Harvard Educational Review
  1. Latino/a Popular Culture

    Edited by Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero

    New York: New York University Press, 2002. 280 pp. $55.00.

    According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the United States. Thus, it is imperative that all members of U.S. society better understand this heterogeneous group. As Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero, authors of Latino/a Popular Culture, state:
    For Latinos at this millennial moment, as well as for members of the dominant Anglo and African American cultures, popular culture takes center stage in struggles over defining meaning. Within the magic, ritualistic, and symbolic realm of popular culture, narratives are constructed about the role Latinos will or will not play as part of the national body. (p. 4)
    This is why volumes like this one edited by Habell-Pallán, assistant professor in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, and Mary Romero, professor of Justice Studies at Arizona University, are needed. They have woven together articles that examine how American popular culture has been defining “Latino” and “Latina.” They argue against a monolithic conception of Latinos/as, since the heterogeneity within the Latino/a community is extensive in terms of race, class, language, nationality, place of origin, citizenship, and geography, and present “a juxtaposition and cross-examination of the mosaic of contradictory and congratulatory images thrown up by the mass media” (p. 2).

    In the introduction, the editors remind us that we must not look at the Latino/a culture in isolation or only within the U.S. context. With recent migration patterns, we must understand the connections and bonds forming between people not only in one country but also across countries in the Americas. While the editors might have explored transnationalism even more, this volume serves as a good “launching point” (p. 15).

    The critical stance of the book’s introduction establishes the foundation for the essays and contextualizes Latino/a popular culture by discussing the following themes: “Constructing Latinas and Latinos: ¿Qué Somos y Cómo Somos?” (“What are we and how are we?”); “Mapping Latina/o Popular Culture and Cultural Studies”; and “Issues of Representation, Audience, and Production.”

    The volume’s essays are divided in sections along specific genres in cultural studies: media/culture, music, theater and art, and sports. The relatively short pieces make for quick and accessible reads, yet also offer new material for those already familiar with Latino/a culture and cultural studies.

    The section on media and culture includes essays by Arlene Dávila (“Talking Back: Spanish Media and U.S. Latinidad”), Frances Negrón-Montaner (“Barbie’s Hair: Selling Out Puerto Rican Identity in the Global Market”); Tanya Katerí Hernández (“The Buena Vista Social Club: The Racial Politics of Nostalgia”); and Luz Calvo (“‘Lemme Stay, I Want to Watch’: Ambivalence in Borderlands Cinema”). Each reader will be drawn to different essays based on their particular areas of interest. Having grown up in Mexico watching soap operas, I found Dávila’s essay particularly fascinating, since she examines how focus groups of Latino/as in New York perceive TV and radio channels geared toward Latinos/as, finding that in some ways these channels reproduce existing hierarchies among this group, such as a preference for light-skin tones. Dávila reminds us that we must acknowledge the existence of racial and ethnic hierarchies among Latinos/as in the United States (and specifically New York) due to their particular histories, reasons for immigration, relationship between the United States and their countries of origin, and position within the city (pp. 32–33). Readers who played with Barbies may find the article on Puerto Rican Barbies interesting, especially as to the meaning that a Barbie designated “Puerto Rican” created in the political and identity arenas. Those who were hypnotized by the music in the Buena Vista Social Club documentary (or fiction, in many ways, as revealed by the article) will appreciate the article by Katerí Hernández, who examines the role of the American music producer who “discovers,” “saves,” or colonizes the aging musicians on the island of Cuba. The article further discusses the U.S.-Cuba relationship and the power of the U.S. music industry.

    The section on music contains essays by Ana Patricia Rodríguez (“Encrucijadas: Rubén Blades at the Transnational Crossroads”); Josh Kun (“’The Sun Never Sets on MTV: Tijuana NO! and the Border Music Video”); Deborah R. Vargas (“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom: Selena and Tejana Music in the Making of Tejas”); and Raquel Rivera (“Hip Hop and New York Puerto Ricans”). Rodríguez’s article informs us that renowned Latino musician Rubén Blades’ Central American identity has been ignored, yet emerges in some of his music, where he speaks of the Central American transnational experiences and migrations. According to Rodríguez, the song “La Rosa de los Vientos” exemplifies songs that advocate the development of extended Central American Latino identities and alliances. Josh Kun, on the other hand, writes about Tijuana NO!, the U.S.-Mexico border band, the resistance music they perform, and what it means to have it promoted (or not) by MTV and its globalizing music empire.

    The theater and art section includes articles by Alberto Sandoval Sánchez (“Paul Simon’s The Capeman: The Staging of Puerto Rican National Identity as Spectacle and Commodity on Broadway”); Melissa A. Fitch (“Gender Bending in Latino Theater: Johnny Diego, The Hispanic Zone, and Deporting the Divas by Guillermo Reyes”); Michelle Habell-Pallán (“‘Don’t Call Us Hispanic’: Popular Latino Theater in Vancouver”); William A. Nericcio (“A Decidedly ‘Mexican’ and ‘American’ Semi[er]otic Transference: Frida Kahlo in the Eyes of Gilbert Hernandez”); and Juan Velasco (“Performing Multiple Identities: Guillermo Gómez-Peña and His ‘Dangerous Border Crossings’”). Habell-Pallán’s article offers a clear discussion on the idea of transnationality and multiple identities for the members of a theater group in Vancouver that followed Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed process. The author explains, “The play seeks to disrupt outdated cultural conceptions about who constitutes Canada and to define a citizenship of the Americas” (p. 178). Habell-Pallán also suggests that the use of Chicano elements in the play reveals the transculturation of Chicano cultural production outside of the United States, compelling Chicano studies to move beyond the U.S.-Mexico framework toward strategies to connect people of color in the Americas.

    For those interested in the genre of sports, Latino/a Popular Culture offers a section with articles by Adrian Burgos Jr. (“Learning America’s Other Game: Baseball, Race, and Study of Latinos”); Christopher A. Shinn (“Fútbol Nation: U.S. Latinos and the Goal of a Homeland”); and Gregory Rodríguez (“Boxing and Masculinity: The History and (Her)story of Oscar de la Hoya”). Burgos’ essay is especially fascinating in terms of the story of baseball player “Sandy” Nava, who was apparently Mexican American and played during the second half of the nineteenth century. According to Burgos, the presence of Latinos forced baseball’s racial system of Black and White to expand by forming new racial/ethnic categories that conferred a circumscribed Whiteness or revising older categories such as the notion of “‘Spanish’ identity” (p. 235). The latter emphasized that some Latinos came from Spanish descent and implied that they had “pure blood” (p. 235), since they had not mixed with Blacks.

    Latino/a Popular Culture greatly contributes to the genres of both cultural studies and Latino studies. The editors exhort undergraduate and graduate students to continue looking at Latino/a popular culture as “a site of invention, critique and pleasure” (p. 16), since much work still needs to be done in this area.

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    Contesting Culture
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    Book Notes

    Desis in the House
    By Sunaina Marr Maira

    Growing Up with Television
    By JoEllen Fisherkeller

    Latino/a Popular Culture
    Edited by Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero

    Brave New Voices
    By Jen Weiss and Scott Herndon

    By Tucker Shaw