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The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Brava New World Latino Chic Isn't Just A Passing Trend. The Food, The Fashion, The Culture And The People Are Becoming A Driving Force In America's Mainstream
September 29, 2002
Betty Cortina remembers walking through an airport in July 1999 when the cover of the latest Newsweek magazine caught her eye.
"Latin U.S.A." read the bold type. "How Young Hispanics Are Changing America."
Cortina, then a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, felt by turns surprised, excited, slightly annoyed and more than a little vindicated.
"I remember thinking, 'Great!,' and then I remember thinking, 'Duh!' "
Latinos have played a role in shaping the United States since its inception, of course. But in the three years since Newsweek described Hispanics as "hip, hot and making history," Latino influence over popular culture has only accelerated.
The explanation may simply be in the numbers. Hispanics are now the most populous minority group in the country. Or maybe, as some Latinos suggest, the country is finally embracing its multicultural uniqueness.
After all, we're a nation that not only craves salsa but dances it, too. We shake with Shakira and laugh with George Lopez. We swoon over Antonio Banderas and savor the prose of Isabel Allende.
We're even getting better at trilling our r's.
So, is it chic to be Chicano? Madison Avenue seems to think so. Advertisers and large companies are flooding the market with campaigns that feature Latino celebrities and other cultural touch points: a Mexican folklore figure helps sell milk in California, and boxer Oscar De La Hoya hawks Big Macs.
While some Hispanics bristle at the suggestion that their culture is some sort of fad, most see the mainstream's new appreciation for it as a chance at real progress - social, political and economic.
"It's a really good thing that a magazine like Newsweek that is so representative of America and what's important to Americans recognized that [Hispanics are having an influence]," says Cortina, editorial director for Latina magazine. "But also it's just sort of an inevitable moment, because I think the look and texture and tapestry of America is changing and that was just one more piece of evidence that it had changed."
Thirty years ago, Gloria Duarte would have been mortified doing what she sees her college students doing all the time.
Eating a burrito in public.
"There was a stigma," says Duarte, a professor of English at Angelo State University in San Angelo. "I would rather do anything than take a taquito or a burrito to school for lunch. And I never did."
Today, burritos are as commonplace as the great American hot dog. Salsa outsells ketchup. And nuevo Latino cuisine (think moles and ceviches) draws crowds to the country's hippest restaurants.
The shift in America's palate coincides with a wave of high-profile Hispanic images. The movie-going masses established the popularity of actors, such as Banderas, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek, and singers like Shakira, Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin have established Latin-tinged pop as the norm.
For the past several seasons, designer-to-the-blue-bloods Ralph Lauren has focused his ad campaign around Cruz. Runway fashion since last fall, meanwhile, has indulged in the bright colors, embroidery and layered ruffles of traditional Spanish dress. (Note the cover of April's O magazine, which features its namesake, Oprah Winfrey, skipping down a colorful street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.) Last summer, Liz Claiborne launched a perfume called Mambo, proclaiming "Latin style is hot! hot! hot!"
And lest we forget, notes Cortina, "The hottest woman in the world right now? Her name is Lopez."
But having their culture cast as trendy doesn't sit well with some Latinos. In the wake of the Newsweek articles, North Carolina journalist Paul Cuadros remembers Anglo friends telling him, " 'Oh, you're Hispanic. You're hip now,' which I found rather disturbing. Because no one wants their ethnic identity to be trivialized as a fad. It's part of my roots. It's not a fad to me."
Adds Cuadros, who often reports for Time magazine on Mexican immigrants, "It's still not hip to be a farmworker."
For Hispanic teens, though, the changing dynamic is a point of pride. North Side High School sophomore Maria Banuelos distinctly recalls instances when characters on the TV shows Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends tossed off some Spanish. "Todos quieren Raymond," Banuelos says, quoting Ray Barone's TV brother, Robert.
And, thanks to Shakira, "Everybody wants to tango now," says Elva Vasquez, a North Side High School senior. For Vasquez, the Colombian singer's performance of the song Objection (Tango) on the MTV Video Music Awards this month was a notable breakthrough.
"I think [the mainstreaming of Latino culture] takes away a sense of long-term disparagement by mainstream society," says Jose Aranda, an associate professor of Chicano and American literature and culture at Rice University. "This attention can create a sense of new possibility. I think it's really important for young people to see not just positive role models but to see that other people think they're positive."
Texas is certainly one of the most Hispanic feeling states in the union. After all, it used to be Mexico.
"There is a very apt slogan that many of us say," notes Fort Worth poet Tammy Gomez. " 'Aqui estemos y no nos vamos.' Here we are and we're not going. It's been that way for over 500 years."
Prior to 1836, Anglos and Mexicans intermarried freely, and Anglos who wanted Mexican citizenship were required to speak Spanish. The state's history is packed with cross-cultural figures like Lorenzo de Zavala, the first vice president of the Republic of Texas and a signer of the Mexican Constitution.
Cowboy culture, Cowtown's claim to fame, owes much to the Mexican vaqueros. "Rodeo," "lasso" and "lariat": They're all Spanish words.
So what happened to this harmonious blending of cultures?
Slavery, for one, says Aranda.
"For the Anglo-Texans, generally speaking, if you were pro-slavery, you essentially had a racial bias . . . and white was better than black or brown," he notes. "That world view started to really separate people."
In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Latin rhythms struck America's fancy, but the Latino presence in the United States was still small, and prejudices were blatant. Duarte, a schoolgirl in the '50s and '60s, remembers the punishments incurred for speaking Spanish in school, even on the playground. And many Hispanic immigrants hesitated to pass on the language to their children.
"We, thankfully, live in a totally different time," says Latina's Cortina.
Many young Hispanics who may not be fluent in Spanish are coming back to the language, says Ivan Mino, an assistant professor of Spanish at the southeast campus of Tarrant County College. There are two reasons for this. "One is because Hispanic is the in thing to be right now," he says. The other is purely practical. "We are talking about 20 percent of the population that speaks a language."
For Jesse Hernandez, learning Spanish several years ago was a way of connecting with a part of himself he hadn't thoroughly explored.
"Some of my white friends spoke more Spanish than I did," says Hernandez, a 33-year-old Fort Worth artist. "So it was like they were embracing my culture more than I was."
Language plays a tremendous role in shaping popular culture, says New York City author and journalist Ed Morales, and Spanish words are increasingly part of American slang. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Hasta la vista, baby," Taco Bell's "Yo Quiero Taco Bell," and Bart Simpson's "No problemo" (actually, "no problema" is correct) may be faddish, but they're also an entree to Hispanic culture.
"They're becoming little asides that people use," says Morales, who wrote this year's Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America (LA Weekly Books, $25.95). "I think right now it's novel [for English speakers] but there's the potential that it becomes more integrated into society as the Hispanic population grows and people continue to speak the language."
Why is there so much attention now to everything Latino?
At 35.3 million and growing, the Latino population in the United States is a ubiquitous presence -- and not just in urban areas. Immigrants pick mushrooms in Pennsylvania's Amish country, build houses in rural North Carolina, and staff poultry plants in Maine. Meanwhile, the Hispanic middle class grew 80 percent between 1979 and 1998, according to the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in California.
Advertisers have begun to recognize "the creation of a professional and educated class of Latinos," notes author Morales, and the buying power of Hispanics as a whole, which has been estimated at $561 billion by market analysis firm Santiago and Valdes Solutions. The bidding war over Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's upcoming novel, Dirty Girls Social Club, is but one example of this new awareness. Valdes-Rodriguez's manuscript, about six very different Latinas who were college friends, prompted a publishing world frenzy earlier in the summer. The former journalist walked away with a $500,000 deal, a record for a first-time Latina novelist.
At last week's Latin Grammy Awards on CBS, hosts Gloria Estefan and Jimmy Smits spoke in English, but most of the acceptance speeches were in Spanish, as were half of the commercials -- for Budweiser, Neutrogena and Dodge, among others. That's two hours of mostly Spanish-language prime-time content on Dan Rather's network -- a stark contrast to the usual dearth of Latino faces on TV.
Maybe more significantly, businesses are incorporating Latino culture into advertising for general audiences. The California Milk Advisory Board used the Mexican legend of La Llorona last winter to promote its "Got Milk?" TV ad campaign, though most non-Hispanics have never heard of the "Weeping Woman." Dr Pepper's latest television campaign features Latin singer Thalia performing an original song, in English, while dancers salsa in the background.
Fort Worth poet Gomez recalls a Levi's ad that impressed her for its subtle reference to Latino influence. The commercial showed a young Hispanic man contorting his body in a style of street dance known as "pop and lock," created by Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. The music was that of Mexican hip-hop group Control Machete.
"Instead of saying, 'And now, here's some Latin culture for you,' " Gomez says, the ad had no voiceover. "I saw that as a triumph."
But can popular culture effect meaningful social change?
Cuadros, the North Carolina journalist, is skeptical. "That sort of acceptance would probably come more from [having a] neighbor who is Latino," he says. "And you get to know them and you find out that they are regular people just like you."
Cortina and others, though, place real currency in popular culture's ability to alter the economic and political landscape for Hispanics.
"We live in a very celebrity-oriented society," says the Latina editor. "So the power of what a celebrity says and does is huge, and it absolutely does have ramifications politically. I think the last election said it all. You had [George W.] Bush trying to speak Spanish, and that spoke much more powerfully than a No. 1 album."
Hispanic pop-culture history
Hispanics have been shaping American culture for centuries. Here's a timeline including some of the more notable pop-culture influences.
19th century: Vaqueros. The Old West's cowboy culture owes much to Mexican horsemen.
1920s: Rudolph Valentino. The silent-movie icon popularizes the Latin lover stereotype (although Valentino was Italian, not Latino).
1930s: Xavier Cugat. The "King of the Rhumba" introduces Latin rhythm to the trend-setting elite as leader of the Waldorf-Astoria's house orchestra.
1950s: Tito Puente. Puente, a featured player at New York's new Palladium nightclub, leads the mambo explosion.
1951: Desi Arnaz. Bandleader Arnaz and his movie star wife, Lucille Ball, use their savings to produce a television pilot in which they star as husband and wife.
1959: La Bamba . Ritchie Valens (aka Richard Valenzuela) scores a rock 'n' roll hit with a remake of a Mexican folk song. He dies in a plane crash a month after its release.
1961: West Side Story. The film version of the Broadway play -- about the rivalry between an Anglo and a Puerto Rican gang -- wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.
1974-78: Chico and the Man. Freddie Prinze stars as an enterprising young Hispanic helping a cranky old Anglo named Ed run his garage. The show attempted to recover, but never did, after Prinze's 1977 suicide.
Mid-80s: Menudo. The Puerto Rican-based boy band, including a 12-year-old Ricky Martin, fends off swooning fans at concerts across America.
Mid-80s: Miami Sound Machine. With their hit single Conga! , lead singer Gloria Estefan and the band score the only song in history to appear on Billboard's pop, Latin, soul and dance charts at the same time.
1991: "Hasta la vista, baby!" Arnold Schwarzenegger introduces the Spanish phrase -- meaning "See you later" -- to the masses via Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
1992: Salsa. Latin sauces outsell America's former favorite condiment, ketchup.
1994: Patria. Chef Douglas Rodriguez opens the Manhattan restaurant, introducing nuevo Latino cuisine to the country's hippest diners.
1995: Mario Molina. The MIT professor becomes the first Mexican-American to win a Nobel Prize, for his work on ozone depletion.
1995: Selena. The Tejano singer's murder rivets the country's attention.
1996: The Macarena . It's a song. It's a dance. It's the craze of the summer.
1998: Buena Vista Social Club . A reunion of Cuba's legendary jazz musicians results in an acclaimed documentary and a Grammy-winning recording.
February 1999: Ricky Martin. The suave Puerto Rican singer wows the Grammy audience, and his Latin-inflected single, Livin' la Vida Loca, tops the charts.
June 1999: Jennifer Lopez. The screen actress can sing, too, and her debut album, On the 6 , is a hit.
2000: Latin Grammys. The awards show makes its prime-time, network debut.
2001: Spy Kids . The Robert Rodriguez-directed film follows the fantastic adventures of an American family named Cortez.
2002: The George Lopez Show , Greetings From Tucson . The television season introduces two new network sitcoms focused on Hispanic life.