Today I stumbled upon an old book called “Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture,” third edition. It was a required reading for my reading and writing class in my first year of college. While finding a place for the book, it fell open on my bed on page 324 and the repeated word Latino written all over it got my immediate attention. It was an essay I hadn’t read before, so I started reading it from the beginning: “Crossing Pop Lines: Attention to Latinos is Overdue But Sometimes off-Target.”
The book is 12 years old, yet not much has changed. Latino versus Hispanic is still a debatable subject and the media is still adding to the confusion by continuing to publish only the most inaccurate, most stereotypical pieces of information about individuals.
Below, I am quoting parts of the essay, as well as adding my own points, views and updated information.
The “Latin Crossover Phenomenon” from the early 2000’s
Many of the so-called crossover artists are American by birth, including Ricky 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 Ricky 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 1960’s in a city south of the Connecticut border: New York.
Even though 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. 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 US-born, are not afforded the same leeway.
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.
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, 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 had two Spanish-language pop songs on her first album, but artists from Madonnna to Bon Jovi have been recording in Spanish for release in Latin America for years, and yet no one has ever called them crossover artists.
Too Complex to be Lumped as “Latin Music”
Most of the 50 million Latinos in the US speak English as their primary language. Beyond that, they are as racially and economically diverse as the entire US population. While many people continue to believe that all Latinos are “brown,” this is clearly false.
In fact, the history of the US is parallel to that of Latin America: The Native American inhabitants were “conquered” by Europeans; many Native Americans were killed in the process, and Africans were ‘imported’ to replace them as slaves. Documents from slave ships show that fully 95% of the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves went to Latin America. Brazil is home to the largest African-American population on Earth, and five out of every six Dominicans is of African descent.
There are plenty of black Latinos succeeding in mainstream American pop music, but few, if any, ever get mentioned in the Latin crossover write-ups. In some cases, this is due to the artist’s decision not to make their background known. But in other cases, as in the exclusion of R&B singer Maxwell, who is half Puerto Rican, it’s due mostly to reluctance on the part of both the English and Spanish media to include blacks in the discussion at all.
Christina Aguilera is half Ecuadorian; Fergie, Selena Gomez, and guitarists Dave Navarro are part Mexican; Mariah Carey, who describes her father as a black Venezuelan and who routinely included Spanish singles on her albums for import to Latin America, is also absent from the crossover discussion. This is not counting the dozens of entertainers in the industry, from reality shows to big-time hit movies, whose Latino backgrounds are rather kept irrelevant.
While a white Latino is just as Latino as a brown or black one, it unfortunately seems that in the world of American pop culture, Latinos are still only palatable as long as they appeal to a mainstream Caucasian standard of beauty. Jennifer Lopez seemed to have figured this one out. Her naturally wavy dark brown hair was lightened and straightened, and her once-fuller body was at first whittled down by a fitness guru to something virtually indistinguishable from the lean, muscular Madonna.
There is no such thing as a singular “Latino” and efforts to classify 50 million racially, economically and educationally diverse individuals as one unit is ignorant—and irresponsible.
Did you know?
The term “Hispanic” was invented by the US Census Bureau in the 1970s in order to classify a group of Americans apparently linked through a common language—Spanish. Hispanics, or Latinos, don’t exist in Latin America where people identify themselves by nationality, class and race—just like here. “Latinos” have been invented in the US for the convenience of politics and marketing, overlooking considerable cultural differences and complexity that can make your head spin.
Much of what we call “Mexican Food” today is really Native American food; the unifying “Latino” language, Spanish, is a European import, just like English; the backbone of Salsa music, the clave rhythm, comes from West Africa, as does Merengue’s two-headed tambora drum; Mexican norteño and banda music is rooted in Germany and Poland…but Cajuns in Louisiana who play essentially the same stuff in French are not Latinos.
Complexity—it is anathema to good capitalist marketing plans, which promise big bucks to whomever can lasso the elusive buyers of the world. And yet history is complex—all of ours—and journalists owe it to everyone to accurately chronicle the history of our world and one of its most powerful cultural forces: music.