Mainstream begins to recognize Latin influence

Betty Cortina remembers walking through an airport in July 1999 when the cover of the latest Newsweek magazine caught her eye.

“Latin U.S.A.” read the bold type. “How Young Hispanics Are Changing America.”

Cortina, then a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, felt by turns surprised, excited, slightly annoyed and more than a little vindicated.

“I remember thinking, ‘Great!,’ and then I remember thinking, ‘Duh!’,” Cortina said.

Latinos have played a role in shaping the United States since its inception.

But in the three years since Newsweek described Hispanics as “hip, hot and making history,” Latino influence over popular culture has only accelerated.

The explanation may simply be in the numbers. Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the country.

Or maybe, as some Latinos suggest, the country is finally embracing its multicultural uniqueness.

After all, the United States is a nation that not only craves salsa but dances it, too. Americans shake with Shakira and laugh with George Lopez.

They swoon over Antonio Banderas and savor the prose of Isabel Allende.

So, is it chic to be Chicano?

Madison Avenue seems to think so.

Advertisers and large companies are flooding the market with campaigns that feature Latino celebrities and other cultural touch points.

A Mexican folklore figure helps sell milk in California and boxer Oscar De La Hoya hawks Big Macs.

While some Hispanics bristle at the suggestion that their culture is some sort of fad, others see the mainstream’s new appreciation for it as a chance at real progress: social, political and economic.

“It’s a really good thing that a magazine like Newsweek that is so representative of America and what’s important to Americans recognized that (Hispanics are having an influence),” said Cortina, editorial director for Latina magazine.

“But also it’s just sort of an inevitable moment, because I think the look and texture and tapestry of America is changing and that was just one more piece of evidence that it had changed.”

But having their culture cast as trendy doesn’t sit well with some Latinos.

In the wake of the Newsweek articles, North Carolina journalist Paul Cuadros remembers Anglo friends telling him, ‘Oh, you’re Hispanic. You’re hip now,’ which he found rather disturbing.

“No one wants their ethnic identity to be trivialized as a fad. It’s part of my roots. It’s not a fad to me.”

Adds Cuadros, who often reports for Time magazine on Mexican immigrants, “It’s still not hip to be a farm worker.”

“I think (the mainstreaming of Latino culture) takes away a sense of long-term disparagement by mainstream society,” said Jose Aranda, an associate professor of Chicano and American literature and culture at Rice University.

“This attention can create a sense of new possibility. I think it’s really important for young people to see not just positive role models but to see that other people think they’re positive.”