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Young Latinas Hope Their Big Voices And Strong Faith Will Lead To A Spot In Chica
August 30, 2002
The hip record label executive saunters to the front of the classroom.
"Tania," he calls out.
Tania Enriquez stands up and follows the exec into the library at Carpenter's Church School in Lakeland. Her long legs stride toward the makeshift audition room where she hopes God will make her dream come true.
Her eyes flutter shut. Her little body unleashes a huge voice.
"I am blessed," she sings, hand over her waist, voice deep and low. "From the morning to when I lay my head to rest. I am blessed."
At 15, Tania, of Riverview, doesn't meet the age requirement for Chica, a Latina Christian girl group.
But she's got sparkly brown eyes and a sweet smile, and she speaks fluent Spanish. So the judges hand her a thick questionnaire, advancing her into the second round.
Tania walks out of the library with a flourish of bubbly energy, but she falls silent in the classroom, where six other girls wearing too much makeup hold hands with their mothers.
"Karina," the exec calls out.
Word Label Group executives Blaine Barcus and Brian Meiler, and Chica singer Emille Gandara are looking for a perfect fit -- a solid, maturing believer in Christ, Latina, age 18 to 23, single, Spanish speaking. They need two girls to add to the current three members of Chica, a Latina-urban-pop-gospel group.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Gandara, 22, went through the audition process herself a few years ago. She thinks Chica is her calling -- her voice is bringing "salt and light unto the world."
Word Label Group is the largest Christian record label out there. Owned by AOL Time Warner, the label has signed artists like Amy Grant, Nicole C. Mullin and Six Pence None the Richer.
Like those groups, the fledgling Chica wants to break the barrier into the mainstream music scene.
"Mainstream" conjures nasty images in Gandara's head. She sees scantily clad Britney Spears running around with large snakes draped on her wet body and iced-out rappers screaming derogatory curses into the microphone.
"We want to be a breath of fresh air for people," Gandara says. "It's not about going to church or not wearing a short skirt. It's about how you live your life. You need Jesus Christ in your life."
Chica is looking for "a little package of personality, a sweet spirit, a heart for the Lord," Gandara says.
Chica is auditioning girls in nine cities with large Latina populations. They'll pick a few finalists from each city, post their information and sound bites on a Web site, and narrow it down to 13 through a public vote. Then there'll be a recording session, more auditions and a decision.
In Lakeland, there are only seven girls at the audition, fewer than the record label had expected. But that was God's will, they say, looking disappointed anyway.
IT'S ALL ABOUT JESUS
Wringing her hands, 23-year-old Karina Restrepo of Palm Harbor follows the exec into the audition room.
How did you hear about the audition, the judges ask.
Karina says someone at her church gave her the information during Mass last weekend. She thinks it was a sign. People sitting next to Karina in church always say she sings like an angel.
Do you speak Spanish? they ask.
Yes, she says. That's all she speaks at home. She loves her culture. Even if she marries an American guy, he's going to have to learn Spanish, she tells them.
Then she sings, a syrupy warm voice.
"It's all about you, Jesus . . .''
Ever since she was little, she has wanted to sing for the Lord.
The judges hand her a questionnaire and she returns to the classroom, relieved.
The walls are decorated with posters of the alphabet and plush stuffed cats, but the contestants may as well be at a studio in New York or Nashville. Many of them mumble prayers as the yellow pet bird in a cage at the back of the room squawks. They nervously tap their feet or twist their hair between their fingers. Tania's mom strokes her long brown hair.
"I'm pretty happy I got asked back," Tania whispers, not wanting to disturb the others. "My self-esteem just shot up ten points."
Five minutes pass and a girl with a caramel-colored bob emerges from the audition room, picks up her purse and walks out of the classroom. Her eyes are blank. She breathes heavily.
The other six girls suck in their breath a little, too.
"Jackie," the exec calls out. Five minutes later, "Nicole."
Tania scribbles through her questionnaire in round, playful 15-year-old script.
She weighs 104 pounds. She's 5-feet-4.
She's half Cuban, half Colombian. First-generation American.
In terms of talent, she thinks she's a nine out of 10.
On the questionnaire, Tania lists her unique talents: sleeping an abnormal amount and "doing weird things with my tongue."
If she were on a deserted island and had only one CD, it would be 17-year-old rebel Avril Levigne's debut album.
And then it's the second round of auditions. Only one girl has gone home.
"Tania," the exec calls out.
Back in the library/audition room, Tania jokes with the judges. Moments later she is poised for song, belting out another dose of energetic music.
Then the questions start. How did you become a Christian? She was raised that way but she's passionate about it, she says.
Do you get along with your family? Very well.
Why is Britney Spears your least favorite artist?
"My brother's ex-girlfriend's little sister Carly like worshipped her," Tania explains, words spilling quickly off her tongue. "I was like, you can't be walking around singing `I'm a slave for you,' you're 11."
And the male pop stars?
"You just can't look at Enrique Iglesias and say you don't like him," she says with a giggle. "That's where I draw the line. I like boys."
It's over, and Tania steps out. She did well, she thinks.
The judges think her age might be an issue. Could she really move to Nashville? Fit in with four older girls? But she's cute, they say, great personality, good voice. But she is only 15.
We'll see, they say to each other, we'll see.
It will be a few weeks before Tania gets a call or a letter. She'll be crossing her fingers until then.
All she wants is "to do God's will."
"Hopefully that involves music," Tania says, "But if it doesn't, I can live with that . . . I think."