Sunday, November 8, 2015
Gustavo Santaolalla has always had two loves: Rock 'n' Roll and Latin culture. As a boy in Argentina, he listened to American music that ranged from Nat King Cole to the Beach Boys. When he decided to become a musician himself, Santaolalla wanted to pay homage to his influences without aping them. "I didn't want to create the Beatles in Spanish," he says.
That quest ultimately led Santaolalla, 53, to help pioneer the fusion of conventional rock and traditional Latin music sometimes called rock en Espaãol. Through his label, Surco, Santaolalla has signed and produced acts as diverse as the rap-rock band Molotov, the crooner Javier García and the Colombian heartthrob Juanes, whose album Un D'A Normal(A Normal Day), racked up five Latin Grammy Awards in 2003 and sold more records in the U.S. than any other Spanish-language album that year. Santaolalla has also introduced the sound to new audiences with his scores for the films 21 Grams and The Motorcycle Diaries.
What pleases Santaolalla most, however, is the way the genre has achieved popularity while pushing the definition of Latin music for Americans.
It offers a "cultural map of Latin America and shows that we are more than just Mexican sombreros and congas," he says. "Not that I have anything against that, but I wanted to stretch past the stereotypes."
A decade ago, director Robert Rodriguez had trouble getting Hollywood approval for a Latina actress — Salma Hayek, before she was Salma Hayek — to play a leading role in his Mexican mariachi massacre film Desperado. But no one questioned this year when he cast Jessica Alba, whose dad is Mexican American, as an Irish stripper in his film-noirish interpretation of the cult comic Sin City. Rodriguez has become Hollywood's most influential Hispanic by putting Latinos in top roles and broadening the definition of what a Latino role is. "Hollywood didn't have parts for Jennifer Lopez or Salma Hayek 10 years ago," says Rodriguez, whoseSpy Kids trilogy, with Latino superheroes played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, changed all that. "Now, you don't have to cast Latins in just Latin roles anymore."
Staying clear of Hollywood, Rodriguez, a Mexican American born in San Antonio, Texas, operates out of his Troublemaker Studios, based in Austin, Texas. His gory gunfests, starting with his debut El Mariachi, and cheery fantasies — the latest is The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D — have raked in more than $565 million.
His success sets the stage for a new generation of Latino filmmakers, like twentysomething Chilean Nicolés López, who's getting the Hollywood rush for his movie Promedio Rojo. But Rodriguez, 37, isn't ready to discuss his legacy. "'Most powerful Hispanic in Hollywood' is cool because you know a lot of Latin kids will look up to that and see it's not a strike against you," says Rodriguez. "The only thing I ever wanted to do," he adds impishly, "is never have to work a day in my life."
For almost three decades, U.S. Latino fiction was a realm of magic realism, stuck somewhere among clichéd visions of grandmas, mangoes and the sea. Then in 2003 Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez put pen to paper and produced a hip, fast-paced novel about six young Latinas trying to get ahead at the office and in the bedroom. Call it chica lit. The six women of TheDirty Girls Social Club are smart, funny and, most important, professionals. They include a reporter, a rock star and a news anchor — none of whom ever gets absorbed in ponderous debates about the immigrant experience.
"I didn't want this to be 'Oh, here we are with our mantilla, praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe,'" says Valdes-Rodriguez, who is of Cuban-Irish descent. "That's not my reality." Born 36 years ago into a middle-class family in Albuquerque, N.M., she lives there now with her husband and young son. She has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and has worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Timesand the Boston Globe.
Valdes-Rodriguez's view of U.S. Latino life has found a diverse and willing audience. Dirty Girls has sold more than 350,000 copies and is in development to become a series on the Lifetime network next spring. Her second book, Playing with Boys, has sold 130,000 hardcover copies. Two more women's novels as well as two works of teen fiction are in the pipeline.
Since Dirty Girls made its debut, similar works by Latina authors, like Hot Tamara by Mary Castillo, have found their way into bookstores. Valdes-Rodriguez hesitates to take any credit. "These writers have always been there," she says. "It's just that the industry wasn't ready to publish them." They're ready now.
Desi Arnaz, Freddie Prinze and I," says George Lopez, "are in a club that only has three members." It sounds arrogant, but he's right. Since 1951, the three comics have played lead roles in the only hit network sitcoms starring Latinos — spaced roughly 30 years apart.
George Lopez, the show, is a success story rooted in a sad one. Lopez, 44, was abandoned by his parents as a boy and raised by his grandmother, who he says was belittling and incapable of showing affection. Yet he credits those early woes with inspiring his sometimes dark-edged humor. "If you grow up with a supportive family," he says, "you become a guy who gets laughs from everyday observations: laundry and airplanes and relationships. If you grow up emotionally neglected, you do a deeper type comedy."
The show, on ABC, has never been a smash hit, but it has had a solid run since its debut in 2002, holding its own against phenomenon American Idol. It will be followed next fall by Freddie, a Latino-family sitcom starring Freddie Prinze Jr. — the son of Lopez's comedy idol — whom Lopez helped persuade to do the show. Lopez, just recovered from a kidney transplant, has also taken care that his sitcom's crew includes Latinos and other minorities. "If you come to our stage," he says, "it looks like Costco." He says he hopes Latino kids watching him see — as he did watching the elder Prinze's Chico and the Man — that they can have "goals, not just dreams. What is a dream to Mexican kids, to white kids is a goal."
Even if we count only her performances in Selena and Out of Sight (and absolve her of her contributions to Anaconda andGigli), Jennifer Lopez doesn't really belong on a list of America's greatest actresses. And now that she's married to fellow Boricua Marc Anthony, she can't even claim to be the best singer in her own house. But J. Lo's place on a list of most influential Hispanics is a no-brainer. Why? Because over a decade ago, she was an anonymous background dancer on the second-rated sketch-comedy show. Today she's known by two syllables. That's one less than Madonna, and, yes, Lopez is probably counting.
Ambition is what makes America move — and what makes Hispanics move to America. As the Bronx-born daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Lopez, 36, has an outsider's hunger and a native's assumption of infinite possibility. She works hard and dreams big. In 2001 she became the first actress to have a movie (The Wedding Planner) and an album (J. Lo) top the charts in the same week. Now there are clothing lines (JLO by Jennifer Lopez and the newly launched Sweetface) and fragrances (Glow, Still), which together brought in more than $300 million in revenue in 2004, making her the 19th richest person under 40, according to Fortune magazine.
Lopez's lunge for icon status has not always been graceful. Her movie choices are sometimes bizarre, and her string of boyfriends (P. Diddy), husbands (remember Cris Judd?) and near husbands (Ben Affleck) has made her the butt of jokes. Speaking of which, Lopez is famed for her callipygousness, but less so for the humor with which she embraces the public discussion of her curves. (She once described her backside as "two potatoes on sticks.") Lopez speaks of her shape as a cultural legacy — and one she's quite proud of. She may want to rule the world, but, like the lady says, at least in some ways she's still Jenny from the block.
As a 24-year-old reporter in Mexico City, Jorge Ramos felt choked by more than just the capital's notorious smog. Tired of censorship from Mexico's then ruling party, the P.R.I., Ramos bolted for Los Angeles in 1983, and in just three years he won the top CONNews anchor spot at Univision, the U.S.'s largest Spanish-language network. An Emmy-winning journalist who combines looks and eloquence with bluntness and tenacity, Ramos, 47, once got slugged by Fidel Castro's bodyguard for asking Castro if Cuba would ever hold democratic elections. Every President since George H.W. Bush has made sure to be interviewed by Ramos, whose network is now fifth largest in the U.S. and whose evening news show (which he co-anchors with Maria Elena Salinas) reaches six times as many Hispanic households as any English-language network.
A firm believer that Hispanic identity is "intrinsically linked" to Spanish, Ramos scoffs at critics who charge that networks like Univision ghettoize that community. "This is the only country I know," he says, "where people believe that to speak only one language is better than two." But Ramos feels a responsibility to be more than just a sonorous voice on TV. Now based in Miami, he writes columns and has published numerous books about issues like immigration (his latest is Dying to Cross, a wrenching account of the suffocation deaths in 2003 of 19 illegal migrants entering Texas in a trailer truck), the Latinization of U.S. culture and what he sees as the lack of trust between the U.S. and the countries of Latin America.
Pablo Alvarado still remembers the terror he felt as a young, undocumented Salvadoran immigrant that morning in Woodland Hills, Calif., 13 years ago, when five police cars with sirens blaring and lights flashing converged on him, summoned by nervous residents who assumed he was a criminal. Eventually, he convinced the cops that he was pursuing a job offered by one of the residents' neighbors. "All day workers go through things like that and worse," says Alvarado.
As coordinator of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network for the past three years, Alvarado, 38, is considered the Cesar Chavez of the jornaleros (day workers), who assemble on street corners, offering to do odd jobs. He is credited with, among other triumphs, spearheading the campaign to overturn ordinances around the country that prohibit day laborers from soliciting work in public places and with forming alliances on issues like better working conditions and higher wages with union federations, which tend to see immigrants as competitors.
Alvarado, who has permanent resident status and a wife and two children in Pasadena, has organized soccer teams and music groups to forge ties among immigrant laborers who compete with one another for jobs. "It's difficult to oppress people who have a sense of identity and unity," he says. "Our struggle is about being seen as human beings trying to earn our daily bread."
When you have a body with curves more dangerous than a racetrack's and a face that stops traffic, you learn to love the public eye. But Salma Hayek has never been content to be a mere lens magnet. She plays the show-biz game like a true scrimmager, dodging, scrambling and tackling much bigger obstacles. Consider first her arrival in the U.S., in 1990 at age 23; already an enormous star in her homeland of Mexico, she had to return to the bottom of the filmic food chain in L.A. After director Robert Rodriguez saw her on TV and cast her in 1995's Desperado, she began to win roles in mainstream, if not always successful, films like Fools Rush In and Wild Wild West. Just 12 years after she arrived, Hayek produced and starred in her dream project, a biopic of fellow Mexican Frida Kahlo, a film that had stymied several richer, more famous and much taller women, not to mention studio executives, for years. But a passion project is just a brave, slightly quixotic thing to do, unless it makes a handsome profit (as Frida did) and gets nominated for six Academy Awards (as Fridadid — winning two). Directing came next; Hayek's Maldonado Miracle, about how a bleeding statue changes a town, aired on Showtime in 2003. At this stage, she could be sitting by the pool, fending off the scripts, invitations and free frocks, but with Hayek, 38, nothing is show business as usual. She took Penélope Cruz, a putative rival, under her wing when the Spanish actress arrived in Hollywood. She's trying to send more film productions Mexico's way to build up the industry there. And she's also developing two new U.S. films and two TV shows, plus writing a script for Jamie Foxx. Hayek may have been noticed for her body, but she's known for her body of work.