Daily Archives: May 10, 2009

David’s Latin Roots: Redefining Latinidad


Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there, and especially to David’s beloved Lupe, who has steered her son in the right path and bestowed her own talents on him.

So, it is with David’s mother in mind that I wish to explore the subject of David’s Latin roots.  Lupe Archuleta, native of Honduras and a singer and dancer, who encouraged her children’s musical talents and instilled in David a love for Latin music and the Spanish language, can certainly be credited for the musical genius that her son displays.

More than that, her decision to pass on her ethnic heritage to her children, rather than downplay it or encourage some kind of cultural assimilation, has certainly colored David’s multifaceted identity.  The same David who is so eclectic in his musical tastes and is very much “universal” in his flavor is also the same David who can lapse quite comfortably in Spanish or Spanglish, or deliver the Star Spangled Banner at the Latino Inauguration Ball, or sing  a Selena song during his solo tour when performing at predominantly Hispanic venues.  In short, what’s exciting about David’s chameleon-like identity is the way he moves so fluidly in these different spaces.  But, more importantly, I think he offers us a glimpse into a new Latinidad.

Latinidad is a Latin sensibility or a way of being in the world.  In our culture, this tends to get reduced to convenient stereotypes.  So, we expect Latinidad to look like Jennifer Lopez or Marc Anthony or Salma Hayek.  In the realm of music, we expect it to sound like salsa or meringue or reggaeton.  In terms of geopolitics, we expect to find it in New York or Los Angeles or Miami, and of course in the Caribbean and Latin America.

While David may have been born in Miami, he’s a Utah boy, and we certainly don’t expect to find Latinidad in the Rocky Mountains.  He doesn’t represent the Nuyorican Soul of the East Coast or the Chicano presence in the West Coast. And, as a Mormon, he’s far removed from the Catholicism or Santeria we often attribute to Hispanics.

But, to me, that’s what makes David so unique in redefining and redrawing the boundaries of Latinidad.  In one fell swoop, David has transcended certain stereotypes and exploded our expectations.  I remember, when news came out of David performing at the Latino Inauguration Ball, more than a few bloggers scoffed at this, claiming that David was “as wonderbread white as you or I.”  Fascinating how – in our multiracial America that voted for President Obama – so many still think “you or I” automatically means “white.”

As if Latinidad doesn’t encompass both racial identities of black and white.  Ranging from black to brown to white to a variety of racial mixes, Latinidad is a rather fluid identity, shaped by a Spanish tongue.  What does it mean to deny or to question, as some did, that David has Latin roots?  I always found it interesting that, last season, when three of the Top 4 finalists on American Idol were Latinos/as – David, Jason Castro, and Syesha Mercado – there were no headlines calling our attention to this.  How might the outcome have been different if one magazine carried the banner, “Can a Latino Win American Idol?”

I ask the question because, the season before, when the Top 4 finalists on American Idol included three black girls and a white boy, there were many headlines asking if we would have an all-black finale for the first time.  We of course did not, and as it turned out, of the four finalists, the mixed-race black contestant and the white contestant made the finale.  And, incidentally, last year, the All-American white guy (David Cook) beat out the Latinos.  Maybe race or ethnicity had a hand in these decisions, maybe not.  However, there does seem to be a distinction made in which blackness is a recognizable “difference” that media calls our attention to, while Latinidad is often times made invisible, or “heard but not seen” (if you have an “accent” or speak Spanish, then Latinidad becomes recognizable).

Think of the early contestant this season, Jorge Nunez from Puerto Rico, whose accent became an issue on the show.  Think of Allison Iraheta, whose Latinidad identity may or may not have been detected, but who advanced further.  Yes, talent is a big part of it, but how much do these issues bear on our sense of what constitutes being an “American”?

When my Latino students tell me of the different ways their communities have been heavily policed by ICE and terrorized with threats of deportation, or when anti-immigration and anti-Mexican sentiment – especially in the wake of swine flu – is on the increase, I imagine that Latinidad will force all of us to rethink the boundaries of whiteness and blackness, of what constitutes being a “minority” or a “majority.”

Beyond these racial and ethnic politics is the music. And whatever problems our country has had in the arena of race and racism, our music styles have often collided in these race and ethnic wars to create something new and magical.  Only in America could we have invented jazz or rock-and-roll or hip-hop, which are all genres that fused our multiracial expressions in creative and dynamic ways.  It is this knowledge that makes me especially excited by David’s untapped potential.  For his diverse musical influences are capable of blending into something completely different and completely profound.

Here’s hoping that, one day, David’s pop soul music, with hints of Latin, will emerge from the depths of his artistic soul.