'He Broke Me': Inside the Toxic Workplace at Groundbreaking Latinx Culture Site Remezcla

'He Broke Me': Inside the Toxic Workplace at Groundbreaking Latinx Culture Site Remezcla

In 2006, when Facebook was still relegated to college campuses and Buzzfeed had yet to publish its first quiz, three twenty-somethings interested in New York’s Latinx alternative music scene created Remezcla, a website focused on the artists and fans often ignored by mainstream music reporting. Their cutting-edge business model along with their focus on underrepresented Latinx culture by Latinx writers gained a significant following in a very short amount of time. Remezcla quickly became one of the first digital-only media companies to merge entertainment news with in-house advertising—engaging the Latinx community in an immersive, one-stop site for culture, art, and music news, competing with larger websites like Pitchfork and the Fader.

In news stories about Remezcla, one man, in particular, is painted as the visionary: Andrew Herrera, a finance-guy-turned-startup-magnate who singlehandedly built the company from the ground up. In reports focused on Remezcla’s growth and success, Herrera floats from workspace to workspace in an exposed-brick, open-plan office in Bushwick, Brooklyn, overseeing projects on both the agency and editorial sides. From the outside, Remezcla looks like a model of a media outlet: a rare company that prioritizes giving Latinx women the opportunity to tell stories reflecting their lived experiences that would be pitched to and overseen by a group of editors who were predominantly Latinx women. But like many other recent news stories in which BIPOC and women in media say they have been underpaid, overworked, and routinely harassed, the truth is more complicated: While Remezcla has been and remains an important source of cutting-edge writing and content focused on Latinx culture, its success is largely due to the unacknowledged labor of a woman-heavy staff who report that their experiences working with Herrera too often left them drained and scarred, with years of job-related trauma to work through.

A grueling workload coupled with frequent gaslighting and criticism left them emotionally and psychically weak

And left out of the narrative of his meteoric rise is the group behind the website’s founding, described in a 2016 news item as Herrera’s “associates.” Remezcla owes its founding to two Latinas, Claire Frisbie and Nuria Net, who left the company in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and are no longer mentioned on the company’s website. In the decade since the departures of its women co-founders, Remezcla has been staffed primarily by a rotating cast of 20-something Latinas. In interviews with Jezebel, a dozen former Remezcla staffers, many of whom had worked at the company since its early days, told a similar story of a grueling workload coupled with frequent gaslighting and criticism from Herrera that left them emotionally and psychically weak, with many reporting everything from ulcers to stress-induced hair loss as all they have to show for their time spent with the company. In an email response to these allegations, Herrera says he takes “responsibility for anyone, male or female, who did not receive a clear job description, a helpful response to their work, or good coaching.”

But the former employees who spoke with Jezebel say that Herrera’s responses to their work went beyond being “unhelpful” or poorly coached, leaving them wondering if they should give up their careers altogether. “He broke me,” says one former employee, describing her 10 months at Remezcla working under Herrera.

Remezcla’s “About Us” section tells the site’s story in broad strokes, saying it “started as a grassroots project among writers and creatives.” But those writers and creatives had names. In 2004, co-founders Nuria Net, a music journalist who worked as co-editor-in-chief of Remezcla, along with Claire Frisbie, who had previously worked as a music producer, were two recent Columbia grads struggling to find mainstream media outlets interested in coverage of New York’s booming Latin alternative music scene.

“I’d read the Village Voice and find out two weeks later that an Argentinian band I wanted to see had been in New York,” Net told Jezebel. So she and Frisbie started a successful event newsletter with the help of a third friend, who left the company, taking its original name with him. That’s when the pair met Herrera, who worked in finance by day and handed out fliers for Latin music festivals in his free time.

Together, the three formed the earliest iteration of Remezcla, a Latinx music and pop culture newsletter that, at first, was hyper-targeted to the Brooklyn and New York City music scene. Quickly, Latinx alternative musicians and fans seemed to embrace the site. “It was something people really needed,” Net said. “Just one place where you could find what was going on in New York with Latin culture, from little events in Queens to big festivals, basically anything Latin American.”

“It was something people really needed”

With Frisbie and Net using their connections in the music world and writing ability to provide most of the newsletter’s content and Herrera handling the finances, Remezcla became a go-to news source for Latinx fans around the country, and giant brands took notice. By 2008, Remezcla was attracting huge corporate partners: teaming up with MTV to create a summer guide to Latin music, and Microsoft during the launch of its music player, Zune. These partnerships meant Frisbie, Net, and Herrera had enough money to quit their day jobs and work on Remezcla full time out of Herrera’s apartment.

But the excitement of working on Remezcla full-time quickly faded as Net and Frisbie began working longer and longer hours. What had started out as a partnership began to feel lopsided, as Remezcla’s woman co-founders struggled to keep up with the demand for content while maintaining their relationships with artists and industry insiders, which often meant working 12-hours days and weekends. Net says she found herself crying every day, always feeling as though she weren’t working hard enough. Meanwhile, Frisbie tells Jezebel that as she and Net worked to broaden Remezcla’s reach beyond New York City to Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Herrera positioned himself as the company’s CEO, becoming vague about exactly how much money the company had, leaving the women sometimes waiting on their paychecks and depending on Herrera to pay for meals.

“We didn’t have set salaries,” Frisbie told Jezebel. “We were young and had no money. He was putting more money in, so it seemed right that he should have more stake in things.”

But she says as the pair worked grueling hours, Herrera busied himself with going to events, parties, and dinners; not joining them at work in their office, housed in his Brooklyn apartment, if he had errands to run but implying that Net and Frisbie weren’t committed enough to the site if they expected the same flexibility. Net says that when she began dating her now-husband, she was anxious about telling Herrera she had a boyfriend. “I don’t want you to make fun of me,” she remembers telling him, while privately worrying Herrera might say she didn’t have time for a boyfriend. Frisbie says she became suspicious of Herrera after he began referencing things she’d said only to Net over private messages via her personal Gmail account.

“He could be very nice,” Frisbie remembers. “He pulled me aside, and said ‘Look, I feel like your heart’s not in this. If you want to leave it’s okay.’” One month later, when using Herrera’s work computer, Frisbie says she found a file she had emailed a friend from her personal e-mail address and realized that Herrera must have gained access to her account.

When she confronted Herrera about the fact that he had been spying on her, he said he had done it “out of love.”

“First he denied it,” she said, “and then he said ‘Do you know how hurtful it was for me to read those things you said about me?’” Frisbie said she never went back to the Remezcla office after that 2009 conversation, and has since left the industry altogether. Herrera denies the incident took place, telling Jezebel, “I have never read the personal emails of a staff member.”

Just as Frisbie left the site she’d co-founded, Remezcla began to gain an incredibly broad reach. In 2010, Net left as well, applying to grad school at Columbia as her work life had become so demanding that pursuing an advanced degree at an Ivy-league university sounded like a relaxing change in pace.

But in interviews, Herrera has frequently erased Net and Frisbie’s contributions, identifying himself as the founder of an enterprise that “started in living rooms and coffee shops among friends,” with no mention of the women’s labor that helped make Remezcla the crucial cultural touchstone it’s become.

In his email to Jezebel, Herrera says, “I would never try to reduce the significance of my Remezcla co-founders or their contributions down to a short “About Us” section of our site, nor was it ever my intent to try and remove them from our founding story. Our current statement defines our brand as it exists today, 10 years after their departure. ” As to the exclusion of the Net and Frisbie from the company’s origin story on Remezcla’s website, Herrera says, “I always tip my hat to our founding mission, which is my work with Nuria and Claire.”

Yet twelve other women, all former employees and associates at Remezcla, tell a similar story: working punishing hours only to have their labor dismissed by a CEO who seemingly used startup culture as an excuse to create a chaotic work environment—a work culture so toxic that many employees cited taking time to “recover” or leaving the industry altogether after an often brief tenure with the company.

The prospect of working for Remezcla didn’t feel like a job—it felt like a reprieve

Former employees say that the prospect of working for Remezcla didn’t feel like a job—it felt like a reprieve from the broader media industry, where stories focused on Latinx culture and music were regarded as “niche.” For the young Latinas who had been reading Remezcla for years—largely in majority-white college classrooms, while preparing for jobs in the majority-white, heavily male-dominated media industry—a chance to create the content they actually read, focused on the culture to which they belonged, working with a team from similar backgrounds, felt like important work and a rare entry point for Latinas into the exclusive world of New York music writing.

Remezcla offered a reflection of Latinx people as culture creators and tastemakers that young Latinas just starting out in media couldn’t find anywhere else online. One former employee says that as a first-generation kid growing up in the suburbs, she didn’t even know there were Latinx alternative bands until she discovered Remezcla in college. Reading in her dorm room, she knew she wanted to work there someday. “It was just important to read about something that wasn’t another salsa night,” said another fan turned agency-side employee who spoke to Jezebel.

Speaking to these former employees, who collectively worked at the company from 2010 right up to 2019, a pattern emerges. Nearly all were in their early twenties when they met Herrera, mostly through mutual contacts, a few through internships and events at the Remezcla offices; all were outsiders in the media industry looking for a way to get to New York City. All were hired for jobs they felt unqualified to do, and once they began, they say they were presented with no clear outlines of their duties and responsibilities. Many say they didn’t even know who their supervisors were, just that they ultimately reported to Andrew Herrera, who very quickly began to berate them for their inexperience after hiring them on promises of mentorship. “I thought I was going to work in a progressive space that empowers Latinx people,” one former employee, who started at Remezcla full-time just out of college, told me. She quickly learned that wasn’t necessarily the case.

A former Remezcla employee on the editorial side says she was offered what amounted to a managing editor position, despite having little more than internship experience. She says she was only paid $30,000 a year, when the average salary for such a position is somewhere around $72,000 a year, according to Glassdoor. “I had no training for how to use the software or manage the blog or post the newsletter, and I was there until 1 a.m. every day, just teaching myself.”

“I highly value, and highly compensate, my female employees,” Herrera told Jezebel, adding that in the future he plans on “doing better to watch and emulate my female peers who I have seen be exceptional coaches, mentors and motivators of talent.”

Another says she was hired on the agency side without being given a clear job title or descriptions. Since it was her first job out of college and she was afraid to ask questions that might make her seem too inexperienced, she chalked-up these vague details up to startup culture. She was immediately assigned by Herrera to work on a project for a huge national brand despite being given no clear role. Her first day on the job, team leaders had no idea who she was or that she had even been hired. Soon, she said, those managers quit or were fired and she was helming projects alone with the help of freelancers who disappeared as soon as their parts had been completed. Jezebel learned of another employee who sought unemployment insurance and claimed discrimination as a basis for leaving her job at Remezcla. The unemployment insurance appeal board disagreed, however, and ruled that she left her job voluntarily.

During their first weeks on the job, employees said that Herrera often billed himself as an expert in all areas of Remezcla’s day-to-day operations, having performed every job the company offered, from interviewing bands to landing advertising deals. Those who came aboard after the departure of Net and Frisbie, when the offices had moved out of Herrera’s apartment in 2010 to trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and then to Bushwick in 2016, had no reason to doubt him.

Alex Zaragoza, a senior culture writer at Vice who interviewed with the company for an editorial position, says Herrera talked for a solid hour during their first meeting without ever asking her a question. Though she originally interviewed for a culture editor position, Zaragoza says that she could quickly see that what Remezcla needed was an executive editor to foster growth and mentorship of the site’s editorial team. She pitched the idea to Herrera, who agreed to interview her for the role.

But as they walked into a round of interviews with two senior editors, both women, Herrera whispered to Zaragoza that she shouldn’t mention the executive editor position to either woman and pretend that she was still interested in the culture editor role. After submitting a plan for executing her vision for Remezcla, Zaragoza says she was verbally offered the position by Hererra at a salary of $100,000 a year. When she countered with $115,000, she says Herrerra then became concerned that her five-page plan wasn’t long enough, asking her “Are you sure you’re worth that much?” Eventually, the offer was rescinded, and Zaragoza says she heard that Herrera had told people within the company that he had made an offer but she had been “rude” during their negotiation.

Herrera says that Zaragoza was given two opportunities to provide a business assessment, but “Her first draft needed work so we gave her another chance. When she provided her second business writing submission, she also asked us to consider a higher salary. I did not believe that her effort was good enough to land her the job or more money for it, and my female co-worker who reviewed this with me agreed.”

Another woman says she was hired to cultivate brand partnerships on the agency side but was yelled at by Herrera for not forming relationships with potential investors, a completely different job she says she was never instructed to do. Still another says she was berated by Herrera in front of the entire office for proposing too low a number for an ad sale, which had been approved by her manager, despite having no guidelines for how much ads should sell for.

Toxic workplace environments fall into a tricky spot in the broader conversation around workplace harassment. A 2017 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 19 percent of American workers report being bullied at work. Furthermore, 61 percent of the bullies are bosses, 70 percent of the perpetrators are men, and 60 percent of the targets are women, with Hispanic employees the most likely to experience bullying. In smaller companies and startup culture, a less certain chain of command also often puts CEOs and founders in more direct contact with employees who are often left with little recourse for reporting inappropriate behavior.

Employees at Remezcla say that after years without a dedicated human resources representative, the company hired an HR rep who was employed for less than a year before they were let go; workers were once again left with no designated person to approach with complaints. In her interview with Herrera, Zaragoza says she mentioned the importance of unionizing in order to advocate on behalf of all staffers. She says Herrera told her that Remezcla didn’t need a union because his employees were “happy” and “get whatever they want.” When Jezebel asked Herrera why Remezcla doesn’t have an HR representative, he said that, in the past, the company has “hired CFOs with HR training” and “We recently implemented a dedicated HR resource.” As to unions, Herrera says the company isn’t big enough: “As of February 2020, we have less than 5 full-time editorial employees including management positions. We are too small for a union as almost half of our current staff would be exempt.”

The lack of resources for reporting their complaints left employees at Remezcla with little recourse. Speaking harshly to an employee is not illegal, and there’s not much an employee can do about a boss who questions an employee’s intelligence in front of co-workers, refuses to make eye contact, interrupts in meetings, and laughs behind their backs, which former employees of Remezcla report were standard when working with Herrera.

In many modern offices, “office housework,” or the unpaid work of remembering birthdays, planning after-work meetups, or simply ordering takeout, often falls to women, specifically women of color. But many women who started at Remezcla said that they hoped working in an office of primarily Latinas meant that they would avoid some of these pitfalls. However, they say that lack of clear job delineations meant they found themselves performing not just office housework, but the emotional labor of “staying on Andrew’s good side.” One former employee says that the office was often overflowing with trash and the restrooms were unstocked for lack of an office manager and that once, as she retrieved a clean dish from the communal dishwasher Herrera told her “Those are ready.” She took that as an indication that Herrera wanted her to keep the kitchen tidy, despite the fact that she was a manager. In his email to Jezebel, Herrera says that “there were signs posted in the office to remind everyone to do their part, but everyone gladly participated voluntarily including me.”

She says that Herrera told her to act “less like a gringa and more like a Latina”

Any issues quickly seemed to become personal with Herrera, according to former staffers. One former employee says she was berated with a refrain common in the office, “What’s wrong with you?” after ordering a pizza Herrera didn’t like, despite the fact that he had told her to order whatever she wanted. Two separate former employees say that on their first days on the job Herrera asked if they were on Tinder, showing one employee his profile and asking if she would swipe. Another former employee says she was made to act as a messenger when Herrera had a disagreement with a more senior male employee, relaying arguments back and forth between two men who ranked higher than her within the company. And when a young woman employee was having a difficult time getting a longtime male editor to stick to a deadline, she says that Herrera told her to act “less like a gringa and more like a Latina,” which she understood to mean making herself softer and less threatening to the man she worked under.

As the line between personal and professional blurred, so did the line between mentorship and abuse, according to employees. Two employees on the agency side say they were tasked with making client-facing presentations for giant corporations, despite never having made these presentations before and having no supervisor. Both say they did the best they could, often working 12-hour days and over holidays. When the presentations contained rookie errors like run-on sentences, both say that Herrera presented the slide decks to larger teams, using each as an opportunity to publicly humiliate the two young, freshly-hired employees. After one such meeting was over, a former employee tells Jezebel that when she escaped into a bathroom to cry, a vice president of sales, also a woman, followed her in to say they were in the same boat: She often spent time crying in the bathroom as well.

On Glassdoor, employees say the chaos at Remezcla was of a different, more damaging sort than the kind that is perhaps an unavoidable aspect of startup culture. Herrera’s frequent emotionally-charged outbursts left employees in constant panic mode, they say, which eventually manifested in stress-induced ailments like ulcers—which multiple employees told Jezebel they suffered while working at Remezcla.

“There’s no structure, as is the case with most startups, but the difference here is that there’s no clear goals for staff to even aspire to,” one reviewer writes. “Impossible expectations create a culture of blame and self-preservation,” reads another. “CEO is a poor leader and is unprofessional and petty.”

Another review alleges that “He constantly makes derogatory comments about his female employees’ weight and physical appearance.” Several of the former employees who spoke to Jezebel said that they felt they might have been hired for a certain “look”—that of the thin, Latina hipster—in order to project a cool company image. Some say they heard Herrera asking which “girls” in the office employees thought were “cute” in order to decide who to put on camera. Another says she heard the CFO tell Herrera, “Andrew, we have investors now, we can’t be doing this anymore,” in response to his a comment about a woman employee’s physical appearance.

Herrera says he cannot remember this specific instance but said in an email that the employee could be referencing an interaction he says his fiance reminded him of: “Three years ago, Herrera says, I suggested that a very thin employee needed to eat. I apologize for that, and for anything I’ve ever said to make anyone feel uncomfortable because I know that, in today’s work environment, commenting on a coworker’s appearance is never acceptable whatsoever.”

But from the outside, Remezcla still looks fantastic. The articles posted on the site continue to offer unique, nuanced perspectives on Latinx music, art, and film that are still scarce in other publications. Many of the former employees who spoke with Jezebel say that the success of the site lies in the foundations built by Net and Frisbie along with the vision of longtime former editor-in-chief and chief content officer Andrea Gompf Browne, under whose direction Remezcla became the first Latinx publication to win a Webby for a video called “Chinese Latinos Explain Chino-Latino Food.”

But as founder, Herrera remains at the top of the chain, and his insistence on involving himself with nearly every facet of the business means that nothing can move forward without his approval. Former employees on both the agency and editorial side of the company said he often gives employees the go-ahead on projects one day and pretends he never gave the green light the next. Several former employees say that there’s a “bro-y” kinship between Herrera and a couple of longtime male employees, which provides a pipeline for women employees though which to pass their requests to Herrera via his male friends, a move they say occasionally allows them to complete projects or get resources Herrera had previously denied. Despite this environment, many of the women who spoke to Jezebel say they thought they were all alone in their misgivings about the company, because they were too afraid to confide in their colleagues about how anxious and sometimes physically unwell their tenures at Remezcla had made them.

One former employee who spoke to Jezebel says that when she left Remezcla in 2017, there were no Glassdoor reviews. Now there are 12. The growing willingness to publicly express discontent with the company and Andrew’s leadership comes as many of its talented longtime female employees are making their exits. Andrea Gompf Browne left the company for a job at Netflix in August 2019 after seven years. In February 2020, Yara Simón, the longtime managing editor of the site, who many thought would step in to fill Gompf Browne’s role, was let go, along with social media director Juliana Pache and culture editor Raquel Reichard.

Meanwhile, Eduardo Cepeda, whom several of the women who spoke with Jezebel says is a friend of Herrera’s as well as an employee, has been given the executive editor position Zaragoza says was rescinded after she asked for more money. The departures of so many of the women who helped bolster the reputation of Remezcla have left many of the former employees who spoke to Jezebel wondering if they’re a sign that internal chaos has irreparably diminished a company they still say they love and are incredibly proud of.

When asked why she wanted to work at Remezcla despite misgivings during her interview with Herrera, Zaragoza told Jezebel, “There are so few people who do this work addressing identity. So it’s really disappointing when your own let you down and you realize as a Latinx person, there’s no place for you that’s safe.”

Despite the fact that several women say they went to therapy after working closely with Herrera to regain confidence in the workplace, and some even had to leave New York after being abruptly let go, one thing remains clear: They all love Remezcla. “I lived in fear when I was there,” says one former employee, “but I worked with some of the most talented people I’ve ever met.” She says she’s proud of the skills she taught herself on the job. “I just wish I hadn’t had to learn that way.”

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