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The improbable 14-week reign of “Macarena” atop the Billboard Hot 100 came to an end on Nov. 2, 1996, but not before becoming the second longest-running number one song ever on the radio and one of the hottest song-and-dance crazes to hit this country. And it all came from two corny-cool Spanish guys (Los Del Río) singing some nonsense about a chick who seduces men, remixed by Latino DJs (Bayside Boys) who added an irresistible hook and English lyrics. It was the kind of fluffy stuff pop dreams are made of. At its height, the Macarena overtook the Electric Slide dance at weddings and was a staple at quinceañeras, ball games, office parties and the Democratic National Convention (Al Gore’s robotic version!), until it finally became like that fifth bite of tres leches cake: too much of a good thing. Nowadays, the song may not be making anyone’s playlist, but never mind that. That signature refrain, “Hey, Macarena!” is musically burned into our collective memories.
To Be Young, Latina and Gifted
It used to be that if Latinas wanted to read a book about a girl’s coming of age, they had to turn to Judy Blume. But then, Sandra Cisneros, a Chicana poet raised in the barrios of Chicago, wrote The House on Mango Street. Her unforgettable protagonist, Esperanza, is a keen observer of her world—a girl learning about her budding sexuality as she balances two cultures and longs to escape a society ruled by men.
By book’s end, Esperanza grows into a strong young woman who finds liberation in writing and vows to help the women of her community. First published by the tiny Arte Público Press and written in gorgeous, lyrical language, The House on Mango Street is now taught in schools everywhere and read around the world. But, most important, it gives thousands of our niñas the strength to hope and dream and know that their lives matter.
More than 15 years ago, Mexico gave us one of the most romantic movies ever made: Like Water for Chocolate. The man she loves is about to become her brother-in-law, and she is forced to make the wedding cake. Tears roll down Tita’s face and into the batter; at the reception, everyone who eats the cake is overcome with sadness. Every bit of the Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate is that intense and memorable. Based on the 1989 novel by Laura Esquivel, the film was released near Valentine’s Day 1993 and became one of the highest-grossing foreign-language films in U.S. history. Like Water takes place during the Mexican Revolution and introduced the world to a complex cuisine long obscured by tacos. But the sumptuous plates of codornices en pétalos de rosa and mole are not mere decoration. They channel Tita’s passion and longing and help tell one of the most touching love stories ever filmed: Tita and Pedro live side by side, barely touching each other, until the last moment, when their love proves literally incandescent. Oh, to be in love like in the movies.
A Legend is Born
Walking onstage to accept her Oscar in 1962, the pretty, petite Rita Moreno, wearing a just-so cocktail dress, looked like a life-size doll. In truth, the boricua actress, who spent her childhood planning her acting career in a packed, cockroach-infested New York City tenement, was anything but fragile or fake. By the time she won the Academy Award for adding chispa to West Side Story as Anita, she had endured countless stereotypical roles and bigoted directors who would barely acknowledge her on set. That Oscar was vindication and, more important, it marked the breakthrough of a career that has also earned the 77-year-old an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy—making her the only Latino and one of only nine other people to receive all four honors. Moreno has appeared in countless TV shows, from The Electric Company to Cane, and has said she’ll be singing, dancing and acting till the grave. We’ll be watching.
A Star Was Born
When people talk about Selena, they usually focus on the tragic end: March 31, 1995, the day she was murdered by her fan club’s president. But it’s time we marked a different date: April 16, 1971, the day Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was born in Lake Jackson, Texas, and began a life of music, pride and accomplishment. Tragedy has a way of turning entertainers into legends—but we should also remember the genuine spirit who defied her father to marry the man she loved; the proud American who belted out pure emotion in the language of her roots; the celebrity who always kept family at her life’s center. That life was a rare gift we were allowed to behold for a brief time, but it will stay with us forever. That’s what we need to remember.
War and Peace
Picasso’s searing Guernica carried a message for the ages. A woman carrying a dead child is caught in a silent scream; a decapitated soldier still grips his broken sword; a horse with a dagger for a tongue rears up in terror; and a spectral figure thrusts a lamp over the tangle of bodies, as if bringing this savagery to light is a sacred calling. When Pablo Picasso heard reports that the small Basque town of Guernica had been obliterated by a Nazi bombing raid during the Spanish Civil War, he painted one of the century’s most enduring anti-war statements. Picasso began sketching and painting the famous image in May 1937, and Guernica is now displayed at Madrid’s Reina Sofía Museum, but a tapestry replica hangs at United Nations headquarters in New York City. In 2003, before then–Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the case for invading Iraq, officials scurried to cover Picasso’s iconic work under a baby-blue banner, reportedly at the request of U.S. officials. Such is Guernica’s continuing power to shame.
On the Money
Ten years ago, Jennifer Lopez went from up-and-comer to major star with her first album. When On the 6 dropped over a decade ago, even the cover was an instant classic: Lips pursed, hair tousled, legs bare, she turns her eyes toward the sunlight, as if the door were opening onto a golden future. And it pretty much was. The soon-to-become J. Lo had already garnered acclaim as a dramatic actress in Selena and other films. But it wasn’t until the Nuyorican chica returned to her roots with her debut album, named for the NYC subway line Lopez often took, that she truly became a superstar. Ever since, the olive-skinned girl with the gorgeous curves has seemed capable of doing anything: act, sing, dance, launch perfume and clothing lines, produce movies. Ten years later, as she releases a greatest hits album, the promise we could see on that album cover has been fulfilled beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Not bad for a girl from the block.
Trial by Fire
Salvadoran culture is the story of survival—and pupusas. If the mouthwatering, thick cornmeal cakes stuffed with queso con loroco, refried beans and chicharrón—aka pupusas—are the first things that come to mind when you think of Salvadoran culture, it’s not a bad place to start. The pupusa is tied to El Salvador’s history, which takes place on a tiny piece of Central American land ravaged by Spanish conquistadores, burned by volcanoes, ripped apart by earthquakes and bled by civil war. Pupusas were first eaten by Pipil and Mayan people, but they spread from the countryside as displaced families fleeing extreme violence migrated to the capital and traveled to places like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., hoping for a better life. It is exactly those industrious immigrants who will be celebrated on Aug. 6 as part of Salvadoran Day. Perhaps nothing captures the Salvadoran spirit of perseverance like the archaeological discovery of Joya de Cerén, a Mayan village walloped by a violent volcanic eruption in 590 AD but perfectly preserved in ash. Among the discoveries: kitchen tools for making pupusas.
A Passion for Love
At times, Pablo Neruda’s politics threatened to overshadow his poetry. The lifelong Communist gave incendiary political speeches in Chilean congress and angered many by declaring his admiration for Russian dictator Joseph Stalin (he later repented). Neruda may have won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, but after his death on Sept. 23, 1973, fellow leftists turned his funeral into a political demonstration against Augusto Pinochet. But no one remembers that. What we do remember and revere is every gorgeous, incurably romantic line of his love poems, which helped make him arguably the greatest Latin American poet. Whether his language was exalted (There, in the highest blaze, my solitude lengthens and flames / Its arms turning like a drowning man’s) or simple (I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where / I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride / So I love you because I know no other way), his are immortal words that make you feel that nothing—especially not politics—is greater than love.