|Is there anything left to be said about the "Latin Explosion," the apparently very sudden and ultimately music-driven interest in all things Hispanic? Now that New York magazine changed its name to Nueva York for one issue in order to cover just that phenomenon, have we had enough to read about "la vida latina"? To answer the first question, absolutely yes. To answer the second, absolutely not - as long as Jennifer Lopez is part and parcel of the crossover dream that seems to have finally become a reality. |
And cross over she has, not just in performing, recording and songwriting, but in acting, dancing and just plain celebrity-hood. She did, after all, act as Grand Marshall for this year's Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City and cause screams from the sidelines with every step she took. It was a great honor for a young woman known to her hometown fans as "The Puerto Rican Princess," or simply "J-Lo."
Lopez, who enjoyed one of the summer's biggest pop hits with "If You Had My Love" from the platinum debut CD On The 6, and who simultaneously topped the Latin charts with "No Me Ames" [a duet with Mark Anthony], seemed to have appeared out of nowhere for the purpose of sparking this particular explosion. Her fresh face graced the covers of dozens of magazines and her movements and speculations on her life and loves were methodically noted by gossip columnists across the U.S. and elsewhere.
The daughter of computer specialist David and kindergarten teacher Guadalupe, both originally from Ponce, PR, Lopez was born and raised in the Bronx, a New York borough famous for its ethnic diversity. She knew from her earliest years that she wanted to be a performer and developed her skills first as a dancer. Her talents in that area led to roles as a chorus member in the road companies of such musicals as Synchronicity and Golden Musicals of Broadway, as well as regional productions of Oklahoma and Jesus Christ Superstar. It was also through her dancing that she gained her first national exposure, beating out more than 2000 other auditioners to work with choreographer (now actress) Rosie Perez as a member of the Fly Girls. The ultra-athletic and ultra-sexy dance troupe acted as exclamation points to the comedy skits on Keenan Ivory Wayans's controversial and very funny In Living Color television show.
Despite her desire to move on to full-time acting, she took Wayans's reported advice that she bide her until she was really ready to put herself into that sometimes ferocious arena. The advice was apparently well taken because, after lasting several seasons with Color, she moved into a role in the short-lived South Central. That was followed by roles in two other brief series, Second Chance and Malibu Road, and her final dramatic television appearance to date in the made-for-TV movie Nurses on the Line: The Crash of Flight 7.
It was time for the big screen and Lopez couldn't have made a better choice for her debut: director Gregory Nava's Mi Familia (My Family). The film, which co-starred Jimmy Smits, was a critically acclaimed slice-of-life drama about the history of a Mexican family in Los Angeles and featured a virtually all-Latin cast. Although she received critical plaudits for that part and her roles in Jack (opposite Robin Williams) and Money Train (with Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes), it was her next movie part that propelled her to the position of the highest paid Hispanic actress in the business - her title role in the biopic Selena.
Despite the fact that there was a country-wide open cast-call and she had to, once again, audition along with hundreds of other professional and non-professionals for the part, the colorful life and unfortunate demise of the most successful Tejano recording artist to date was a catalyst for Lopez in more ways than one. Not only did her eerily accurate portrayal of fellow BMI writer Selena secure her position as a coveted Hollywood leading actress, it also tweaked her life-long interest in music and her desire to become a recording artist and songwriter as well. Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla, who acted as Executive Producer of the film, was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying: "She said right then [during the filming] she wanted to do what Selena did, for herself."
Lopez didn't keep this desire to herself and it wasn't long before Tommy Mottola, the head of Sony Music Entertainment, heard of it and asked for a demo tape. That was more than good enough for him. Lopez was quickly signed to the biggest Latin music record company in the industry. Drawing on the experience and established talents of producer/songwriters like Emilio Estefan and the powerhouse Rodney and Freddie Jerkins, not to mention star-making manager Benny Medina, On the 6 was released in the summer, 1999 and was an instant sensation. Her "If You Had My Love" not only debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart and picked up an RIAA platinum certification, it displaced a record by another Latin recording artist, the first time in history two Hispanic artists traded #1 spots on the pop music charts. It was also, as most beach-blanket occupiers would agree, voted "Song of the Summer" at the Teen Choice Awards.
While Lopez is building her recording career with more single and video releases, she continues to work as an actress. Over the past few years she has had major roles in Anaconda, Bob Rafelson's thriller Blood and Wine (opposite Jack Nicholson), Oliver Stone's U-Turn and as a voice-over character in the wildly successful animated feature Antz. Perhaps her best known role so far was as the a kidnapped U.S. marshal in Steven Sonderbergh's Out of Sight with George Clooney as her captor. She was most recently filming The Cell in the role of a forensic psychologist.
So, what exactly does the "Latin Explosion" mean and what more can we say about it? Members of the vast Hispanic community would say that the artistry has been in the U.S. for hundreds of years, ripe and ready for complete integration into the famous "melting pot" of American culture. Finally, the culture seems willing to embrace it with zeal. And for good reason: As long as recording artist/dancer/actress/songwriter Jennifer Lopez and those talented enough to consider themselves equal to her are seen or heard on our radios, televisions, movie screens, newspapers, etc. it won't be an explosion anymore. We simply won't notice there is any difference at all.
By Pat Baird