January 19, 2001


Ricky Martin Doesn't Represent Latinos

by Sheila Maldonado

As Ricky Martin goes, so goes the perception of Latinos.

This fall, the leader of the Latin rhythm nation released his new album, "Sound Loaded," the follow-up to his self-titled sensation of more than a year ago. "Sound Loaded" opened to the usual staggering sales, but this album received mixed reviews. Many criticized Martin for falling back on his Latin-lover schtick, noting that what was once cutting-edge kitsch is now a cartoon.

While some of Martin's fans are still willing to put down hard-earned cash to invest in cliches, others have grown tired of the hype.

Critics, both vicious and fair, have noticed just how highly sexualized and painfully empty Martin's presentation has become. "Martin sings like he doesn't have a thought in his head," wrote Chicago Tribune critic Allison Stewart. "A great Ricky Martin album is the ideal soundtrack to accompany the singer's only God-given talent: shaking his butt," wrote Boston Globe reviewer Joan Anderman. "Martin is a gorgeous puff of meringue... (who) leaves us hoping for something more substantial," said Isaac Guzman of New York's Daily News.

I'm sensing an "enough already" sentiment about Ricky Martin, but the Ricky Martin phenomenon was troubling from the start. Although he became a de facto ambassador of all things Latin in the United States, Martin didn't represent all Latinos here. He's always walked a fine line between an entertainer and a stereotype, and with this new release it seems like he's finally crossed it.

The media heralded the success of Ricky Martin as a signal of the coming of age of Latinos in America. Boasting the hottest assets within the most lucrative sphere of Latin culture —music— Martin made the cover of Time in 1999 with the headline "Latin music goes pop!" Like our representative Ricky, Latinos were "hip" and "hot" as well, according to a Newsweek cover story that same year that insisted, "Latinos are flattered to be considered hot commodities."

There are many more of us who are disturbed by the idea that our success is measured only in record sales. In fact, many Latinos are not enjoying so-called success at all. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1999, the year of the Latin music explosion, only 56 percent of Hispanics were high-school graduates as opposed to 88 percent of whites. In that same year, Hispanics were still about three times more likely to be living below the poverty level (26 percent) than whites (8 percent). And 34 percent of Hispanic children lived in poverty that year, as compared to 11 percent of white children.

Unfortunately, Latinos have become visible in an era in which pop can define a population, in which communities are considered commodities. For us, there is no civil-rights movement, just an entertainment explosion. That's why a man who moves his hips might be confused for the head of a movement.

So if you're sick of Ricky Martin, I understand. I wish he would choose another way to represent himself —one that was more complex and enduring. Until then, he definitely doesn't speak—or sing— for all Latinos in America.

We have more important things to worry about than the number of records he sells.

Sheila Maldonado is a freelance writer living in New York. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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