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'La Vida Loca': Latinos Are Beginning To Change America

by Maura I. Toro-Morn

May 16, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PANTAGRAPH. All Rights Reserved.

Last summer a handsome, island-born, Puerto Rican singer, Ricky Martin, introduced American citizens to the Latin rhythms of "Living la Vida Loca" ("the crazy life"), a song about falling in love with a woman, presumably a Latina, who could drive you crazy and turn you "inside out."

His performance on NBC's "Good Morning America" "brought down the house" at a time when most Americans were just getting through their first cup of coffee. Audiences from coast to coast were shaking their "bon-bons" to the tune of "la vida loca."

Along with Ricky, there were Elvis Crespo, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Cristina Aguilera, among others. Of course, the rediscovery of the Buena Vista Social Club was part of this cultural and musical explosion. This remarkable year culminated when Carlos Santana won eight Grammys for his album, "Supernatural."

Even the "guayabera" (pronounced gwy-ah-BEAR-ah), a casual tropical shirt with four pockets and a pair of pleats in the front, became Madison Avenue's latest craze.

As the summer ended, Carnival Cruise Lines' Inspiration sailed from the port of San Juan for a week of "Salsa at Sea," the latest dancing craze of clubs around the nation. The Latinization of America's culture seemed well under way.

FITTINGLY, THE COVER story of a July 1999 issue of Newsweek magazine, entitled "Latin America, U.S.A.: How Young Hispanics Are Changing America," opened with a lively description of Miami's "Calle Ocho," the heart of the Cuban community in the city, as both "intensely foreign and undeniably American." Indeed, it is the position of these observations that this bifurcated life was the real "la vida loca."

The article celebrated how Latinos were changing the way the country looked, felt, danced and ate. It posed the question: Could this be the face of America's future?

Ironically, several months after the cover story, America looked upon the ramifications of this "crazy life" as a small dwelling in Miami's Cuban community forced the issue of Latino politics onto the national scene.

Americans were captivated and perplexed by the politics surrounding a cute little boy from Cuba, Elian Gonzalez, who had been rescued in the Florida Strait only to find himself in the middle of a major political debate.

For a news-hungry media, "the crazy life" of Latino politics was intoxicating.

On one hand, there was the Cuban-American hatred of Field Castro and their commitment to American ideals of participatory politics. On the other hand, there was their nostalgia and connectedness to their families on both sides of the Florida Strait.

"Calle Ocho" barrio residents showed America how Cuban immigrants juggled "la vida loca" of Latino politics in Miami, the quintessential post-modern global city.

The Elian saga captured "the crazy life" of Latino politics, torn between two worlds, two languages, two families. It showed how Cubans had been able to become part of Miami's political establishment, gaining considerable political power, yet continued to care for their families and communities abroad.

Underlying their passion and their mistaken desire to keep Elian in the United States was their intimate knowledge of the difficulties of living torn between two worlds. After all, the incident began with the fleeing of Elian and his mother from Cuba.

In the Cuban case, the roots of "la vida loca" can be found in a U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba that is frozen in time, and the legacy of immigration policies expressly designed to treat Cuban immigrants with a different set of rules. Political pundits, including presidential candidates, furthered this historical difference by proposing that Elian and his family be given American citizenship.

In the meantime, millions of the Latino immigrants from Mexico, San Salvador and the Dominican Republic waited for a kinder, gentler Janet Reno to process their citizenship papers.

The arrival of Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was a breath of fresh air for most Latinos in the United States as the news media depicted a caring, loving father, desperate to be with his son. This was a strong antidote to the pervasive stereotypes of Latinos as irresponsible fathers and husbands.

In the end, much to the dislike and resistance of the Cuban exile community, father and son were reunited.

Recently, yet another chapter in the larger story of Latino politics in the United States occurred. The massive removal and arrest of Puerto Rican protesters in Vieques , a small island off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico used by the Navy for training in air and ship-to-shore bombing, became first-page news.

AGAIN, THE KINDER and gentler hands of the Justice Department removed over 100 demonstrators who opposed use of the island for Navy exercises, a movement that goes back several decades.

Among the demonstrators were several Chicago Puerto Rican organizations and politicians such as U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Born and raised in Chicago, Gutierrez has traveled frequently to Puerto Rico in solidarity with the people of Vieques .

Clearly, "la vida loca" of Latino politics extends to their children. In recent interviews with second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans in Chicago, I learned about how much they care about island politics. They visit relatives and seek to stay connected to their roots.

Like their parents, the children of immigrants are also living their own "crazy life" of bicultural and bilingual politics. As representatives of Generation (pronounced EN-yay), a term coined by a Cuban-American born and raised in Miami, second-generation Latinos are blending musical, economic and political styles of their countries of origin with American societal rhythms.

Generation N has defied the romanticized assimilation paradigm, the legacy of European immigrants, by juggling two worlds at once without losing much in translation.

Maura I. Toro-Morn is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University.

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