Jenny's Image On the Block
Latinos Say Lopez Is Selling a Shift in Culture

By Sandy M. Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

This past winter, Kimlan Fong Wong and her boyfriend of several years, Anthony Taveras, stopped talking to each other for three days after she threw a vase at him during an argument. The subject: Jennifer Lopez.

"He kept calling her J. Ho," says Wong, a 29-year-old office manager and college student in Queens, who's originally from Trinidad & Tobago. "It was 'J. Ho this' and 'J. Ho that.' He knows I like her. I felt like he wasn't respecting me."

From his apartment in Takoma Park, Ramon Rivera wages his own defense of the singer/actress/entrepreneur -- in his case, against his Honduran grandmother, who lives in Miami. Rivera, 22, lived there with his extended family until last year, when he decided he needed to assert his independence.

"Some of the older people have more traditional views," he says. "So the way she dresses, or the fact that she's been married three times, those things make people like my grandmother say, 'Oh, no, I don't like her.' But I say, 'Look at everything she's accomplished.' "

This is familiar ground to the three Rios sisters, who grew up in Puerto Rico and are now scattered on the East Coast, two in Washington and one in New York. Normally pretty tight, the sisters are divided along the Lopez line -- two for and one against -- and have discussed the topic enough that Ralph Sordyl, husband to dissenter Mary Blanca, knows exactly where the others stand.

"They love her," he says, wonderingly. "They go see her movies the first day they open."

"Don't tell people that!" snaps his wife. "It's so embarrassing!"

Once again, we are talking about J. Lo.

Last weekend Lopez's latest movie, "Monster-in-Law," a romantic comedy co-starring Jane Fonda, opened as the nation's No. 1 film, grossing more than $23 million at the box office. Lopez mounted a tireless publicity blitz to support it, appearing in the past few weeks on the "Tonight Show" and "Good Morning America," MTV and BET, the cover of Blender magazine and the wall of your corner bus shelter. Everywhere, it seemed.

This, for some Latinos, is how Lopez's presence feels all the time .

And it's not just because of the gallons of ink spilt over Lopez and her high-profile paramours (notably P. Diddy, Ben Affleck and now salsa superstar Marc Anthony). Or the number of times that green Grammys dress -- filmy and slit from here to there -- pops up on the Internet. Or the number of times VH1 reruns "The Fabulous Life of: Jennifer Lopez." It's because Lopez is a figure who straddles an amazing number of Latino fault lines, areas of often-vehement disagreement about what is and isn't Latino.

The price of ambition? Check. The importance -- or not -- of being identified as Hispanic? Check. Of speaking Spanish? Check. Of a bodacious booty? Check. Dating white? Check. Dating black? Check. The politics of going blond? Check. And so on.

"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."

But it seems to be a burden Lopez undertook, by luck or by design, probably both. (Lopez's publicist didn't respond to requests for an interview.)

In 1999, she told a journalist that she thought her first album would appeal to "my generation of people, who grew up in America but had Latin parents or parents of a different ethnicity. . . . That's what I felt like I needed my music to reflect." Three years later, talking about filming "Maid in Manhattan" in her childhood neighborhood, she was quoted as saying, "Rita Moreno never came to the Bronx when I was growing up. . . . I think it's important to do that, so people have that [inspiration] in their lives."

In his recent book "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame," author Michael Joseph Gross hypothesizes that the emotion one feels toward a celebrity is, essentially, the act of confusing feelings for a piece of work-- a set of song lyrics, a role they played in a movie -- for a connection with a real person. Validated by the song "Beautiful," for example, someone might imagine a kinship with Christina Aguilera. Or believe they understand Salma Hayek because they wept watching her portrayal of the artist in "Frida."

Lopez, Gross believes, is "very conscious" of this dynamic. But in her case, he says, the connection is "not about her work -- it's her story."

To begin with, her biography, which she repeats in every interview, reads like an immigrant archetype: Raised in a working-class part of the Bronx by a computer technician and a kindergarten teacher, Lopez started out as a backup dancer and, by dint of hard work and determination, became a powerhouse -- a $12 million-a-picture film star, a recording artist who's sold 35 million CDs, an entrepreneur whose clothing line and fragrance businesses People magazine estimated to be worth $350 million.

Her first CD, "On the 6," she told interviewers, was named after the train that took her, symbolically, from the Bronx to Manhattan. Her hit 2002 song, "Jenny From the Block," distilled immigrant success into a couple of catchy lines: "Used to have a little / Now I have a lot." That same year, "Maid in Manhattan" found her playing a hotel maid who, Cinderella-like, catches a senatorial candidate's eye. Now in "Monster-in-Law," she's a Latina temp and dog-walker who wins a surgeon's heart.

In other words, Lopez plays an average Latina -- under the very best, luckiest conditions.

To some, this is inspiring.

"She reminds me of many of the neighborhood girls I grew up with in the Latino neighborhood of Chicago who had a dream to make it big," writes Lopez fan Celso Cardenas, 23. "She is the epitome of the American Dream. . . . Many of our families come to the U.S. to prosper and she was able to pull herself up from her boot straps and make it huge."

To others, infuriating.

"When she first came out, it was electric," Mulligan says. "I was in college and to see someone with a wide nose and a big [rear] -- I felt like I was being born. That simply didn't exist before in popular culture. But I've been so disappointed."

She cites Lopez's relative lack of activism compared with Latino actors such as Jimmy Smits and Edward James Olmos and suggests the entertainer pales next to tour-de-force Rita Moreno.

"I just had a long conversation about this in Los Angeles. . . . "

And that continuing conversation is something that, at least for now, few other Latino stars can compete with.

"What Latina performer has a story as great as J. Lo?" Gross asks. "Salma Hayek turns in good performances in good movies. How boring is that?

"Stardom takes much more."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company