A few thousand people on Twitter can’t be wrong: The best thing about Hurricane Irene was the appearance among them of @ElBloombito, a sardonic, Spanglish-speaking caricature of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his earnest attempts at becoming fluent in Spanish. (This is actually a typical occurrence at pretty much every press conference, but how many people watch mayoral press conferences on a regular basis?)
The Observer reached out to Rachel Figueroa-Levin, the 25-year-old native New Yorker behind the Twitter feed—she put her main feed in El Bloombito’s bio, never expecting either would become viral smashes—to find out who she was where she got this crazy idea.
Like most things on Twitter, it started out as a joke. In an email, she told us, “I live in Inwood with my husband and nine-and-a-half-month-old daughter. I’m a stay-at-home mom and soap maker. We are in the process of buying a co-op in Inwood. (We close early September!) Soap making started as a hobby and turned into a mini business.” What follows is an interview conducted this evening on GChat. (What, you thought we would do a phone interview with an Internet star?)
The Observer: Evening
The Observer: Where to begin. Are you dry? Is the baby O.K.?
Rachel: We are dry and the baby is doing well. Our dog probably suffered the most because his walk schedule is all messed up. The baby actually stood up for the first time yesterday!
The Observer: Wow. Mazel tov. Think it was weather related?
Rachel: Perhaps. My husband and I were spending so much time trying to prepare for the hurricane that maybe she stood up to get some attention.
The Observer: So, tell your probably well-into-five-figures-by-Monday-morning fans how El Bloombito came about.
Rachel: It started late last night as a joke between my Twitter friends and I. After his unfortunate Spanish attempt at that press briefing I started calling him “El Bloombito.” The twitter account was me trying to take that joke a little farther.
I didn’t think it would take off the way it did!
The Observer: Why do you think that is? As my editor put it, you’re way better than “the incredibly un-funny @hurricaneirene twitter.”
Rachel: Am I? I don’t follow that twitter so I don’t know. I’m still in shock that so many people are following an account I created to entertain maybe 15 people.
The Observer: Do you think you touched a nerve? There seems to be a certain amount of ambivalence toward the administration’s response—sure, nobody died, but was it overblown?—or is there something else going on here?
Rachel: I think the Bloomberg administration handled everything very well. It’s much better to prepare too much than to not prepare enough. My grandmother lives in an assisted living home in Sheepshead Bay. She was evacuated and is staying with my mother until the flood waters recede. What if she wasn’t evacuated? She would be in a terrible situation.
All of the city agencies responded amazingly. My dad is the director of the NYPD Photo Unit (Hi, dad!) and has been at headquarters since last night—and won’t be returning home until tomorrow night. The dedication and work ethic of everyone involved is inspiring.
I think El Bloombito struck a nerve because Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish is… well… laughable. I think that if he really wanted to get a message across to the Latino community he should have stepped aside and had someone who speaks Spanish fluently deliver the message.
The Observer: But isn’t that the thing. Most mayors would never go this far out of their way, would they? I believe the mayor is fairly proud of his Spanish, in fact. To wit: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/nyregion/04spanish.html. Is it better to have misspoken than to never have spoken at all?
Rachel: I think it’s great that he wants to speak Spanish. I also think that in a situation like this, he perhaps should have let someone else do the talking. His Spanish is funny. It gave me a laugh—which I needed being stuck in an apartment with a fussy baby.
The Observer: So where does El Bloombito come from?
Rachel: The name just sort of popped into my head. I’m a huge NY1 junkie and I’m a big fan of Inside CIty Hall. I sort of pictured Gerson Borrero saying “El Bloombito” the way he calls Mayor Bloomberg “Miguelito”
The Observer: Are there other inspirations?
Rachel: There are probably tons of other inspirations in my subconscience that I’m not aware of. I was picturing Adam Sandler’s Operaman when I tweeted “No looto el bodega. Esta es Nuevo Yorko!” I was singing it in my head.
The Observer: Yes! That was my boss’ favorite! I think mine was “Los cans del treasho por favor to turn them back overo. Gracias.” Because that was such a funny detail, I remember him telling everyone not to yesterday, and now it’s O.K. Like they really thought of everything this time.
Rachel: And I turned the corner trash can back over.
The Observer: That’s the spirit! So, besides Adam Sandler, where did you hone your Spanglish? Does it have anything to do with growing up Jewyorican, as you named your other Twitter handle?
Rachel: My father is Puerto Rican and fluent in Spanish. My mother is Ashkenazi Jewish and despite being married to my dad for 30 years doesn’t speak any Spanish at all. For me Spanglish is sort of a natural evolution from living in an English speaking country. Kind of like “Yeshivish” in the Jewish community. I grew up in an English only household but the languages of your ancestors have a way of sneaking into your vocabulary.
The Observer: Amen—or should I say ah-mein—to that. So tell us a little bit more about yourself? You mentioned your grandma out in Sheepshead Bay and your dad at the NYPD. You grew up in the city? Went to school here? What were you doing before you became an artisian soap maker?
Rachel: I grew up on Staten Island. In Willowbrook, within easy walking distance of that creepy mental hospital busted by Geraldo Rivera (another Jewyorican!!!). I moved to Manhattan when I moved in with my then-boyfriend (now husband/baby daddy). Before I was a soap maker I dabbled in opera (I’m a soprano), freelance graphic and website design, and writing. Now I make babies and soap. In a year or two I’ll probably be doing something else. I’m so incredibly lucky that my husband has a “real job” that allows me to just be creative without worrying about money.
Otherwise I’d be one of those starving artists. I’m a well fed starving artist.
The Observer: With plenty of time for Twitter, too! Seriously, with a new baby, how do you find the time for social media?
Rachel: I can feed the baby with one hand and tweet on my phone with the other. I have to. Between not being able to go out much during my third trimester (and the baby was 2 weeks late), a very cold winter with a newborn, and hurricanes, I’m pretty much a shut in. Thank G-d the weather is nice again!
The Observer: Did you write before, or did the blogging and twitter (and wit!) sort of just happen?
Rachel: I have always enjoyed writing. The wit I credit to my late grandfather Bernard Samith. He was a master of one-liners.
The Observer: Were you worried about being outed? Surprised? How’d that happen?
Rachel: I put my @jewyorican twitter handle on the Bloombito profile. So I wasn’t outed… just discovered.
The Observer: Does that trouble, bother or worry you?
Rachel: Not at all. Like I said, I created this for friends so I wanted them to know that the profile was me. My personal twitter is public so anyone can see it. If people are really that interested in my daily happenings… that’s O.K. with me.
The Observer: So, the obvious question: Have you been offered a book deal yet?
Rachel: I have not. Is this something I should expect? You aren’t the first person to mention a book deal. I think it would be funny.
The Observer: It’s a thing, I guess, from Shit My Dad Says to the rash of Tumblogs-to-books. I noticed in the Daily News you’ve got a cook book in the works, so maybe you could parlay it into something with that. How many followers did your main account get thanks to this? Also,
Rachel: The only “book” I have ever written was for NaNoWriMo two years ago. I got maybe 300 new followers on my personal account.
The Observer: You mentioned NY1 and Inside City Hall. Are you politically active?
Rachel: I don’t know about active… I’m politically aware. I blog about it occasionally—but not much. I like political pundit shows—a little too much maybe. I’m also addicted to Hardball.
The Observer: Did you vote for El Bloombito?
Rachel: I did. To be honest, if he ran for a fourth term I’d probably vote for him again.
The Observer: Speaking of fourth terms, here are a few questions from Twitter readers (please respond in character):
Rachel: O.K., shooto.
The Observer: From @dsrbroadway, Is he seeking a quatro term?
Rachel: Yo no seeko un quatro term por que yo necesito to be paid more than uno peso per yearo. Tengo bills.
The Observer: From CFWard57, “Donde can yo vayo to learn Español as bueno as yours?”
Rachel: Watcho El Streeto del Sesame!
The Observer: From MikeZ37, “¿Quien es macho, Fernando Llama o Ricardo Montalban?”
Rachel: Ricardo Maltoban es el man.
The Observer: All right. Back to you. What is your fondest non-El Bloombito memory of or experience from Hurricane Irene?
Rachel: My husband’s birthday was yesterday. Blew out emergency candles. My daughter also stood up without holding onto anything for the first time. That was fantastic.
The Observer: What was your weirdest hurricane provision?
Rachel: Coconut toasted marshmallows.
The Observer: And the question that’s on everyone’s mind: With Irene gone, is this the end, or just the beginning?
Rachel: Everyone is telling me to continue El Bloombito. I will for now, as long as it stays fun.
The Observer: Anything else you’d like to add/plug for/let the world know?
Rachel: I run a hyperlocal website for my neighborhood Inwood, In the Wood. My neighborhood is amazing and very important to me. All you stranded Brooklynites should come up here! No flooding!