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Tuesday, 27 March, 2001, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
Latin sensations rock US
Jennifer Lopez
Jennifer Lopez - more than just a "Latin spitfire"
It has long been predicted and now it is official - the latest US census has revealed a 60% growth in the Hispanic community in the last decade.

There are now as many people from a Spanish-speaking background in the US as African-Americans.

As the Hispanic population rises their presence is sending a ripple through American society from music and food to political campaigns.

Rosa Lopez
Mexican-born Rosa Lopez grills corn in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood
Though many Hispanic-Americans are working in low-paying, labour-intensive industries, their heroes are anything but.

Bounding over the race barriers are Jennifer Lopez, soon to play Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in a Francis Ford Coppola movie, pop star Ricky Martin, and Oscar-winner Benicio del Toro.

As these performers cast aside the exotic dancer or bandit stereotypes a sense of a strong Hispanic culture is emerging.

But Mexican-born Ilan Stavans, author of The Hispanic Condition, says that the media causes a problem when it lumps everyone together.

Hispanic is a term that covers a huge variety of individuals, from conservative Cubans in Miami to liberal New York Puerto Ricans to Mexican farm-workers in California.

Cameron Diaz
Actress Cameron Diaz is of Cuban extraction
And Latin America has hundreds of years of racial fusion, from the arrival of Europeans to the influx of African slaves to sheltering refugees.

While this diversity causes inevitable tensions, it could be part of the Hispanic advantage.

"We're the culture of the future," said novelist and journalist Ed Morales.

"We've had practice at being multicultural for a very long time and we have the ability to mix together many stories and many cultures."

This genetic mix is evident in the features of Cameron Diaz or the writing of Loida Maritza Perez, whose novel reflects the experience of her black Dominican parents.

Benicio del Toro
Puerto Rican-born Oscarwinner Benicio del Toro in The Way of the Gun
It is also to be heard in the glorious mix that is Rock en Espanol - a blanket term for rock bands who sing in Spanish but have a variety of influences, from reggae to marimba to traditional folk-song.

So prevalent is the music of bands like Cafe Tacuba, King Chango and Aterciopelados in the US that Rock en Espanol is being rebranded as the more Anglo-friendly Alternative Latin.

Josh Norek organised the first ever Latin Alternative Music Conference last year in New York.

For Norek, a self-confessed "gringo" who developed his interest while working in Argentina, Rock en Espanol was a term that had to go.

"I don't like the expression for two reasons - one it's inaccessible to people who don't speak Spanish and, believe me, lots of US Latinos do not," he said.

"Second you would never say rock in English and encompass Blur, Oasis, PJ Harvey and The Rolling Stones within it."

Isabel Allende
House of the Spirits writer Isabel Allende was born in Peru
Alternative Latin includes music as varied as Molotov, "Mexico's answer to the Beastie Boys", singer-songwriter Julietta Vanegas and Los Amigos Invisibles, signed to David Byrne of Talking Heads' label, Luaka Bop.

But there are still some problems for Hispanic performers.

Jennifer Lopez or Benicio del Toro may be trusted to open a movie in their own right but there was a time not so long ago when Hispanic actors kept their origins a secret.

Oscar-winner Rita Moreno said in her introduction to the book Hispanics in Hollywood, at the outset of her career she was doomed to playing "nameless Indian maidens and Mexican spitfires".

And Hispanic actors have never broken into English-speaking television in the US in any great numbers.

Even the quintessential Hispanic hero, Zorro, was played by a non-Hispanic actor on television.

Cheech Marin, who plays Don Johnson's partner in Nash Bridges, has said of being one of the highest-profile Latinos on US TV: "There are Hispanics on TV? That's news to me."

There is also a dearth of Hispanics behind the camera.

Interest in Hispanic culture has been around for as long as emigrants came to the US, and their culture existed in parallel to Anglo-US culture.

From time to time the mass market picks up on things like the magic realism of novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende.

Rita Hayworth
Gilda star Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Cansino
Or there is a sudden craze for Latin-inspired rhythms as in the 50s, or for words with a difference, such as when the Nuyorican Poets Cafe pioneered poetry slams in the 70s and 80s.

The problem facing every Hispanic performer facing a breakthrough into promising new audiences is whether that constitutes a sell-out or not.

Argentinean band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have a music video showing an American image consultant, who is unable to speak Spanish, trying to repackage the grungy band into a slick dance act.

But now Latinos are becoming the mainstream we must surely see more and more of their writing, music and faces as they choose to portray them.

After all some of the most interesting Spanish writing around is in English by writers such as Junot Diaz, or Pulitzer prizewinner Oscar Hijeulos, and some of the most interesting rock music around is in Spanish.

While Ilan Stavans does not want to be dishonest about the tensions that exist between the many diverse cultures that make up Latino culture, he is confident that its arrival is something to celebrate.

"My belief is that we are witnesses and also participants in a crucial moment in history," he said.

"The US and Latin America are finally becoming one, overcoming borders and sharing more than a cordial diplomatic interest in each other."

Los Amigos Invisibles
Mi Linda
Cafe Tacuba
Como te extrano mi amor
King Chango
Melting Pot
See also:

26 Oct 00 | Entertainment
TV special for Ricky Martin
07 Mar 01 | Americas
US Hispanics equal blacks
05 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Lopez holds lead at US cinema
11 Sep 00 | Entertainment
Lopez dazzles at premiere
24 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Bardem's rising star
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