Jordan Levin

Latin Music blows up in new HBO documentary

Marc Anthony, left, and Romeo Santos are two of the artists featured in the HBO documentary The Latin Explosion
Marc Anthony, left, and Romeo Santos are two of the artists featured in the HBO documentary The Latin Explosion

The Latin Explosion was the label for the burst of fame that enveloped Latin pop artists such as Ricky Martin, Shakira, Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias at the turn of the millennium. But the HBO documentary of the same name, which makes its debut on the network Monday, doesn’t show a brief boom so much as a slow burn: the growth of Latin popular music in the United States over the last half-century. That story is paralleled with the history of Latinos as they have become this country’s largest minority, and their acceptance (or lack thereof) into mainstream U.S. culture.

Most of what’s shown in The Latin Explosion: A New America will be familiar to South Floridians, and to Latinos across the country. (The 2009 PBS documentary Latin Music USA also covers much of the same ground.) Narrated by John Leguizamo, the HBO film starts with Desi Arnaz seducing ’50s America with Babalu and proceeds through the mambo craze, Puerto Ricans in West Side Story, Santana, Cheech Marin of ’70s stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong, the birth of salsa (with Celia Cruz as its godmother), Gloria and Emilio Estefan shaking middle America with Conga, Tejano star Selena, the boom of Ricky et al (whose music, along with that of most of his compatriots, was produced in Miami), on through bachata megastar Romeo Santos and Mr. Worldwide himself, Pitbull.

What’s new is the trendsetting prestige platform that HBO gives to this story, as the presidential campaign heats up and, along with it, the issues of immigration and Latinos’ potential political clout — which Donald Trump has made more potent and divisive than ever.

“We have all kinds of issues of immigration and politics and the future,” says Tommy Mottola, the film’s executive producer. As the former head of Sony Music, whose Latin division was home to Martin, Shakira, Anthony, and many other Latin stars, Mottola was an architect of that musical boom.

“Latinos are really important right now — people are paying attention. It’s very topical for a million reasons. I try to keep it entertaining by telling the story through music … in a way people would be able to digest it.”

That Latinos seem to become a topic in the media only during elections is in puzzling contrast to the picture the film paints of a population that is not only the largest minority in the United States but an increasingly inseparable part of pop culture. When Romeo Santos can sell out Yankee Stadium two nights in a row, teenage girls of all kinds swoon for Ariana Grande, Univision tops TV ratings in cities around the country and Pitbull is one of the biggest stars of the moment, why are Latinos still considered minority culture?

Frances Aparicio, director of Latina and Latino studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, says there is a disconnect in the way that the media seems to simultaneously focus on and disregard Latinos.

“There’s a big discussion about our numbers and the fact we’re all over and our population is growing,” Aparicio says. “At the same time there’s this lingering invisibility. The media still treats us as some exceptional case.”

Questions of acceptance, identity, what it means to be American — and who gets to decide — are woven throughout Latin Explosion. In the film, Rita Moreno, the first Latina to win an Oscar (for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story), talks about being a Hollywood “house ethnic,” playing Native American, Arabian, and Siamese girls (there’s a clip of her as a demure beauty in The King and I), always with the same Puerto Rican accent. “I had no role models,” Moreno says. Instead, the fiercely proud character of Anita “became my role model.” Moreno as Anita, in turn, inspired Jennifer Lopez to believe that she could become an artist.

In a phone interview, Moreno said that while Latinos’ vibrant music and talent as performers brought pride and a sense of acceptance, success as entertainers could also be a kind of trap.

“We danced, we sang, we bring some really rich material to the table … in that sense they love us,” Moreno said. “But when it comes to cultural things they know very little. I think it’s part of why we never got cast in movies and TV. We were only thought of as performers, not as people with separate identities. … We need support in having people reveal who we really are. We are not just singers and dancers. We are scientists, doctors, lawyers, techies, many many things. We represent a huge part of this world right now.”

Cheech Marin, who still chortles over how the characters Cheech and Chong, a Chicano and a half-Chinese Canadian, became a symbol of counter-culture America in the ’70s, says he always thought he was as much a part of the United States as the stoned suburban teenagers yucking it up over the duo’s skits.

“I grew up watching the same TV programs, eating the same Cheerios,” Marin says from his home in L.A. “I always imagined the American Dream was directed to me. I wasn’t other. Everybody else was other.”

And yet when Marin began his transition from comedy to successful actor, journalists were often startled that he didn’t speak with a heavy Chicano accent. Latin Explosion shows a scene from Marin’s film Born in East L.A. in which border police ship his U.S.-born character back to Mexico, and another in which befuddled Mexican musicians confuse his rendition of Twist and Shout with La Bamba.

“Media has a big impact on how people normalize and accept identity,” Aparicio says. “I hope in the next 10 years Latinos will have a bigger impact.”

Such contradictions enrich Latin Explosion, even if they’re not always explicit. (It’s worth nothing that artists on Sony under Mottola’s tenure play a central role in the film, while others, such as Enrique Iglesias and rock star Juanes (both on rival label Universal), are absent. Many in the Puerto Rican and salsa communities might question why the Cuban singer Celia Cruz, for all her exceptional talent, is the center of the segment on salsa and the Fania All-Stars, both created primarily by Puerto Ricans in New York.)

One of the lesser-known segments of the movie tells of how, when the blind Puerto Rican singer Jose Feliciano sang the national anthem at the World Series in 1968, many were enraged, seeing his jazzy interpretation as a foreigner usurping a sacred American symbol. In 2013, negative reactions also greeted Anthony’s rendition of God Bless America at the World Series, as well as 11-year-old U.S. born Mariachi singer Sebastien de la Cruz’s performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at game three of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. Even as Latinos have grown to 17 percent of the population, encompassing 54 million people living across the United States, many still don’t seem to see them as part of America.

“These are the cries of dinosaurs in the tarpits,” Marin says. “I don’t want to be extinct!” Get over it. Have a taco.”

The end of Latin Explosion paints a rapid, slightly jumbled and optimistic portrait of Latinos’ growing clout, from their buying power to Gina Rodriguez winning an Emmy for her starring role on the TV hit Jane the Virgin. The most vivid figure here is Pitbull, who comes off as a charismatic mix of earnest dreamer and savvy charmer. (“Single, bilingual and ready to mingle,” he tells a giggling Barbara Walters.) And he makes what may be the film’s most compelling, and inspiring, statement on Latinos’ ongoing journey in American life.

“First we make the shoes, then we own the shoe shop,” he says. “First we make the sandwiches then we own the restaurants. First we clean the houses then we own the houses. It’s not the money it’s the journey. It’s the fight. Next step la Casa Blanca. If there’s no car, we’re going on a raft. One way or another we’re gonna get there.”