Katie and Mauricio Mota
“The story is the most common thing that connects us.”
“Our greatest gift to another generation is our stories, our wisdom.”
Katie Elmore Mota and Mauricio Mota, founders, co-presidents, and executive producers of Wise Entertainment; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, March 1, 2017.
On growing up with storytelling
KATIE: I was born in New York City and then moved to Vermont when I was three. I grew up in a mixed family that was really a co-parent/co-family situation. It was kind of a melding of families. Vermont is extremely open and welcoming but then, like everywhere in the U.S., still had extreme racism. Growing up as a family, we saw the importance of really talking and understanding these kind of sociocultural dynamics and how you can respond to them. One of the ways that we did that was by making movies every summer as a family. They would tend to be about the things that my family had faced in the summer, particularly my brothers, who were not white; the many faces of racism; and how to navigate it — but making it really funny and accessible, so all the neighborhood kids would be a part of it. I saw early on how powerful that can be in opening up a dialogue in a safe space, because you’re not accusing someone of something, you’re not saying that they’re a bad person, but you’re able to lift these stories, these experiences to the surface. And [I saw] how therapeutic that is for people going through it or going through something similar and saying, “Wow, that’s me,” or “Wow, thank you for validating that that happened.” The importance of validating so many different ways of being, ways of looking, ways of living, has been one of the most important shaping moments of my childhood.
MAURICIO: My parents were activists working with the Communist Party during the dictatorship in Brazil. They were also intellectuals. My mom is a writer, so we were allowed to watch whatever we wanted, and we were allowed to read stuff that was slightly inappropriate for my age, but it was a very open discussion. I grew up in a storytelling family; it was all about the combination of oral storytelling, toys, games, books, comic books, cartoons, and movies and TV. American culture had a huge influence because Brazil had always had a very close relationship with Hollywood and with U.S. media in general. Well-established pop culture came from the U.S., mostly. We didn’t have much money to buy toys, so I would always create these toys in my mind that I wished I had. So I was already selling stories back then and creating things that didn’t exist yet. Brazil has a very strong culture in mythology, but it has still a very weak cultural industry because Brazil was designed around monopolies. There was no interest in helping to create a local industry, but now we’re having a bigger push to create our own stories. I grew up in the intersection of a Baptist family from my father’s side and a strong mystic, esoteric European and black culture from my mother.
On the origins of Autoria, the storytelling game
MAURICIO: The storytelling game was born into that intersection of hustling. In my family we’re all hustlers because we had to survive, while trying to make pop culture and pay the bills. My mother was deciding what to do for her Ph.D. thesis, and I suggested she study role-playing games. I became her research assistant, studying the impact of role-playing games in Brazil. The thesis became a huge success because we basically cracked the matrix of storytelling. By playing and by exercising their imagination, these kids were building this amazing world and these amazing stories, and that was the thesis, and the board game [we made] was born out of the thesis. We created the board game to find a new revenue source for our family. It was a simplified version of the thesis, and I sold it door-to-door for two years and [a] half, literally door-to-door. And then the game exploded and became a phenomenon in Brazil. But it was basically teaching people that anybody is a storyteller and allowing them to create their own stories. In Portuguese it’s called Autoria, which means “authorship.” It became a huge revolution. It became a best-selling book collection, and then it became a social network for literacy in Brazil. I owe a lot to that game because I still apply those basic things of what I do as a producer. Pitching a show to a network is nothing compared to pitching a board game to a public school principal who has no money, and you have to convince her that that game will help her students do better at the SATs.
On becoming a producer
KATIE: I studied history and sociology and was fascinated with social movement, with how things could evolve over time and how we make life better and more inclusive. But I didn’t want to be a historian. I didn’t think that that was my career path. Then I found myself doing a concert business and really learning production in terms of putting on concerts and basic things like who’s your audience, what bands can you bring in, how to pull a show together, how do you make money off of it, how do you market it. It’s very similar to TV. Most of it is people management and all the different facets that need to come together and work together. I was offered the job at Population Media Center and then went on to pursue my master’s in media studies. It was an amazing experience being able to work internationally for seven years and really being able to understand how to help someone tell a story that has been untold and how to use what we knew about structure and good storytelling to tell their unique story. There’s so many countries that you still don’t see in the mainstream. I also knew there was huge work to do in the U.S., in terms of helping to tell untold stories. Venturing to do East Los High was the practical exploration of my theoretical thesis.
On creating East Los High and Wise Entertainment
MAURICIO: We knew that there was a huge Latino audience that was neglected and underrepresented, and we wanted to create content that they identified with. The show was created from the start in a very collaborative way because we wanted people to feel like they were heard and they were being portrayed finally as part of American pop culture, because everyone needs to share their stories, not just a certain elite group of people. Katie and I got connected in 2009 when we were both invited to a think tank at MIT. I was living in Rio and Katie was in Vermont, and we started working together long-distance to develop East Los High.
KATIE: A year and [a] half later, I moved to L.A., and Mauricio moved there shortly after. We were both just following our own career paths, and East Los High, this thing that seemed impossible, was miraculously growing and getting traction. Eventually we saw a need for a really great company behind East Los High that would bring his expertise in business and my creative and social sides together and allow us both to do everything for the show. We realized we were stronger working together, and we balanced each other out. We started Wise Entertainment three years ago.
MAURICIO: East Los High is a teen drama designed by Latinos and Latinas for Latinos and Latinas. When we started pitching the show in 2010, we had all these amazing city, state, federal organizations telling us that there was a huge demand for it. And everyone told us, “We love this, but the market isn’t ready for a show with an all-Latino cast speaking in English. Can it be less Latino?” So we did it all ourselves. We shot 24 episodes on a shoestring budget and did hours and hours of extra content ─ vlogs, trailers, issue-related video shorts. After that we got multiple offers and decided Hulu was the best place for us because they understood the value of the show and that there was an audience to be developed. When we launched, we were one of the first streaming shows in American pop culture history, along with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.
On the social impact of East Los High
KATIE: We have an advisory board of non-profits that work with us on every single season, and they consult on the different issues that we’re addressing in the show, from teen pregnancy to domestic violence to immigration, so we can try to get it as nuanced and thoughtful as possible. We also try to raise awareness of the different resources that are available, depending on what situation you might be confronted with in your life. We wanted to create a show that wasn’t ever about one thing but is about everyone’s life. That’s how we would have the most impact in terms of stories. We also have a social team that works directly with our non-profit advisory group, and when our audience contacts our actors, or contacts our social team, we put them in touch with experts who can respond in a thoughtful way to make sure that we’re getting the right information across.
We wanted to see how many people start thinking about the issue before and after the show. How do they see themselves and in the show or not? What are they accessing? We’ve done several different studies, and outside universities have done studies, to look at the impact of the shows from pre- and post- quantitative analysis to an analysis of all the social media discussions to looking at how many people use our web page. We saw huge numbers of people accessing the services that we’re promoting.
MAURICIO: We do all these partnerships with non-profits, community leaders, and foundations because that allows us to reach culture from a different angle, a more realistic angle. Then creating stories based on that is easier because you’re coming from a place of the individual perception of themselves but also the individual perception of how pop culture deals with them.
On using social media and the internet to connect with the East Los High community
MAURICIO: We specialize in creating an ecosystem for underserved audiences, and an ecosystem cannot be just a TV show. You need to give people different points of entry, like social media or a website. The story is what connects us, and that allows you to build a community around it, because the moment you have an ecosystem of the powerful story, the community will be there because you’re serving them. It’s a very symbiotic but very equal relationship where you’re treating your fans in your audience as, really, participants.
It’s all about designing the journey, and one of the destinations happens to be a TV show. We train our cast so they know when to deliver for TV, and they know how to deliver for social media like Facebook, and it’s also an opportunity for them to express their craft and to exercise different options creatively as an actor and as a writer and at the same time allows them to create a different relationship with their fans.
On Selena, Pelé, and Norman Lear
MAURICIO: So the three of them have a very powerful impact on me individually as a producer, as a husband, as a father. It’s about identity and how, wow, I owe a lot to pop culture. It’s a very, very powerful and strong relationship.
MAURICIO: Selena became so powerful, and U.S. pop culture still sees her as the only expression of Latino identity. She encapsulates that identity. It’s an amazing legacy that we didn’t evolve from — super powerful — but it still puts us in a box.
KATIE: Selena was a powerful woman who really carved out her own identity. She could be the Beyoncé of today; she had that kind of power and influence. To be a young woman pursuing your dreams and how hard that is and how much she was up against to do it and the courage that it took — to again see someone like her on the national stage and to be recognized and celebrated and to be an icon is so hugely important in terms of, you know, how we see culture and who the icons are.
MAURICIO: Pelé touches on many layers of my life because he was an amazing athlete, but his personal life was a disaster in the way he treated women and the way he dealt with his color. But he was a brilliant athlete. My grandfather was one of the most important sports writers in Latin American history, and Pelé was one of his favorite characters.
KATIE: Pelé is hugely important, in terms of a Brazilian athlete becoming a world phenomenon. It’s pretty amazing, and it’s not something that, at the time, you saw every day.
KATIE: I remember the first time I was looking at media that had great social stories, and All in the Family and Norman Lear is the gospel of that; he just did it so brilliantly. He talked about abortion, he talked about race, he talked about so many different things. The fact that he paved the way for that, in that era, is wild, and he’s obviously an incredible person.
MAURICIO: Norman Lear is a legacy for us. It was amazing; last year we finally met Norman, and he was super impressed with our work. We are going to be awarded by him this year.