‘Funny, you don’t look Latina.” Joanna Hausmann has heard that a lot, and was getting sick of it. But instead of just being ticked off, Hausmann, a Jewish Venezuelan, used her annoyance to fuel a career in comedy.
Hausmann is now the star and writer of a series of humorous web videos produced by FLAMA, a Univision and Bedrocket Media joint media venture. Among them are ones titled, “Things White Latinos Are Sick of Hearing” and “5 Misconceptions About Latinos.”
Misconceptions about identity—specifically hers—is something Hausmann, 26, has dealt with her entire life.
Americans, many of whom think only “Mexican” when they hear “Latino”— don’t understand how she, a fair white woman, could be Latina. Some fellow Latinos accuse her of being a Jewish woman merely pretending to be Latina.
“I have to explain my Jewishness in the Latino community and my Latino-ness within the American community. I found that really hard to have to do when I was younger, but now it’s an asset,” Hausmann recently told The Times of Israel.
Ironically, some people have half-jokingly told the New York-based Hausmann that they assumed, based upon her German surname and the fact that she grew up in South America, that she was the granddaughter or great-granddaughter of a Nazi war criminal who had eluded capture by the Allies.
On the contrary, Hausmann is the granddaughter of European Holocaust survivors who made their way to Venezuela following World War II. Her paternal grandfather, born in Leipzig, Germany, was orphaned as a young teenager when his mother died in childbirth in the ghetto and his father was shot. He and his brother somehow managed to survive a two-year journey on foot to Spain. From there her grandfather made his way to Caracas, where an older sister had been living since before the war, in search of work.
Hausmann’s paternal grandmother survived the war in hiding in her native Belgium. Some time in the mid-to-late 1940s she visited Venezuela and decided to settle there after meeting Hausmann’s grandfather.
On her mother’s side, Hausmann is descended from a non-Jewish Venezuelan-Cuban family of European and Lebanese background.
“My mom’s family fled Cuba [because of Castro’s Communist revolution] to Venezuela, and that is how my parents met. Essentially, both sides of my family found refuge in Venezuela,” Hausmann said.
‘I have to explain my Jewishness in the Latino community and my Latino-ness within the American community’
Hausmann, who has an older half-brother and half-sister from her father’s first marriage, was born in England in 1989 when her parents were there temporarily pursuing higher education. When she was still quite young, the family returned to Caracas, where her parents both worked as technocrats in the government.
When her father took a position as a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the family moved again—this time to Boston. It was there that Hausmann went to middle school, converted to Judaism, and became bat mitzvah. (Her mother also converted later, when Hausmann was in college).
“I read Torah and haftarah—things girls didn’t do in synagogues in Latin America,” she proudly noted. “I’m the only half-Jewish [by birth] Hausmann, but I am the most Jewishly accomplished.”
Hausmann returned to Venezuela for high school, where she went to the American International School because it offered a good program in English, theatre and the arts. Hausmann was glad to be back in Caracas after never having been fully comfortable in Boston, where she felt she was “nothing and all at the same time.” That lack of a single, clear-cut identity was hard for Hausmann as a young teenager to deal with, although years later she would use this complexity to fuel her comedy.
After high school, Hausmann headed back to the Boston area to attend Tufts University, where she won an award for a play she wrote. Following college, she spent a year honing her comedic talents at Chicago’s The Second City, the legendary improvisational theatre training center.
“Ever since I was three I knew I was a comedian, but I needed to learn the science and craft of comedy,” Hausmann said.
‘I identify very strongly as a Venezuelan, but we can’t go back there… It’s really the saddest thing… It had been a beacon of hope for my family’
These days, her unusual background is a boon to her career, but as she was growing up, Hausmann hated that the way she looked on the outside did not match who she was on the inside. At times, she disliked her red hair and blue eyes because they made it hard for her to explain her identity. She also was confused by the fact that although she had felt very Jewish in Boston, the traditional Venezuelan Jewish community did not recognize her as Jewish.
In 2007, another layer of complexity was added when her parents and siblings left Venezuela for good because of the political situation there resulting from the socialist Bolivarian Revolution led by the late president Hugo Chavez.
“The government was very anti-Semitic and the Jews left. Venezuela became a weird, aggressive place for Jews,” Hausmann said.
“I identify very strongly as a Venezuelan, but we can’t go back there because it’s an authoritarian regime and there is no quality of life. It’s really the saddest thing because Venezuela used to be so inclusive and immigrant-friendly. It had been a beacon of hope for my family.”
Hausmann, who has visited Israel twice in recent years, contrasts life in Israel with that in her native country. She recalled how safe she felt in Israel, and that she liked how Israelis can be hypercritical of their government and feel free to express their opinions.
“I like it when a country questions itself. It’s too late to question in Venezuela,” she said.
Now ensconced in her life in the US, Hausmann is focused on conquering a niche that she feels she is well suited to fill.
‘I like it when a country questions itself. It’s too late to question in Venezuela’
“There is so much comedy online, but the Latino subject was not mined,” she said. “It seemed so seamless for me to fill this void. My comedy comes from my specific personal experience, but it’s translating to the universal level. People are really identifying with it.”
Although her videos have garnered hundreds of thousands of views each, not all reactions to them have been positive. Alongside the complimentary feedback, Hausmann has also gotten hateful comments.
She isn’t surprised. She knows that breaking stereotypes isn’t easy.
“I’m a very sensitive person, but I am also driven. You need a strong sense of self to do this.”