In 14 explosive minutes on Sunday, they sang in English and Spanish. They tossed their hips back and forth, pulsed their chests and shook their bodies in athletic feats that rivaled those in the actual game. They shared airtime with J Balvin and Bad Bunny, a superstar Latin music pairing in its own right. They danced reggaeton, salsa, champeta and mapalé. They took turns expressing their own personal stories, weaving in nods to Barranquilla, Colombia, and the Bronx.
The performance, an unabashed celebration of Latin culture in the most American of contexts, was unlike anything else ever seen by such a wide audience. For this Dominican American, and for many others like me, it spurred conversations about Latino identity in a rapidly changing country.
“It was a watershed moment,” said Felix Contreras, the co-creator and host of NPR’s “Alt.Latino” program about Latino music and culture. “At one of the world’s most-watched events, you had two Latinas basically just giving the world an idea of what their thoughts are and who they are as individuals.”
But depending on whom you ask, that perception changes. To some, it was either a celebration of diversity — or it was “porn.” It was either a gorgeous spectacle — or “inappropriate” for children. It was the best halftime performance thus far — or the “XXXFL,” as Breitbart described it, with “pole dancing, crotch grabbing, tongue waving.”
Latinos launched debates on Twitter over the exclusion of Afro-Latino performers; stereotypes about oversexualized Latinas; whether two light-skinned women with blonde highlights and flat abs should represent the entire community; and whether Shakira and Lopez crossed a picket line amid the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick.
All of those criticisms can be valid and not detract from the fact that Shakira and Lopez took an empty football field and transformed it into their vision for the greatest Latin dance party ever broadcast on national television. In 1992, Gloria Estefan became the first Latina to perform at the Super Bowl. Decades later, as the country grapples with demographic change and shifting forces of multiculturalism and nativism, the largest entertainment event of 2020 built upon Estefan’s legacy. It burst with varied aspects of Latino culture, paying homage to African beats, an Arabic zaghrouta and belly-dancing without any apparent restraint or fear.
Overt political messages were woven into the performance. Children sat in illuminated cages as a choir of young girls, wearing American flags emblazoned on their chests, shouted “let’s get loud.” J-Lo’s daughter, Emme Maribel Muñiz, sang lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
As headlines about Puerto Rico in recent years have told heartbreaking stories of earthquakes and hurricanes, J-Lo draped herself in its flag, a gesture of pride that moved those watching from the Caribbean island.
“It’s a validity that we are here,” said William Ramírez-Hernández, executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico, in San Juan. “We are people to be respected.”
This was all intentional: Every moment of such a high-stakes show is scripted down to the second. On a single stage, two headliners condensed their individual upbringings and decades-long careers into just a few minutes, even though the pair share no actual songs.
Preparations, which began as soon as Shakira and Lopez were announced as the headliners in September, involved a team of 3,000 people. The emphasis on diversity was such that organizers counted how many white, Hispanic and black children formed part of the Children’s Voice Chorus from Miami during gospel singer Yolanda Adams’s “America The Beautiful,” according to an executive at Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s entertainment company, which co-produced the show.
As commentators on Twitter questioned how the NFL could have approved such “racy” costumes and dance moves at halftime, the answer is that they did not become involved in that way.
“There’s no censorship whatsoever from the NFL,” said the Roc Nation executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss the production.
This was, then, Shakira and Lopez’s few minutes to perform for the world on their terms. To call their performance objectifying or belittling to women suggests they had no agency, when everything about the show demonstrated agency. These criticisms overlook the fact that Shakira and Lopez must approve of their own wardrobes and can tell their choreographer if anything makes them uncomfortable.
They wanted to challenge viewers’ notions about sexuality, motherhood, gender and age. (Lopez is 50; Shakira is 43.) They wanted to showcase what they believe it means to be a Latina. And they did it as collaborators — not with one headliner and one featured guest, but as equals.
So, no, this wasn’t porn. It was a celebration of two women — and an epic one at that.