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Jenny's Image On the Block
"People argue passionately about her," says Michelle Herrera Mulligan, co-editor of the essay collection "Border-Line Personalities: A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass, and Cultural Shifting." "She's a lightning rod, a catalyst and representative for everything."
Of course, plenty of Latinos don't follow celebrities. And for those who take their entertainment primarily in Spanish, she's far from the biggest star in the firmament. But for others -- especially those who, like the Nuyorican actress herself, are strivers moving through a predominantly English-speaking world -- talking about her is irresistible.
Part of this is because "she's the first icon that generationally fits" the changing profile of young Latinos, says Christy Haubegger, founder of Latina magazine and now a brand manager with Los Angeles's Creative Artists Agency.
After decades of growth from immigration, the Latino population rise is now being spurred predominantly by in-country births. While 54 percent of Latino adults are foreign-born, only 15 percent of those under 18 are, according to the Census Bureau. In November, Haubegger co-directed a study of more than 1,000 Latinos ages 14 to 24 that sought to define this demographic.
What Haubegger's team found, she says, is a "pan-Hispanic" self-identity, at odds with the way Latinos have thought of themselves in the past.
"Previous generations defined themselves as being from a certain country -- you said you were Mexican or Cuban," she says. "But half this generation has never even been to the country their parents are from. Or they're mixed -- they say, 'I'm Colombian and Honduran.' "
Many of them don't speak Spanish -- and don't consider it important. They consider themselves trailblazers.
"They'd say, I'll be the first in my family to blank -- go to college, vote," says Haubegger.
And unlike their parents, who felt they were struggling for pop culture visibility, this generation turns on MTV and sees Daddy Yankee singing reggaeton-- a meld of dancehall, Spanish-language hip-hop and salsa -- or new VJ Susie Castillo talking in Spanish.
"They believe that they're part of something huge, that the mainstream is coming to them to scope out new trends," she says. "They feel like 'Pimp My Ride' is an homage to their culture.
"Jennifer is a big piece of that. The fact that she's a beauty icon not just for Latinas but for the general population is incredibly affirming. So her celebrity takes on a much larger role than that of Nicole Kidman or Gwyneth Paltrow. Nobody expects from them the things these girls expect."
In the survey, young Latinos chose Lopez as their favorite female celebrity. (She was first overall among those age 14 to 18.) In discussing her -- the U.S.-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents, who understands Spanish but speaks it imperfectly, who defied her family to fulfill her ambition, but still sings her pride at being "from the block"-- Haubegger says, "They're talking about themselves. It's an enormous burden to put on one woman."