Writer and producer Erika Ramirez (Rolling Stone, Billboard) is the founder of the digital magazine and creative agency ILY, which explores the overlaps between love and expression. Her work is for everyone who wants to learn to love better, but isn’t sure where to start.
Aria Vega [00:00:00] [Voiceover] This podcast contains explicit content. Listener's discretion is advised. POV by Lustery explores culture, politics and creativity in the sex industry, one point of view at a time. I'm your host, Aria Vega.
Aria Vega [00:00:17] Erika Ramirez is a writer, producer and editor-in-chief of the digital magazine, ILY. Based in Los Angeles, California, Erika founded ILY, an acronym for I Love You, in 2016. That's when a series of conversations with her close friends about love and relationships began evolving into a creative platform, which supports essays, video series, art installations and more. Long before creating ILY, Erika felt destined to write. She got her start with poetry when she was 10 or 12, when she discovered how much it helped her process her experiences.
Erika Ramirez [00:00:54] I would write these very deep, heavy poems, and my mom's just like, Where is this coming from? From this little body that I birthed and raised? She's like, where are all these emotions coming from? And I think it was, you know, whatever I was feeling at the moment, my crushes and then also whatever I was watching. And yeah, I wrote poetry when I was younger, and I then started writing when I got into community college at Delta in Stockton, California. I was in a part of the newspaper there, and I was writing music reviews, like show reviews and album reviews. And that's kind of how I got into more of a mainstream writing, and less personal writing.
Aria Vega [00:01:40] [Voiceover] Erika's music journalism eventually led her to outlets like Billboard and Rolling Stone, where she's been a contributor and an editor. Her achievements are extra impressive when you consider the language barrier she had to climb to reach them. English as a second language for Erika, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico before she was born.
Erika Ramirez [00:02:00] [Interview] I started learning English when I started kindergarten, because it's an English speaking school. It's interesting, my relationship with words, at least at that time. Words had such strong meaning, because they were pretty much what tied me and my family together. It brought us together, brought us closer, but within our own little world, because outside of it, I was asked to speak another language in order to assimilate into whatever community was being built at school. And I would go back home and my parents would ask me to speak English in order for them to learn English, and they would speak Spanish to me just because that was the only way of them expressing themselves naturally. So I would also be learning kind of like both languages at the same time, interestingly enough. But when I was starting to write, I started to write when I was around 10 years old, so I did know English a little bit more by then. It felt as if poetry was my form of— of course, it was a form of expression for me, as it is for others— but it was almost my only form of expression, of my true feelings. It was my only way of expressing how I truly felt, whether those feelings were big or not, they felt as if they were always big, but it was my only way of communication where I could express exactly how I felt as my whole self.
Aria Vega [00:03:31] And when did love first become such a topic of fascination for you?
Erika Ramirez [00:03:35] Oh, it's always been. And looking back to the poetry days, it was always about love that I was writing about. My first poem was actually about my mom that I wrote, she still has it hidden somewhere. Everything I have ever written, until it became more like a career, was always about love, whether it be love for my family or love for a partner, a crush, I guess. So I think I've always been curious about love. I think that I was a very observant of how love was being shown within my household and then also how love was being portrayed on TV or like with Disney movies and all that.
Aria Vega [00:04:25] [Voiceover] Erika's curiosity about the portrayal of love in pop culture has a lot to do with ILY's focus on talking with artists, even when their work doesn't deal directly with love. Erika finds that creative people tend to have unique perspectives on it.
Erika Ramirez [00:04:40] What's very appealing about the opportunities to have those conversations with the people that I've had them with, is that they normally don't talk about love so publicly. And it's interesting when I do ask artists' teams if they're open to me having a conversation with their artist about love, and I say it's just going to be about love. Which either is a great thing or not a great thing, because that's very open ended. When I first started doing initial reach out, people were not used to having this conversation about love, solely love. Of course, we could talk about whatever you're working on, or some like projects that you're excited about, because if that makes you excited, I want to know. But to just come in with knowing that that's all we're going to talk about. Thankfully, all of them found it intriguing enough to have a conversation with me, but I think I just kind of was drawn to the conversations with artists or other creatives because that was my circle, because I was coming off of Billboard and I was also working at Rrookie at the same time. So a lot of the interactions I was having were with creatives, and I wanted to know more about them. Besides what they were working on, I wanted to have other conversations with them, mostly around love, because I don't think that... I think we under estimate or we just don't know how much love drives what we do, and especially for creatives, what we create as well. So I think I was just drawn to the people I talked to because they were in my immediate circle to begin with.
Aria Vega [00:06:17] But it makes sense too, I mean, if you just think about... If you just turn on the radio, how many songs are about love? If you turn on your streaming network of choice, like how many of the last things you watched featured a prominent romantic storyline? It is just this bottomless source of inspiration for artists. And so this is a group of people who have given it an unusually deep amount of thought. And, you know, in addition to the visual media like movies and television, visual art is is also a major way we communicate about this with each other. And ILY isn't just a magazine for written journalism, it also includes art installations and other immersive multimedia experiences. Can you tell me a little bit about those types of projects and what first inspired you to expand beyond the written word?
Erika Ramirez [00:07:12] Yeah, when you say that, the first thing I think of is the gallery exhibit. I Used to Love Us. So I started ILY in February 2016, and at that time I was working part-time at Rookie. But I had left Billboard and I was producing videos at Billboard, so I think I was very much more open and interested in the many types of mediums you can tell the stories that you want to tell, and just realizing that some mediums might be more effective based on how you want the story to be told. So I was very open on like, what can I do or what can I...? What else should I explore, especially with ILY, since it's my platform and I do have the freedom to explore different mediums and formats. What other ways can I tell these stories, or what other ways can someone feel connected to this? I started this video series for early called Versions Of, where I would interview someone that had just gotten out of relationships that had broken up, and I was interested in kind of this version of yourself that you are before or within a relationship, and then also the version that you are after this relationship has ended. And I think there was only one interview where someone was just like right out of the relationship. I think everyone else kind of has had some time to grieve or to at the very least start their process of healing. But it's those.... It's really those experiences that you go through yourself and you want to know if someone else or anyone else is actually experiencing them as heavy as you are, and if easier, I want to know how, how are you handling with this with so much more grace than I am, or as I'm seeing other people handle? I think that's where these interests of these conversations come from. And just also ideally having these conversations out on a public forum on whatever medium or format so that others feel like they're not alone. You might not feel exactly the same, of course, as what this other person is feeling because it's a whole different experience than yours. But it would be great, if someone can see something, hear something, read something and be like, Oh, OK. You know, it's not just me, or these emotions are valid, or whatever kind of make someone feel safer with their feelings was the goal starting with that video series. But I will say that the gallery exhibit I Used to Love Us is very dear and close to my heart just because it came from a very personal place and also very funny place where I had stopped dating someone and I was in my apartment and I noticed that I was organizing the remotes on my coffee table from like longest to shortest, and I'm like, what? And I thought about that the person I was seeing right before I did that. That very much clearly influenced me in some kind of way. And I started realizing just how much how prominent a ghost of an ex can be in your life after you stop seeing someone. So I thought of how can I tell these stories of moments this in a way that brings people together to have this conversation, and connects with them. And I thought of like, at least for me, it was such an object type of thing, right? I caught myself organizing these remote controls and then I caught myself looking around thinking, like, Wait, that keychain, I didn't give it back to him. And so I thought it would be cool to see these objects or kind of like, create things, have artists create projects or art that reminded them of their exes based off of household items. It was clearly based off of that one moment that I had, and ironically enough, it really hit for a lot of artists. Yes, there's certain objects that remind me of my ex. Or not only that, how them also being curious as to how the ghost of an ex lives on in your life and that became its own, its own thing. Ideally, I would love to take that series back up and do more exhibits in different cities, because I think that that's something also that we all talk about or have experienced, not necessarily in organizing your remote controls, but more so just feeling this ghosts of your ex around you when you really would like them not to be around.
Aria Vega [00:12:21] [Voiceover] Nuanced and substantive conversations about love weren't really a part of Erika's upbringing.
Erika Ramirez [00:12:27] [Interview] As far as like sex and intimacy, that was very much kept behind closed doors. That wasn't really discussed. If anything, what was discussed was like what happens when you have sex as far as women are concerned, you may get pregnant. Things more like anatomy when it comes to sex. I was taught that by my mom, and I think she took more like the caring mother role, but also brought in her nurse medical expertise in that. So that's how I was taught about sex. But we never would have conversations about intimacy and sex as far as you know, with another partner. I don't think I had conversations at that point in my life about relationships with my parents. Maybe that's where the writing comes from. I was very observant, I would observe how they would interact with each other, what they would say to each other. For me, it wasn't really open discussions when it came to relationships, but when I had questions, I would find the answers in books I was reading and then also in what I was watching. So when that happens, as you may know, you are getting two different types of perspectives or many types of perspectives when it comes to love, because rarely do you see a fairy tale happening within your own household, or something that portrays a fairy tale for that long. So I think, if anything, I was very much more observant than asking questions within my household.
Aria Vega [00:13:48] Mm hmm. I relate a lot to your experience in terms of having received a sex education that emphasized the nuts and bolts, so to speak, like here's how to avoid pregnancy. Here's how to avoid STIs, here's how to use a condom, and little about relationships, intimacy, boundaries, etc. And as a matter of fact, something I tweeted offhand recently did numbers, as the kids say, and it was just simply "relationship education is just as badly needed as sex education." And I think that that resonated so much because our culture treats relationships in general as something that we should innately know how to navigate, as opposed to something that we can improve at and grow with certain knowledge. When did you first realize that talking openly about love through your writing and other media had the potential to shift the way that we pursue it?
Erika Ramirez [00:14:48] It all comes from curiosity and also, I guess it's like very innate desire to love better and be loved better, whatever better means for me. We're all having these conversations within our group chats or within like one-on-ones with our close friends, or we're just not having them collectively as a community because of many reasons. Mostly all tied to our upbringing and our beliefs, or our parents beliefs also around those feelings of shame or guilt. So I think that there's many, many reasons as to why we don't have these conversations more openly. But I think when I've been, at least when I was writing poetry, it made me feel like I could build a world that made me feel safe where I can express myself, but also express the big feelings that I had and do so unapologetically. I still remember that feeling, and I also think about how I wish I had a lot more invitation and safe spaces to talk about love, and moreso just ask questions about love, and ask how someone else is experiencing what they're experiencing. When I was younger, I thought there was only one way to love or be loved, I did not know about love laguages, attachment styles... That was never something that was a thing for me. I wasn't taught about that, I did not know that existed until later on in my adult life. And I think once I started having those conversations that just started with my friend groups, I was like, I want to know more, but I also want to be able to be a resource or some kind or a vessel for other people that want to also know more. And ultimately, the goal is to know more so than, you know more about yourself, to then love yourself better and know what to ask, or what you want or what you need to then be loved, how you need to be loved. But all those felt like puzzle pieces as I was writing about love, where I didn't know that kind of ultimately what that is. The purpose, or least my purpose when it comes to writing about love, or having conversations about love or facilitating conversations is ideally to create safe spaces where one could talk about love, vulnerably. It's more so having these conversations without this feeling that you needed to know the answer, either. So even though I'm asking questions, right, and you're someone supposed to answer those questions, it was more so. Just having a conversation about things that we're interested in, and love is the topic to discuss.
Aria Vega [00:17:41] [Voiceover] One person that Erika can always count on for a solid opinion about sex or love is her best friend, Steven.
Erika Ramirez [00:17:48] [Interview] I have, till this day, many conversations about love with my best friend, who's a man. I've learned so much of how men that are attracted to women — heterosexual men— date and what they want and what they need and how they express love and all that good stuff. But I think our conversations are very meaningful to me because we're both learning from one another, and we're also just asking each other questions of how the other loves and wants to be loved on a friendship level. And then also what we are looking for in our individual relationships, romantic relationships. So I feel like that friendship has really taught me a lot about love, but he's very much an advocate of taking things slow, of getting to know someone. Building a friendship first and foremost. Ultimately, you really want to get to know this person as you would your other friends, and be there for them, as you would for your other friends. So it's very much an advocate of building a very strong foundation of the relationship with friendship.
Aria Vega [00:18:55] Has your relationship with him ever not been platonic?
Erika Ramirez [00:18:59] No, it's always been platonic. I met him around 2008, and it was funny because I had a little crush on his friend and my best friend, Steven, and I just became really good friends. We would have conversations about people that we were dating. I would clearly want to try to find out about his friend, but we never pursued it as as a romantic relationship, nor did we have conversations about that. I think that we became close throughout throughout the years, and I just remember one time and thinking to myself like, Oh, this is interesting, you know, like, this is just a very pure platonic friendship, which was new to me because like, we weren't taught about friendships of the opposite sex, platonic friendships of the opposite sex. So it was very interesting to me at one point where I'm just like, Oh, OK, this isn't that. Let's see what this evolves into, then. And he's my best friend now. So it was it was definitely something that took me by surprise, but I at the same time, it didn't feel too out of the ordinary. I didn't feel crazy or anything like that. It was just like, This is nice to have this, this friendship.
Aria Vega [00:20:16] We see a lot more often in the media, a depiction of a male and female cis-hetero couple, who the whole plot revolves around how they try to be friends and can't. And the message seems to be that this is something that straight women and straight men are inherently not capable of doing. And so I love hearing how you have managed to forge a relationship that is perfect for the two people that are in it and and not beholden to any of these awful tropes. And, you know, speaking of the media, because I'm always interested in how media depictions of sex and love influence are real life relationships. Is that something you've ever observed in yourself or your peers? I'm sure you have.
Erika Ramirez [00:21:04] Oh yeah. I think if anything had more of an effect on self-love. I just remember reading books at whatever age and also what I was watching where, you know, the brown women that I would see would have very like flowy, thick hair, and they were a little thicker. And, you know, and I would watch novelas when my parents were watching novelas, and they were mostly all like Mexican novelas and all the women would kind of look the same as well. And so I at the time had, you know, and I still do I have thick curly hair, a little wavy. Body hair. I have things about me that I never saw on TV. So when I wasn't seeing that on TV, I was just like, Why? Or not even why, but it's moreso like, am I supposed to look that way in order for me to get whatever they're getting, or whatever for me to deserve what I want? And I feel like I had those more conversations internally with myself versus with other people, because I was raised in a very small town. At that time, I wasn't really online, you know? The internet wasn't.... It didn't feel so much like a community, or a chance to find your community. So I would have these questions about myself and I would kind of internalize them until I got older. And actually, when I moved to New York, I was just like, Oh, there's a whole new world out here. Clearly, because I came from a very small town and I was expecting to very much have a culture shock. But I think it was more so just how I was very surprised how much New York let me become who I wanted to become, versus who anyone else thought I should become.
Aria Vega [00:23:08] In what way?
Erika Ramirez [00:23:09] You know, just because of how many cultures I would see in New York, how many different types of people and how they loved and expressed love either publicly or with their words. And there was just so much more space and openness to be however, whoever I wanted to be. Tracy is mostly an all white town as well, so I went from that to New York, and then also the friends that I became close with were very much inviting and warm and also supportive in whatever I wanted to do, and again, however, I want it to be. But I think it's...New York kind of makes you feel that you can do whatever. And I would say that New York really molded me. It's just interesting of how much environments, but more so community, can have an effect on you feeling comfortable and just being more open to learning more about yourself, versus it's just being told this is how you want to look like, or be into. This is how love is, and this is how you should be loved and this is how you should love. But then when you start meeting all these different people and you have different relationships with all of these people, you start realizing that that is far from the truth. And I grew up with novelas on one side and then Disney movies on the other, so there was very much this. Portrayal of how not only women should look like in order for them to be loved by this Prince Charming, but also what's the relationship should look like with Prince Charming and how it should go? And it's like you are fed this and then you go off into the real world and you realize that that is not how it is. But at the same time, I think you mentioned this earlier, you and the other person or people within your relationship decide what that relationship looks like, how it feels, how it functions if you want to work on it, however long you want to work on it, versus being told a relationship is just with two people, or at that time, heterosexual people, depending on where you were raised and what you were watching, how they look like. So I think that that's there's so much there to break down as far as stereotypes are when it comes to relationships and intimacy.
Aria Vega [00:25:48] [Voiceover] That's Erica Ramirez, journalist, childhood poet and editor in chief of ILY. You can visit the website at ilymag.com — that's i-l-y-m-a-g dot com. To connect with Erika, give her a follow on Instagram @ramirezerika, or on Twitter @3rika. Hey y'all, let's keep talking about love. I want to hear more about how movies and TV influenced how you grew up thinking about sex and relationships. Is there anything you're finding yourself still unlearning? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with an email or a voice memo, or you can find me on Twitter @vegadreamcast. You can always remain anonymous. If you're into the show, please leave us a five star rating and a review. POV is brought to you by Lustery, and this episode was hosted by me, Aria Vega. It was edited and produced by Kathryn Fischer and Adrienne Teicher, and our showrunner is Paulita Pappel. Lustery is the home of real-life partners filming their sex lives behind closed doors. If you're 18 or older, you can find us at lustery.com, and we're on Twitter and Instagram @lusterypov. Until next time, lovers!