launch of beers inspired by aguas frescas, which are the drinks sold by street vendors, and they are very delicious. And that allowed me to help five vendors and give $5,000 in cash each," he explains.
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"I'm usually in the car, we're walking around and we see a saleswoman. The coolest thing, what I love about what we do is that, the instant we see someone, we're going to give them money, buy them all the flowers, buy all the tacos and so on. It's not that people send me their story," says Morales.
In his case, social networks sometimes mutate to become a chain of favors that produce unexpected situations. By recording Hector, a street vendor whose last name he did not disclose, he learned he was suffering from cancer and set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for his treatment. And in the case of Teodoro Jimenez, he visited his taco stand, and when he tearfully told him that he had the dream of having his own food truck, he made an online fundraiser and gave him $ 50,000 to buy it.
"What I've noticed lately is that now people are supporting street vendors a lot more and that's a very nice thing that's happening. Our Latino people deserve all the help," he says about the trends he perceives in the networks.
"You have to be transparent with people"
Morales' work is part of a phenomenon known as the stunt philanthropy, in which influencers or celebrities record funny or moving videos to further a cause.
When those videos go viral on social networks like TikTok, they can generate massive public engagement that raises large sums of money and attracts social attention, as in 2014 with the Ice bucket challenge, which raised $115 million for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis scientific research.
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Among the great references of this trend are YouTube personalities such as Jonathan B. Allen, Brooklyn, Bailey McKnight and Jimmy Donaldson, known as MrBeast, the creator of one of the largest channels of that network with 181 million subscribers.
The use of the vast influence that these influencerss also generates criticism and doubts about where the kindness ends and the business begins.
Influencers like Jesus already have high visibility with well-done advertising that even sells products like t-shirts. Not only is the narrative of making a philanthropic act for vulnerable population, it is also used to sell merchandise, "explains Carlos Piña, doctor in Computer Science from the University of Essex and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Vincent Miller, an academic at the Department of Media Studies at the University of Kent (England) published this year an essay on the "audience commodity" and how the simple fact of achieving visualizations is a kind of work or economic contribution.
"MrBeast is actually telling people who are entering a market, when he says, 'If you look at this, it's worth a lot of money, I can raise a lot of money and spend it on good causes,'" he explained in an interview with The New York Times.
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Morales explains that he usually receives his donations through contributions in apps such as Venmo and Cash App, in addition to the fundraisers he sometimes organizes for specific cases and agreements with brands. He is emphatic in stating that "despite being donations you have to pay taxes." "This is non-profit. Every year I pay taxes, I'm a normal person, I'm not a millionaire," he says.
The young man also explains that, after delivering the donation to the sellers, he usually waits days or weeks to publish the video on social networks for security reasons, and emphasizes that the key to his success in the networks has been transparency with the audiences.
"The number one thing is that you have to be transparent with people. I always tell them how much we raise, how much I'm giving away and how much I'm getting, and I think with that I gained trust. Obviously no one is going to send donations to someone without knowing where their money is going to go. And with these videos I show what is done with donations, it was always like this and it will always be like that," he says.
Although he admits that he is enjoying his project on social networks and wants to dedicate himself to it in the near future, his eyes shine when he talks about one of his big dreams.
"Since I was a kid I've always had the dream of being an actor. Maybe one day I'll be able to be in a Hollywood movie, but that's later," he concludes with a smile.