Document spends an afternoon exploring Nuevo Norte, Meta’s attempt at fostering cultural community

Recently, I heard about a new common denominator of the modern human experience—we’re all waiting for that email that will change our life! And soon after I began turning the concept over in my mind, I had a taste of that storied, transcendent moment: an opportunity to conduct an interview in the Metaverse, with my own virtual reality headset to facilitate the process.

Depending on who you believe, this was an invitation to the next technological frontier. There’s been a lot of talk about VR’s place in our future, especially with Mark Zuckerberg hedging heavy bets, to questionable effect. In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that, of all Oculus headsets purchased, more than half aren’t picked up again after six months. According to Vice, Meta’s VR town square Horizon Worlds is comprised of mostly-empty corporate domains (read: three-dimensional advertisements), such as Wendy’s Buck BiscuitDome, built for a one-month March Madness-themed brand activation which was subsequently abandoned: Laments writer Samantha Cole, “I recently spent part of my afternoon throwing giant Baconators at a basketball hoop, and no one was there to see it.”

Despite these corporate relics, plummeting Meta stocks, and a never-ending stream of complaints (elementary graphics, avatars sans legs, high cost of entry, uncomfortable headsets), I wanted to see for myself. After all, there are a few optimistic parties, who sagely remind us that VR is not a revolution, but an evolution. I was to interview actor Jillian Mercado for the Metaverse Culture Series—a collection of panels and virtual communities, whose overarching goal is the creation of “more accessible entry points into the future of tech, for communities that have been historically excluded.” They’d completed a few installments already, centering Black, female, Muslim, and queer creators in turn. Mercado was taking part in Tercera Cultura, MCS’s fifth and final chapter, which highlights the Latinx experience within a world called Nuevo Norte.

Maybe I’m easily impressed, but I was certainly affected by my first foray into Horizon Worlds. The headset’s controllers are configured in such a way that—when you make a fist or a thumbs-up—your strange, pale, digital hands uncannily reflect each gesture. My real hands actually went numb as I tested this, settling into secondary existence for the very first time. I was trying out a world called “London Street,” or something like that. There was a chapel and a telephone booth and a pub, where you could grasp (but not drink) a pint of beer. I found a book, discarded in a patch of grass: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens! Before I got my bearings, other avatars approached, floating in midair and chatting me up. I was startled to hear their real-life voices, and rushed to exit the app. This was not the solitary experience of a video game—which my brain had initially led me to believe—but a chat room? A social media site? Something else entirely?

“The only representation I have is my own reflection. My mission is not to open the door, really. It’s to remove it.”

Nuevo Norte, which I explored soon after, is sunny and rather whimsical, unlike London Street. The world is the brainchild of multimedia artist COVL; it’s named after the drive her family lived on in Puerto Rico, before moving to Miami, and is inspired, in part, by each locale. That means tropical greenery, a bright blue sea, sandy beaches, floating islands, and flying manatees. There are a handful of places to congregate, including Cafecito (a take on Puerto Rico’s local cafés, which COVL would frequent with her grandmother) and Discoteca (a multi-level dancefloor channeling Miami’s salsa scene, the sounds of which the artist would fall asleep to as a child).

I met Mercado at La Islà, Nuevo Norte’s scenic entry point. The phrase tercera cultura (third culture) refers to the new customs and mores that emerge from a blend of generational-familial and nuclear-familial values—and I was interested to hear about how that concept manifests for the actor, who was born in New York City to a Dominican family. “My mom and dad definitely [imparted] the culture they grew up with to me and my two younger sisters,” she said. “I’ve taken that culture, you could say, into the future and beyond.”

Mercado began her career as a model, appearing in campaigns for companies like Diesel and Nordstrom, and posing editorially for Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Posture Magazine. When she was getting started, around 2014, she was one of few physically disabled professionals in the industry—and part of an even smaller minority of wheelchair users. In 2019, she landed a role in Showtime’s The L Word: Generation Q, playing Maribel Suarez—immigration lawyer, sister of Sophie Suarez, and in all rights, a fully-developed character. Mercado has earned more screen time as the beloved reboot goes on; in the show’s most recent season, she’s grappling with the desire to have a child with her partner Micah, played by Leo Sheng.

“The only representation I have is my own reflection,” she says in an interview for Tercera Cultura’s promotional docushort. “I’ve been able to break barriers, and open doors and opportunities for people. But my mission is not to open the door, really. It’s to remove it.”

Representation, particularly in television, is no longer hard to come by—but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. Nielsen recently reported that, of 2021’s top 1,500 TV programs, 78% have “some presence of racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation inclusivity.” However, according to one of the data giant’s diversity spokespeople, nearly a quarter of consumers still feel their identity groups are underrepresented. The characters are there, sure. But they’re lazily written, or inaccurate, or wildly stereotyped, or they don’t have any lines. Whatever the case may be, there’s demand for roles like Maribel Suarez, and plenty of talented actors to step up to the plate, assuming they have the tools they need.

This all might seem irrelevant to the Metaverse. But in Mercado’s view, VR could be a tipping point. She’s thinking of people with limited mobility, who can’t easily leave their apartments, let alone travel cross-country. “I mean, you could literally do a wide net of casting calls,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who have a hard time, because of accessibility issues. To know that there’s a space like this, where they can stay in the comfort of their home, and don’t need to deal with structural things interfering with them being part of a community or experiencing life—it’s a game-changer.”

“This is a tool with potential for power, whose capacity for good or evil mirrors that of the internet, that of social media, and obviously, that of society-at-large.”

Right now, though, these are potential futures. Sitting with Mercado at a conference table in a fantasy world, I can definitively say, feels more personal than a Zoom call. We’re eye-to-eye, gesturing, complementing one another on the details of our pixelated clothes. You can nearly confidently read body language—facial expression, much less so. There’s much to be developed before a place like Horizon Worlds could meaningfully serve as, say, an audition room. The interviewers’ facilitators reminded me, at least two times, that we were in the “dial-up stage” of virtual reality; the potential is unlimited and quickly being realized, but the factors that will determine its ultimate form are, largely, the desires of the people who have access to it.

It’s encouraging to hear that queer people, people with disabilities, and people of color are at the table. It seems like Mercado’s experience with Meta—advocating for her own exigencies—has been positive overall. “I’ve always been very open about how I move around in the world, and how I can bring that to a place like this,” she said. Her left hand is more flexible than her right, for instance, which made operating the headset’s controllers tricky; troubleshooting with the Meta team quickly led to the realization that controller-free hand tracking (which allows users to navigate with little exertion, selecting icons and typing with a pinched-finger motion) would better-suit Mercado’s ability.

So far, I don’t think that VR has drastically changed anybody’s life. But in another decade, I’m sure it will. That’s not to say that our social universe—work, school, nightlife, vacation, museums, parks, fashion shows, restaurants—will dissolve into the virtual. But this is a tool with potential for power, whose capacity for good or evil mirrors that of the internet, that of social media, and obviously, that of society-at-large. Do I think that Meta should be the one to lead the charge toward a VR future? No! The good thing is—as much as they’d like to be—they aren’t. The lowercase-M metaverse, Meta itself states, is not “a single product one company can build alone.” Horizon Worlds riffs on the vastly-more-popular VRChat, which likewise facilitates live virtual social interaction, but offers desktop-based options for joining, rather than restricting access to those who can afford to drop a few hundred on a decent headset.

The sooner virtual reality is democratized, the better; that’s when control will tangibly shift to the general public. Perhaps there’s a way to achieve this without turning the VR headset into the ultimate advertising platform, with the most captive audience—but that seems to be where we are right now, as a global society. In the meantime, I’m glad for the input of creatives like Mercado, who will absolutely tip the balance in the right direction—or else, create their own beautiful corner of an untamable beast.