Jillian Mercado Is The Disabled Latina Making Fashion Accessible

Growing up as a Disabled Latina, I never felt as if I saw myself totally represented in mainstream media. I saw little bits and parts of myself there, sure. On occasion, I’d get a chance to glimpse a part of myself through Latina actresses on TV and every once in a while, I’m talking a real blue moon, I’d catch sight of a disabled person in movies. But never did the two identities, which have sculpted who I am in so many ways, ever meet. In fashion (on magazines, runway shows, and billboard ads) this merging of my two identities just flat out actually never happened. It’s why, when Teen Vogue recently announced their September issue and revealed that they were featuring not one but three Disabled models, one of which is Latina, I felt particularly filled with gratitude. Mostly because, this is a sight I never believed the world would see, at least not in my lifetime. 

This month, Teen Vogue featured three Disabled models on the cover of its ‘The New Faces of Fashion’ issue. 

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I don’t even know what to say right now. I am left with an overwhelming feeling of happiness and gratitude. All I ever wanted as a child was to see my self represented in an industry that I loved so much. And here we are… on the SEPTEMBER ISSUE OF @teenvogue!!! — When you want something so bad, manifest it with all your heart and soul, blood sweat and tears because nothing is impossible, no matter if the whole world is against you, you have the strength and power to make it happen. This cover just proves all of that hard work. — I want to thank every single person who has helped me get to where I am today, you believed in me when no one else did. I want to thank my agency @imgmodels @ivanmbart for helping me pave the way when it’s hard for me to do it by myself. My mom, sisters and friends for keeping me grounded and cheering me on every single milestone in my life. But most importantly I want to dedicate this moment to my younger self, we did it mama! All those nights of self-doubt were for this moment. Your patience and dedication made today happen. Go hug yourself and cry of happiness because we are just getting started! — I also want to take this moment and say that for those of you out there like my younger self, here is proof that you can be anything you set your mind to, this is for you as well. Let it be a lesson that if you want to see change happen in the world for good be the one to change it yourself. I believe in you. — Shout out to to my sis @mamacaxx and the lovely @showtimewerner for sharing this moment with me! – Team: Photograper @camilafalquez, style @lanajaylackey, makeup @makiryoke, hair @edwardlampley, manicure @yukie_miyakawa_nails and set design @danielleselig

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The latest edition included Mama Cāx (who has an amputated leg), Chelsea Werner (who has Down syndrome) and Jillian Mercado an Afro-Latina model who has muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. The model, who had been hustling in the fashion industry for years until she got her big break landing an ad campaign with Diesel Jeans, has become the Disabled model, I’ve been keeping my eye on.

I found my way to Jillian’s Instagram page a few years ago when I learned about her work through a friend. I remember scrolling through her page for the first time and feeling amazed by how glamorous and relatable her photos were. Right in front of my eyes was a powerful Disabled Latina showcasing her talent for modeling while using a mobility aid. They were images that struck me mostly because, in a way, it was like looking in a mirror, but this time my reflection was confident, bold and unapologetic and certain.  As someone who feels insecure about my mobility aid at times (I use a cane) as well as about wearing certain outfits because of how they’d expose my scars from my past surgeries, here was Jillian showing up to school me on the fact that I could rock any outfit I wanted along with my mobility aid. 

Reflecting on the importance of diversity and inclusivity in fashion, the magazine highlighted the three models’ careers in an industry that consistently pushes images that are the exact opposite of their diversities. The entire spread is a wonder to be seen but, for me, a Disabled Latina, Mercado’s presence is particularly thrilling.   

In a post about the cover, Mercado wrote about her Teen Vogue photoshoot and described what the feature meant to her saying “All I ever wanted as a child was to see my self-represented in an industry that I loved so much.” It’s a sentiment that I am completely certain speaks to any young Disabled Latina who has ever come across the covers of fashion magazines and it’s sophisticately portrayed models.

Mercado’s cover shows that the fashion industry is changing their views about beauty and is finally allowing the much needed, and accessible, seat at the table for our country’s largest minority group.

Disabled representation in media not only remains pretty bleak but also pretty darn white (just check out #DisabilityTooWhite), particularly in the fashion realm. If TV and film are only just beginning to hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the proper representation of disabeled people, the fashion world has a long trek to just get to the main point of impact. (Check out the ableist photoshoot that featured Kylie Jenner “bound” to a wheelchair to see what I mean). For too long, the fashion industry has carelessly peddled a notion that Disabled models couldn’t be represented because they couldn’t possibly “look like a model.” Certainly not when they were in a wheelchair, using a mobility aid or had facial and body differences. But Jillian, and models like her, have slowly and surely changed many of the big minds of the fashion trade including mine. 

Mercado’s career and success have shown me the significance of creating your own space and narrative in an industry that sells concepts of what it means to be perfect.

Seeing Mercado on Teen Vogue’s cover isn’t just an iconic moment for the fashion world and its future, it’s life changing for myself and Disabled Latinas all over the world who have craved and waited to see themselves represented in the mainstream. Jillian’s cover on Teen Vogue gives me the hope I desperately needed while flipping through the pages of glossies when I was younger and even as I do so now. I know this is only the beginning for Mercado and hope there will soon be a time when the fashion world gets with the program and becomes accessible. It’s overdue and I for one can’t wait to see the day when Disabled models become the norm in all magazines.


Read: ‘La China Mas Latina’ Is This Japanese Trans-Activist’s Dedication to Latinas And A Super Guide To Cultural Appreciation

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