Crossover into ignorance

Commentary: U.S. press misses a beat on its ill-informed proclamations about `Latin' music, which border on racism.

June 23, 1999|By Alisa Valdes- Rodriguez | Alisa Valdes- Rodriguez,LOS ANGELES TIMES

First, the well-known facts: Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin is enjoying phenomenal success with his first English-language album, and more Latino pop artists, such as Enrique Iglesias, are vying to do the same. This has led the U.S. media -- including a Time magazine cover story -- to trumpet a new "Latin crossover phenomenon."

Now, the lesser-known facts.

One: Many of the so-called crossover artists are Americans by birth, including Martin. But the pervasive impression in the media and in the culture at large is that these artists are exotic foreigners. Example? USA Today calling Martin's sounds "south-of-the-border," even though residents of his native Puerto Rico have been United States citizens since 1917, and the island's signature musical genre, salsa, was invented in the 1960s in a city south of the Connecticut border: New York.

Two: In the pop music business, "crossover" generally means switching genres. Martin's music -- pop by any standards -- has not changed, only the language he sings in. He is not, as some publications have posited, a salsa singer.

For Martin and others, the only real "crossover" is their language; it's an unusual category, and one that French-speaking Canadian Celine Dion managed to avoid. Latinos, even those U.S.-born like Martin, are not afforded the same leeway.

Shakira, for example, is a Colombian rock singer whose style has been compared to Alanis Morissette; her "crossover" album will consist of translations of rock songs she has recorded in Spanish. Enrique Iglesias sings syrupy ballads in the tradition of Air Supply; it's a formula that will likely work as well for him in English. And Martin's music, while injected occasionally with percussive instruments, is no more or less "Latin" than that of, say, Puff Daddy, who also uses Spanish phrases.

All of this has led East Harlem's Marc Anthony, who records salsa in Spanish and R&B dance music in English, to declare "crossover" irrelevant, venturing to say the term has only been applied to these artists because they are Latinos on the mainstream charts, not because they perform Latin music on the mainstream charts.

While no one denies that focusing the mainstream media spotlight on Latino musicians and singers is overdue, the recent storm of coverage has exposed an abysmal ignorance about the complexity, diversity and reality of Latinos and Latin music.

Lost in the recent frenzy to cover "crossover" artists have been two simple facts: Latino artists do not necessarily perform in Latin music genres; and Latin music is not always performed by Latinos.

In the case of Jennifer Lopez, who is often lumped into this nascent category, the only "crossover" is in the minds of a media establishment oblivious to the fact that she is a Bronx native who has recorded her debut album of commercial pop songs in her "native tongue": English. Yes, Lopez has two Spanish-language songs on the album, but artists from Madonna to Bon Jovi have been recording in Spanish for release in Latin America for years. No one has called them crossover artists.

Beyond the assumptions about Latino Americans seeming somehow foreign, there is another, more unsettling bit of stereotyping being done in the media about the new "crossover" stars.

Cliched adjectives are used over and over in the mainstream media in general but take on a different connotation when used to describe artists such as Martin, Lopez, Anthony and others. Words such as "hot," "spicy" and "passionate" are taken, one assumes, from the flavors of Mexican cuisine and outdated stereotypes of the "Latin lover."

Particularly upsetting is the media propensity to comment on certain body parts when writing about Latino artists, namely hips and rear ends.

Entertainment Weekly labeled Martin "hot hips." And the vast majority of stories on Lopez refer to her hind side. This is no mere coincidence; several academics, including William Cronon, author of "Changes in the Land; Indians, Colonialists, and the Ecology of New England," have shown direct links between the view European settlers took of the American land and indigenous peoples, both seen as wild, sexual and, in their view, in need of taming.

Speaking of hot: According to Billboard magazine, Ricky Martin is a "hot tamale." This phrase appears several times, and is ridiculous because Martin hails from Puerto Rico, where the local cuisine includes neither chili peppers nor tamales, both of which come from Mexico.

The recent TV Guide cover story on Martin made it only three paragraphs before calling the singer "spicy," and a few paragraphs later made reference to his wiggling hips.

When it comes to Lopez, the coverage is even more troubling, tainted with sexism and sexual innuendo in addition to ignorance.

Lopez was called "salsa-hot" by the Hartford Courant. Like Martin, Lopez is Puerto Rican; once more, on that island, salsa is to be danced, not eaten.

Even in Canada the stereotypes, and mistakes, persist: The Ottawa Citizen called Lopez "a hot-blooded Cuban."

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