Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Email Conversation With Felix Jimenez on my Blanquitos and Reggaeton Post

Felix Jimenez is a journalist, professor and author of Las practicas de la carne (2005) and Vieques y la prensa (2001).

Mi Querida Raquel: LOVED YOUR BLOG! Las preguntas que tienes son pertinentisimas. But add this to the mix: The problematic reality of self-description. I wonder how many of the wildly successful, platinum-record winning regaetoneros would have self-destructed without an initial barrio-bound, non-blanquito description that was concocted to give them an early sympathy factor at the start of their careers. The fact that property values (and other financial and educational opportunities that might have been offered by their parents) are concealed from the equation REGGAETONERO=DEL PUEBLO=GENUINO=REAL=DE LA CALLE is a function of the ever-present "reggaetonero template" which eases the way for many a reggaetonero-hopeful to enter the musical world. As Cuba Gooding's character in Jerry McGuire, the template shouts "Show me the money!"

The myth of the street is a vital factor of reggaeton's "identity litmus test." It is an item on the essential check-list. How real and genuine can you be - in reggaeton's "identity litmus test" - if you have lived in a five-bathroom, gold-fixtured house in a gated community? The conflation of "genuine" and "real" with perceived barrio roots (and, thus, non-blanquito origins) is the ideal PR/PR (Puerto Rican Public Relations) ploy for nascent careers. WITH IT THEY AVOID QUESTIONS AND CEASELESS INTERROGATIONS ABOUT "WHY NOT ROCK?" OR "WHY NOT BALLADS, OR SALSA" OR "WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE REGGAETON?" Public relation machines here dictate that reggaeton is not a choice, or should not be perceived as one - it must be a natural outgrowth of a performer's "background." So performers act accordingly, even if reggaeton is a choice for them over other musical rhythms. As long as reggaeton seems to be an inevitability (meaning said reggaetonero HAD to go that route because it fits with his socioeconomic and cultural non-blanquito, barrio-caserío background) less questions are asked, and the reggaetonero acquires a more natural stance, a patina of "inevitability,", of being "the real thing," "the genuine item."

Daddy Yankee's Villa Kennedy-to-riches story, for example, includes the tid-bit that he did finish his associate degree. But his geographical milieu to a certain extent dictated his natural selection of reggaton. It was not choice. This "white' poor boy, (and OH SO HANDSOME) has said so himself: Era la musica que oia en mi calle. Yo adoraba a Vico C.

Ivy Queen recounts how she had to ask for money in stop lights to help feed her family when she was living in Añasco. Her story gives texture to her present. How many reggaetoneros (and there are many, which is weird) have been barbers or stylists? That does not necessarily correlate with the educational and financial opportunities they might have had (and discarded or missed or blatantly ignored) when they were growing up. It means that - again, in the realm of the "perceived "- that they are somewhat wayward. Thuggish. Not conventional. The "thugness" factor- cosmetic as it might be in some cases - pays off.

By the same token, Residente Calle 13's perceived intelligence is a function of his cashing in on the educational/financial opportunities that his lawyer father and actress mother lavished on him. Not that he was silver-spooned, but that he acted upon the possibilities that were there, afforded by whatever metal the spoon was made of. He is and was intelligent. Not thuggish enough. That is why people have such a difficult time pinning him down on his kind of music. And he hasn't labeled himself a full-blown reggaetonero either. From the outside perspective, and also from Calle 13's perspective, that would be an impossibility. He is cashing in on that impossibility. He knows the rules.

I think that the discarded opportunities that Tego, Voltio, Mexicano, and the like have are part of what they sell. Example: the public discussion about Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila's invitation to Don Omar to serve as a spokesperson for the Department of Education. At the end of the big brouhaha, when he was "disinvited," the question was, "So who can inspire the kids to stay in school, the one who did stay and graduated or the drop-out who feels he made the wrong decision and wants to warn would-be drop-outs"? The answer seemed obvious to 12 reggaetoneros who discussed the topic in a TV program: Drop-outs do it better because - all of them said - they have THE EXPERIENCE of having dropped out/

The entitlement of the street trumps the entitlement of education. Choosing to be DE LA CALLE classifies you as non-blanquito. The real blanquitos will never stand up.

What do you think? I'm curious. Contestame cuando puedas. Soon.


Hi Felix.

Que bueno estar en dialogo sobre esto contigo!

Me parece bien acertado eso que dices de la estrategia de relaciones publicas de la "inevitabilidad" del reggaeton para artistas "reales" "de la calle".

"I think that the discarded opportunities that Tego, Voltio, Mexicano, and the like have are part of what they sell. "

Your above quote is fascinating. Its not only about the thug persona they adopt, but about the opportunities discarded. YES!

Este mito y romantizacion de "la calle" es mind-blowing. As you say, to discard those opportunities to have a conventionally successful life, is celebrated as a sign of thuggish chic, an emblem of sexy rebelliousness. But is there more than front and image to all this?

Ultimately this is all about WHAT? What can we boil down this romantic "myth of the street" to? A symbol of youthful "rebelliousness", late 20th/early 21st Century style? A sign that the "traditional" way success was defined (and said to guarantee happiness) is bankrupt? Why is it bankrupt? Because its a socio-economic impossibility for many? Because its perceived to be too hard? Too unsexy? Is it because once you become "successful" then you are a slave to your "success" and happiness remains ever-elusive?

What does this all say about the way a sector of the youthful population is constructing/perceiving happiness? What does this all say about the conditions a sector of the youthful population is growing up in?

Where does pride in your community end and self-serving myth-making begin?

The street is a myth. And a reality. Shit, this is making my head spin.

"Choosing to be DE LA CALLE classifies you as non-blanquito. The real blanquitos will never stand up."

Another mind-blowing concept: "choosing to be de la calle". YET it is a choice that has to be camouflaged in the language of inevitability. Why?

I completely agree "the real blanquitos will never stand up." As long as authenticity in reggaeton is defined the way it currently is, no one in their right mind will "stand" against the interest of their bread and butter (and cars, and women, and bling).

te abrazo,

On Appropriation, Class and Reggaeton

This post is inspired by David's, Negrura's and TatoBrujo's comments to my previous blog post (on

1. To take to or for oneself; take possession of
2. To take without consent; seize; expropriate

1. To dispossess a person of ownership

It has become increasingly common to talk about racial appropriation in the U.S. (particularly appropriation by whites of black cultural expressions). But, as David points out, there are class divisions among racial groups; divisions that sometimes get sidelined. When middle-class African Americans across the U.S. became engaged with hip hop, was that not "appropriation"? Yes indeed. We don't have to ignore class fault lines in order to highlight racial/ethnic unity. (Though, unfortunately, we often do. Acknowledgement of class, gender and sexual power dynamics is often suppressed in the name of racial/ethnic unity.)

Of course, when middle and upper-class African Americans adopt a cultural expression born from marginalized African American communities, though there may be some friction, the result is usually perceived as "appropriation" (meaning #1, above) rather than "expropriation" (meaning #2, above. classic example: the history of Rock and Roll).

In Puerto Rico, since there is a perception of a shared national/ethnic identity (save for immigrants, particularly Dominicans), it is a bit more common for class fault lines to be acknowledged (when compared to the States).

It fascinates me how those class distinctions are purposely blurred in contemporary reggaeton.

Reggaeton has a mythical alliance to "the street," an interesting metaphor considering even the most expensive neighborhoods have streets, as Felix Jimenez (author of Las practicas de la carne) pointed out to me in a recent conversation.

Reggaeton artists purportedly represent "the street," the barrios, the caserios. Some of these representatives grew up or live in those places, while others, though not having grown up or lived there, become representatives by virtue of being perceived to be down.

If an artist did not grow up in those neighborhoods he/she "represents," then: What exactly does it mean to be down with the street? What does it mean to have street credibility? Is it about adopting/appropriating a culture? Is it about assuming a street identity through your sympathies and solidarities? Is it a costume you can take on and off? All of the above? None of the above?

If you are down with the street do you then eventually become "from the street"? Is "tener calle" (literally, having street) the same as "ser de la calle" (being from the street)?

Since both share an obsession with street credibility, the following questions apply as much to hip hop in the U.S. proper as to reggaeton in Puerto Rico: How much of contemporary street credibility is about surface aesthetics and how much about culture, community and solidarity? Does that solidarity entail certain responsibilities? Or can you just adopt the mannerisms, don the clothing, hire a good Public Relations machine, and PRESTO?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Will the Real Blanquitos Please Stand Up?: Class, Race and Reggaeton

El blanquito guillao de caco, I have heard many call Residente Calle
13. The Eminem of reggaeton, I heard a MUN2 video show host quip.

Blanquito is a Puerto Rican term that combines class and
race, with the emphasis (or so the story goes) on class. So while
there are plenty of reggaeton artists whose phenotypes are closer to
the white end of the spectrum, they do not get labeled blanquitos.
Why? The easy answer is class.

Residente Calle 13 has been singled out as reggaeton's Resident
Blanquito. While the other reggaeton artists are presumed to be "del
barrio," Residente Calle 13 is supposedly the affluent (dizque
"suburban") exception. But is he really the exception? How is he the

He certainly is not the only reggaeton artist with professional
parents, or who hails from an urbanización, or who is

Tego's parents are a teacher and a government employee. His family
at one point lived in the urbanización Loíza Valley growing up, and for a long time near el Viejo Comandante (still there? anyone know exactly where?). Oh wait, but he did not go to college and went to jail. Plus he is much too black and much too proud of it to be labeled a blanquito.

Unlike Tego, Glory is university-educated, yet she doesn't get called
blanquita either. She has her bachelors, is working on her masters
thesis and has plans to complete her Ph.D. Oh wait, she's too
dark-skinned to be easily pegged a blanquita.

So how about Tito el Bambino: the quintessential pretty, white Rican
boy? He grew up in the urbanización Parque Ecuestre, where Voltio and Hector El Father also grew up.

Isn't Parque Ecuestre (see above) an urbanización, not a barrio? And how different, really, is Parque Ecuestre from the urbanización El
Conquistador where Calle 13 grew up?

I conducted a very unscientific quick little cyber-quest and looked up
property values of houses in both urbanizaciones. It turns out the
property values I found for Parque Ecuestre and El Conquistador placed El Conquistador a bit higher on the price scale. But not by much:

Parque Ecuestre, $115,000
El Conquistador, 3 rooms, 2 bathrooms, $140,000
El Conquistador, 3 rooms, 2 bathrooms, $160,000
Parque Ecuestre, 6 rooms, 2 bathrooms $165,000
El Conquistador, 4 rooms, 2 bathrooms, $175,000
Parque Ecuestre, $185,000

How about urbanizaciones other artists live or have lived in? Where
did Nicky Jam grow up, aside from the time he lived in Barrio Obrero?
(And why does he get called "el riquitillo"?) Rakim and Ken-Y? Alex
and Fido? Wisín and Yandel? (sure, Cayey but where?) Ivy Queen?
(Añasco, but where?)

As I mentioned before, Tego at one point lived in Loíza Valley.

Example of house prices there:
Loíza Valley, 4 rooms, 2 bathrooms, $135,000

Now lets go back to some folks that were very hot in the genre mid to
late-90s. Mansion Crew from Mansiones de Carolina.

Example of house prices:
Mansiones de Carolina, $185,000

Joelito from Las Guanábanas used to live in Villas de Loíza a decade
ago when I interviewed him for the San Juan Star.

Examples of house prices:
Villas de Loíza, 3 rooms, 1 bathroom, $118,000
Villas de Loíza, 4 rooms, 2 bathrooms $135,000

Hhhhmmmm so it seems property values in all these neighborhoods are not always substantially different. There seems to be quite a bit of overlap between the places Tito, Hector, Voltio, Calle 13, Tego, Mansion Crew and Joelito lived while growing up.

Now compare that to the scores of artists who grew up in public
housing projects where, of course, the residents don't own the
property. (For example, Vico C and Lisa M grew up in the now-demolished Las Acacias, and Daddy Yankee in Villa Kennedy.)

I tried finding images to no avail of Las Acacias, Villa Kennedy, Llorens, Canales, Torres Sabana and other well-known public housing complexes. All I found was a picture of an abandoned caserío in Mayagüez, then set to be demolished.

I also found a picture of the Residencial Público San Agustín in
Puerta de Tierra. Freshly painted and deceptively quaint, its certainly
not a typical public housing development image.

Then there are the neighborhoods thought of as the quintessential
slums, like La Perla, recently featured in the MTV special My Block: Puerto Rico. There are also working-class barrios like Canteras, Villa Palmeras and Barrio Obrero where residential property values are at the low end. (Don Omar grew up in Villa Palmeras; Nicky Jam at some point lived in Barrio Obrero.) But, again, notice the overlap with some of the above-mentioned urbanizaciones.

Examples of house prices:
Cantera, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $58,000
Barrio Obrero, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms $95,000
Villa Palmeras 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms $135,000

These two images are from Villa Palmeras in Santurce.

Ok, so to recap. We have the no-real-estate-owning public housing
population. Then we have the lower end of the urban property spectrum fluctuating roughly around $58,000-$135,000. Then we have a whole bunch of urbanizaciones where quite a few reggaeton artists grew up in, with prices fluctuating between $118,000-$200,000. Now compare that to high-end urbanizaciones like Encantada where houses start around $345,000 and can reach $2 million.

Examples of house prices:
Encantada, 4 rooms, 2.5 bathrooms, $345,000
Pacifica, Encantada, 4 rooms, 3 bathrooms, $565,000
La Cima, Encantada, 6 rooms, 5 bathrooms, $2,000,000!!!

So if Residente Calle 13's relative affluence (judging by the
neighborhood he grew up in) falls somewhere in the middle right along with a whole bunch of other artists', we go back to the question: Why single him out as Reggaeton's Resident Blanquito?

I am not suggesting Residente Calle 13 is not different from most
reggaeton artists in terms of his upbringing. He went to private
schools and is university-educated (even has a masters) and grew up
in a gated urbanización (which may be a sign that his neighborhood is
relatively more upscale than other urbanizaciones with no controlled
access). (Does anyone know if any of the other urbanizaciones
mentioned above have controlled access?) Residente Calle 13 is also
considered white according to Island standards and never went to jail. As far as I know, no other popular reggaeton artist fulfills all qualifications mentioned above.

But shouldn't we be complicating the mythical "reggaeton as barrio
phenomenon" party line? How do so many urbanización-bred artists get to be portrayed as barrio and caserío-down, in a way Calle 13 is not? Perhaps the answer is that the former come from lower-middle class urbanizaciones one step away from the barrio. Is that why? Then lets talk about it.

What makes Llorens Torres and Canales housing projects different from La Perla different from Barrio Obrero different from Puerto Nuevo different from Parque Ecuestre different from Mansiones de Carolina different from El Conquistador different from Encantada and Los Paseos? What are the boundaries between caseríos, barrios and urbanizaciones? Should we be making distinctions between working, lower-middle, middle and upper-class urbanizaciones?

Who is a blanquito? How much racial and class privilege puts you in
the blanquito definition? If you are light-skinned and upwardly
mobile, but grew up in a caserío: Can you be considered a blanquito?
Does it make a difference if your upward mobility is propelled by the
sales from your reggaeton album vs. by becoming a succesful architect? How about if you are black, upwardly mobile and grew up in a caserío? Can you be considered a blanquito? Can your children?

Is blanquito about how much money you presently make? How much money your parents made when you were growing up? Is it about where you grew up? About where you live now? About the education you did or did not get?

And then throw that pesky factor called phenotype to the mix.

Would Tego be a blanquito if he had a Ph.D.? Would Calle 13 not be a
blanquito if he was black? If he did not have a masters degree?
Would Glory be a blanquita given her education, if it wasn't for her
phenotype? What if she was light-skinned and was writing quirky,
flower-power lyrics like Calle 13?

How much do personal style and musical aesthetics have to do with who gets defined as a blanquito? If Residente Calle 13 was not doing the experimental lyrics and videos, if he stuck to the prototypical
so-called barrio reggaeton aesthetic, would he be as likely to be
labeled a blanquito?

How much does behavior, dress, speech and attitude have to do with
being or not being a blanquito?

On the one hand, I think the class and race boundaries that separate
blanquitos from non-blanquitos are much blurrier than we make them out to be. On the other hand, it boggles my mind that while romanticized caserío and barrio imagery produce juicy earnings for a few, class and race-based divisions and injustice are as rampant as ever in the Island of Enchantment.

What do you think?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Calle 13’s “La Jirafa”—“The Giraffe”

Multifaceted, the Calle 13 who brought us "Atrévete te te"s lyrical imperative of hitching up our skirts all the way up to our backs and the Residente responsible for "Chulin Culín Chunfly"s me gusta como me guaya tu papaya, also bring us "La Jirafa."

I'm no fan of sappily happy love songs. But I can appreciate a good one that strays from the norm. I particularly welcome a love song from a reggaeton artist who elides the pop conventions that presently reign supreme in the genre (either te guayo te piso te pillo or sudando pasión, mi linda flor, te bajo la luna, etc.).

So I'm really feeling Calle 13's music, lyrics and video for "La Jirafa."

Though the music does not rely on the prototypical reggaeton percussive pattern, it feels reggaetoney, begging to be danced in similar pelvis-swaying ways. Also, since I'm a sucker for the accordion, the instrument's incorporation into the music and video is a big plus for me. (Thanks to Wayne Marshall for lending me his musical ear and helping me figure out why this song pleases my eardrums.

The lyrics are simple and simply gorgeous. Its imagery relies heavily on the colors and textures of nature. Sensual, as well as sexual, it awakens listeners' all six senses. And I do mean six. Why else would he ask her to flutter the cloth in her grandmother's name? Maybe that verse is taking me places Residente never intended: but I see his woman dancing bomba, piqueteando with her skirt, connecting through movement with the spirit world.

I'm also captivated by "La Jirafa"s surrealist qualities, both in the lyrics and the video. As usual, Residente rhymes seemingly by free association. But "La Jirafa"s lyrics are uncharacteristically tender. They remind me of Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez who lets the rhyming structure drive his word choice, employing almost non-sensical images to paint a vivid lyrical and musical picture.

Check the video.

Check the lyrics in Spanish.

I searched for an English translation and could not find it, so I will try to do them some justice. (Any suggestions or corrections are greatly appreciated.)

Plant your feet like two roots
With that swing
You'll probably cast a spell on me
So I don't step on you
Mamita, with caution
Flutter the cloth
In your grandmother's name

Mi little cinnamon
Mi little sugar
My pretty Sara [Linda Sara is the name of an acclaimed 1994 Puerto Rican movie]
My hurricane-like little storm
My Saint Clare [Santa Clara was a hurricane that hit PR in 1956]
I 'm not gonna let anything weird step on you
I 'm gonna light the candles so nothing happens to you
Here there's no knives or guns
There's only
A lot a lot a lot of cooking pot

Here there's a lot of sun
A lot of beaches
A lot of waves
Here everything is molasses
Nothing is pangola
I will paint the beach for you
Crayola blue
We're leaving
We're going
We're leaving
In a yola [small boat]
And if there is no yola
We will keep it rolling
So that
So that
You will see how your tail floats

When I saw you
I felt a lot of tickling
It was like having
Forty ants
Scratching my belly
You know, you know, you know
You're so fine
You took my pants, you're a thief
Lets spread ourselves into a tortilla

Lets make coconut pudding mixed with custard
I will eat your wood
Even with the termites

She eeee eeee
She eeee she
She eeee eeee
She eeee she

I want to see
The whole giraffe
I want it to kick me
See who can get away
Stirring the batter
I want four cups
Of carrots with pumpkins
You take me
Flying through the countryside
Off the floor
Walking on stilts
With a patanco basket
To walk over the ships
Until I get to your mountain range
The one who heals me
There are rumors going around
That you are
The luck of all the colors
A garden full of beans
A lot of necklaces adorned with seashells
Your name came out in the three cards
The comets told me
To dive in
To the bottom with no flippers
To go on the trip
With no suitcase
To go the whole way around
The planet
In a mattress
Lift up
Lift up
Lift up
Your shoe soles
Lets coil the washer disk
Gimme, gimme, gimme
A bit of Nutella
With you I'll go with nothing
A capella

Interlude: Residente Calle 13 On Masculinity, Gender Roles

Thanks to Tato Torres for the reference to a Cultura Viva program he saw on HITN. Anyone have a copy?

In it, Calle 13 said: "Los hombres también tenemos presiones sociales y a veces recurrimos a lo macharrán." "Algunas de mis canciones son hypermacharranas".

Translation: We men also have social pressures and sometimes we go the macho route. Some of my songs are hyper-macho.

The following is from an April 21, 2006 Primera Hora article dedicated to Calle 13 (see the translation below):

Aunque se pudiera interpretar que la lírica de Calle 13, sexualmente cargada, podría clasificar a la mujer, René Pérez descarta por completo tener una actitud machista.

"Las personas que estén en ese viaje están queda'os pero bien pega'os. Ya eso pasó de moda. Les recomendaría que se lean a Judith Butler, que ella defiende a la mujer sin ser feminista. Ella piensa que ser feminista es estar queda'o a estas alturas. Tengo cuatro hermanas y los roles masculinos y femeninos los tengo bien claros en la mente", asegura.

¿Cuáles son esos roles?

Yo pienso que la gente no debe estar tan consciente del rol que están asumiendo en cuestión de género. Deben hacer las cosas como sientan y como fluyan. Las mujeres pueden hacer cosas de hombres, y los hombres cosas de mujeres. Aquí en Puerto Rico y en (el resto de) Latinoamérica, en especial, es difícil bregar con los géneros y la gente todavía no acepta a los homosexuales, pero eso se va trabajando.

Even though Calle 13's sexually charged lyrics can be interpreted as [] classifying women, René Pérez denies having a sexist attitude.

"People who are on that trip are far behind. That's out of style. I would recommend they read Judith Butler who defends women without being feminist. She thinks being feminist is being behind the times at this point. I have four sisters and the masculine and feminine roles are real clear in my head," [Residente] says.

And what are those roles?

I think people should not be so conscious of the role they are playing in terms of gender. They should do things the way they feel and the way they flow. Women can do men's things and men can do women's things. Here in Puerto Rico and the rest of Latin America, specially, its difficult to deal with gender and people still don't accept homosexuals, but we can work on that.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Reggaeton and Gender: We Keep Talking Past Each Other (Part 4: On Masculinity)

Reggaeton just happened to be the music genre my students and I were discussing when we had those long debates regarding images of women in music videos. The issue is not just specific to reggaeton or even hip hop. These blog posts could have just as easily been titled Popular Culture and Gender: We Keep Talking Past Each Other.

Reading over my three previous posts and some of the comments they generated, something caught my attention.

In both discussions with my students, the spark for the debate was images of women in reggaeton videos. On the first occasion, the conversation centered around the interplay of women's roles as wage earners, mothers and wives. On the second occasion, we focused on the impact and the limits of choice on women's lives. Notice how both times the discussion centered on women.

We definitely should be talking about the ways womanhood is defined in our society and how that impacts the kinds of images we see on popular music videos. But we should be talking just as much about how manhood is defined.

Filmmaker Byron Hurt has some thoughts on this: "Most of the time when people think about gender issues, they think about women. Most people don't think manhood when you talk about gender issues. [] No one asks: What does it really mean to your manhood to have cars, to have jewelry, to have women?"

That is precisely why six years ago Hurt set out to make a documentary called Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture. It premiered this summer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will soon be shown on PBS. I saw it and it is definitely a thought-provoking and much-needed piece.

The 36 year old, self-described hip hop head has gone through great lengths to frame the discussion as a loving and unyielding critique of the music he grew up with. Hurt says: "So much of the ills in our society come from the way we men define manhood. I want this film to really get men to question and to challenge the way we're socialized and conditioned."

Just as lovingly and just as unyieldingly as Hurt, we should all be challenging ourselves and each other. What do we expect of ourselves? What do we expect of others? Why?

Hurt's documentary is a great start. Now it needs plenty of follow-up.

Reggaeton and Gender: We Keep Talking Past Each Other (Part 3: On Self-Respect)

Dear R.,

Are the reggaeton female fans, dancers and models who are getting naked and scandalously sexual on the club stage, dance floor and music videos being the tragic victims of their own self-hatred?

I agree with you that, when it comes to the decisions of reggaeton's gatas, low self-esteem needs to be taken into account as a factor. Self-esteem often plays as much a part as the pursuit of money, career, sex and/or love. But to that I have to add: Just like for everyone else.

Being a wild reggaeton gata is indeed a consolation for one too many women with low self-esteem. Just like being a wild reggaeton pitbull is a consolation for one too many men with low self-esteem.

Not to say all wild gatas and pitbulls suffer from self-esteem issues. Some do. Some don't. (Actually, don't we all have self-esteem issues?) People's reasons, experiences and pleasures are informed by way too many factors to reduce it all to low self-esteem.

For example: Is it possible that some (many?) of reggaeton's gatitas (whether they have self-esteem issues or not) are deriving great pleasure by being part of a social scene where they don't have to play coy and hard to get? Where they can pursue their lusty fantasies in ways usually reserved for men? Where they can be more honest about what they want?

Reggaeton has some distinctive dynamics: for example, it has stretched the boundaries of appropriate public sexual behavior for many people. But other dynamics, like the male/female power struggles are not reggaeton-specific. They are human issues.

Similar gender power dynamics exist among salsa, bomba and rumba fans, musicians and dancers (to take the example of some genres we both love). Women flaunt their beauty; men flaunt their power and wealth. As my Dad learned as a little boy in the 1950s in the mountain town of Naranjito: Las dos cosas mas terribles en la vida son una mujer fea y un hombre pelao. O sea: The two most terrible things in life are an ugly woman and a flat broke man.

So how to start defining ourselves and others beyond our material possessions? How to interact with each other in less utilitarian terms?

Much respect,

Friday, August 11, 2006

Reggaeton and Gender: We Keep Talking Past Each Other (Part 2)

A few classes went by. And the spiny subject of gender came up again. Elsie was giving an oral presentation on her final project. She was a hardliner in terms of expecting/imposing a certain so-called decency standard on reggaeton and other manifestations of popular culture. In my earlier feedback on her paper, I challenged her to distinguish between lyrics/images that sexualized women and those that sexualized AND demeaned women. I suggested there was a difference between

I want that ass and I’ll smack it if you just say the word
I want that ass you piece of trash and I’m gonna smack it whether you like it or not

But Elsie had not heeded my calls for temperance. So while she talked about the objectification of women in videos, the masculine faces in the classroom were carefully composed into impassiveness, but itching and twitching with disagreement and irritated condescension below the surface.

Why were the men, again, not speaking up? It took a lot of asking and prodding on my part, until finally the floodgates opened.

Women who complain about those images is because they feel insecure about their bodies, stated Max. They complain about the images because they can’t compete with the models.

You don’t hold it against a smart female doctor that she’s smart, said Victor. Then why hold it against a big breasted female model that she’s sexy?

Besides, its their decision to be in those videos, added Max.

But that decision is conditioned by a social context!, argued Rosa, Zenaida and Elsie. Why do you think there are all these men in decision-making positions and all these women working for very little money in the videos?

But they can say no, shot back Max. If this is going to end, you can’t blame the men and say women are victims. Its up to the women to change it.

I am not saying women are just victims, said Zenaida. I am saying both women and men are responsible. And they both need to work at changing it.

You know, this is about supply and demand, said Max. As long as there are women willing to do the work, men will hire them. You can’t stop it as long as women choose to make their money that way.

I intervened, noting that many of those video models work for free, hoping to someday make it big.

That’s still their decision, said Max.

Besides, they’re doing it to get ahead, kind of like an internship, said Victor.

Lets go back to the point about change only being up to women, I said. Without the support of white people the Civil Rights movement would not have succeed the way it did or when it did. Same goes for the abolition of slavery. Why expect only those most affected to be responsible for addressing the problem?

This is just like the issue of prostitution, said Max. As long as women prostitute themselves, the problem will exist.

That’s a great example!, said Rosa. Because it really shows how neither the women in the videos or the prostitutes make their choices in a vacuum. I don’t know the exact numbers, but huge numbers of women and their kids live in poverty. That’s one big reason for female prostitution. Also, 75% of women in prostitution have been abused. Its not a choice made in a blank slate.

That is not a good statistic, answered Max. Show me the statistic that says most abused women go into prostitution and then maybe you have a point. I am a Bronx Puerto Rican. If we go by the odds, I am supposed to be in jail. I made the choice to be here.

But your parents were not crackheads, snapped Zenaida, beginning to lose her patience.

Yeah, your parents were there to put you on the bus to school, added Elsie. It was not just your decision. You could make the decision to go to college because your parents made sure you got a proper education beforehand.

There are no buses to be taken to school in NY, said Max sharply. Maybe in the suburbs where you grew up it was different.

Well, ok, then lets say your parents were there to register you for school, said Elsie. If your parents were crackheads, they probably wouldn’t have registered you.

I intervened, attempting to summarize their points and the two separate ideological camps that had materialized along gender lines: Some of you have been talking about the existence of personal choice and people not being absolute victims of their circumstances. That is an important point. Some of you have been talking about the influence of your environment on your choices. Which is another good point. These two are actually positions that feed into each other and balance each other out.

If it was all about personal choice, then everyone would be in college, said Rosa.

Not everyone wants to go to college, said Victor.

But not everyone who wants to get to college can get there, Zenaida pointed out. Maybe they can’t afford it. Or maybe the public school they went to was so crappy that they can’t compete with the folks that went to better schools. The child of rich parents who are Harvard alumni will have a better chance of getting into Harvard than most other folks.

That is not true, Victor contended. You can’t just buy your way in. Everyone who goes to Ivy League schools is because they earned it.

Even George Bush?, Zenaida asked incredulously.

Once class was over, I went to my office to gather my belongings. Max came in to talk about his upcoming oral presentation. I took the opportunity to ask him why he and the other guys were so reluctant to talk about gender issues in class. Why had they fed me the reggaeton-is-sexist line all semester when they did not believe it for a second?

Max replied: You know why? Its because those views are not welcome at this university. There is this climate here where you get looked down on if you have views that are not considered politically correct. Professors and other students hold it against you. So I have just learned to keep my mouth shut.

I was floored. I had a flashback to my freshman dorm experience at Brown where my only friend was the right-wing guy who, though at the opposite end of the political and religious spectrum from me, was a brilliant independent thinker. Everyone else seemed to me like boring, wishy-washy, liberaloid p.c. sheep.

After speaking for a while longer and encouraging him to keep voicing his actual opinions in class, I bid him goodnight.

So our first class discussion about gender and reggaeton turned into a 2 hour debate addressing if women’s place is in the home, after all. Our second discussion was a 2 hour debate on the role of personal choice in men and women’s lives.

It was the end of the workday and I wished I could have just shut my brain down. But it refused. I could not help but keep strategizing on how to better navigate the philosophical and social issues that must be addressed in any honest discussion of gender and popular culture.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Reggaeton and Gender: We Keep Talking Past Each Other (Part I)

I did not imagine guiding discussions about gender dynamics in university classrooms would be this hard. Oh, it is! And it is also illuminating, worrisome, infuriating and exhilarating.

The seminar’s focus was hip hop and reggaeton. That day’s topic was the pre-history of reggaeton. The assigned readings were a chapter from Keith Negus’ Popular Music in Theory and Mayra Santos’ “Puerto Rican Underground”. The students seemed subdued and some even sleepy, so instead of beginning our conversation with the readings, I decided to start with the musical examples.

I began with Vico C’s “De la calle,” old-fashionedly recorded on a cassette tape. It was a live recording circa 1986. Then I moved on to video clips of Vico circa 1989 doing “La recta final,” and then rapping in “Blanca” with Jossie Esteban y la Patrulla 15 and singing with Toño Rosario in “Otra vez” around 1991. Then I showed a clip of “Bomba para afincar” from 1993.

Vico: Y yo quiero que todas mis gatitas me digan ‘ah ah’
Female chorus: ‘Ah ah’

Ugh!, exclaimed in exasperation Rosa as she dropped her head to the table, burying her face in her arms.

Comments?, I asked, once the song was over. Silence. What was your ‘ugh’ reaction about?, I asked Rosa.

She was the only female student that day in class. Zenaida and Elsie were absent. So it was Rosa, Pete Jones, Michael, Max, Victor, Pete Gonzalez and Professor Rivera (that would be me).

I’m tired!, Rosa exclaimed. Its always the same thing. The sexy gatitas in the video background, the sexual objects. I hate it!

But they were fully clothed, weren’t they?, I asked, playing devil’s advocate.

It doesn’t matter if they’re covered or nearly naked. Women are always objectified, sexualized, said Rosa. I’m sick of it. I like reggaeton, but I just have such mixed feelings about it. It affects our lives as a whole, people think of us like that, reduce us to sexuality.

But its women who choose to put themselves in the object position, countered Victor. No one is forcing them to. They’re getting paid for putting on those little shorts.

The conversation kept following the its-their-choice-so-whats-the-problem vein for quite a while. So I interjected.

True, it is their choice, I noted. But why do you think its women choosing to display their flesh for the most part? Why are men overwhelmingly the artists and women the flesh-displayers?

They considered it, in silence. Rosa intervened.

Men are mostly the ones in decision-making positions in the industry. This is the way they want to see women, so that’s what happens, she explained.

How we got from that subject to the next is a bit blurry to me. But next thing I know a few of the men in class were talking about the child-raising responsibilities of women as a way of explaining why women are not in decision-making positions.

Not everyone is the same, stated Victor emphatically. Men and women are not the same!

Who in this classroom said the contrary?, I wondered silently.

Since the first two people on Earth were around, men have been the ones providing for the woman, whose job is to provide for the child, said Max. Women have in their bodies the capacity to feed the child. They are better equipped for child-raising.

Plus, if a man chooses to be a stay-at-home Dad, his buddies are going to be laughing at him, society is going to look down on him, added Pete Jones.

Men have greater strength, greater muscle mass, Max said. You think you will be a better construction worker than Pete who is stronger and has been doing it for years and years?, he condescendingly asked Rosa. You really think you guys should make the same amount of money?

I was glad the male students’ true opinions were finally surfacing, even if it took them almost the whole semester to open up. But there was an edge of over-eagerness in their voices. What is going on here?, I wondered. And why did they wait so long to speak up? I had suspected they did not buy the reggaeton-objectifies-women and reggaeton-is-sexist party line they had been feeding me in class all semester long. I had tried to open up the space in our classroom discussions so they would feel comfortable stating their ideas. To no avail. Until that day.

These young men, though they give lip service to the existence of sexism, they are actually content with the status quo!, I realized. They don’t really see what the problem is. This is just the way things are. It makes sense.

Yet in the same breath they will admit that it’s a twisted patriarchal world.

I think men keep women down out of fear, Pete Jones said. There is some Greek story about women withholding sex and baby-making from men until they stop some war.

Rosa was countering their arguments como gato bocarriba (like an upside down cat, so to speak). I was trying to play it cool, though, kind of like a referee, but Rosa was by far outnumbered and the guys were pushing it on the haughtiness. They were bordering on disrespectfulness when refuting Rosa’s ideas.

I wondered: How could they describe the world as patriarchal and say it all makes sense in the same breath? How can they ask how do we change things but at the same time make arguments for why things need to stay the way they are? And why all the attitude?

Today’s world is not only about muscle mass, Rosa countered Max. Why would a man and a woman who work at a bank have an income difference?

It does make sense, said Victor. Why would they make the same? When the woman takes time off to have kids and then goes back to work. Lets say she takes off five years. That man is going to have five years of experience on her.

But what if she’s working from 22 until 35 and then she decides to have kids?, I asked. What justifies her making less money than him for 13 years?

He seemed to consider it, but said he still didn’t see what the big problem was.

I wish my mom had not worked so I didn’t have to go to after-school programs, said Max. So what if my Mom makes less? She should have been at home with me!

But what about all the female-headed households?, Rosa asked. Why would those women make any less?

Social policy should not be built on what should be an anomaly, Max shot back. We should not be basing policy on broken homes as the standard. The man is supposed to take care of the woman and the woman take care of the children. It has always been like that.

Wait, Max, I cut in. That’s not a fact. It has not always been like that. The breadwinner dad, the homemaker mom and their kids in a house model is not even a hundred years old. The dominant scheme in human societies has been that mothers work outside the home, whether they are also engaged in child-care or not. When they have worked outside the home, then they have either taken the kids with them or there were others of the family or community who provided that care.

They stared back at me with blank looks in their eyes.

What do you mean?, Michael asked.

Pete Gonzalez finally spoke up: I remember reading about that. Like in indigenous communities everyone was a mother and a father to a child. It wasn’t just up to the couple.

But even more recent and closer than that, I added. Lets take Boston and New York at the beginning of the century. Buildings were occupied by relatives and friends. It was a network of resources and childcare.

Trying the tactic of human understanding and empathy, Rosa told a personal story: My mom dedicated herself to me and my sister her whole life. Now that we are in college she feels so lost. She tells me her only option is to become a cashier because she has no other skills.

The guys didn’t see what the problem was.

But your Dad is still with her, right? And he needs to eat when he comes home at night, right?, asked Max.

Well, first, we have a cook, Rosa said, revealing the specifics of her class background which probably did not win her mom much sympathy with the mostly working-class group. So my mom doesn’t really have to do that. She was so depressed for such a long time.

But isn’t that what happens when people retire? They just have to find something else to do, said Max.

That’s supposed to happen in your sixties, not when you are forty-three!, Rosa retorted.

Well how about when couples do break up?, I asked.

Then the woman gets alimony and child support, Max said.

Alimony! Who the hell gets alimony?, I thought. Certainly not any woman I know. Most of them don’t even get child support from their former spouses. Before I could interject, Victor provided the clincher.

Well, even if women make less money than men, they have something so great that no man can ever do: to give life, said Victor.

But you can’t do that without a man!, Rosa jumped it.

Isn’t it suspicious that motherhood gets put up on a pedestal as the greatest thing in the world as if it’s a privilege women have so they shouldn’t be complaining about making less money than men?, I asked.

Rosa nodded vigorously. The rest of them looked thoroughly unconvinced.

By then, class time was over and I wondered how time had gone by so quickly. As they rowdily filed out of the classroom, I kept asking myself: How on earth did we start a two hour discussion focusing on the gender politics of reggaeton video imagery but quickly moved on to spend most of our time debating if women’s place (after all) really is in the home?