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They Call It Papi Love

Women want him. Moms adore him. But 'el papi chulo' is more than just a handsome Latino. Streetwise women are using those words to compliment any guy with that certain something.

September 19, 1996|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First came tales of the mythical chupacabra mysteriously gobbling its way across the Mexican border. Then the Macarena--the hoochie-coochie, pat-your-tushy dance from Spain--grabbed America. Now brace yourself for another Latin phenomenon: El Papi Chulo!

Que es?

A papi chulo, with his roller-coaster biceps, salty smile and seductive eyes, is a sizzling Latin love god. A mack daddy. A Baldwin.

He's Antonio Banderas. Denzel Washington. Alec, Daniel, William or Stephen.

Get the picture?

Christy Haubegger does. In fact, she has several pinups of Latino lookers to prove her passion, although a papi can be a hunky hombre from any culture.

As publisher of New York-based Latina, a bilingual quarterly for women, Haubegger offers a mix of stories, from health and beauty to managing money and love lives. But who knew the magazine's "El Papi Chulo / Our Finest Man" column would attract so many happy papi fans in just two issues?

Haubegger says the column--a "love letter," as she puts it, with a photo of a Latino role model who just happens to be a knockout--is a favorite of readers, who nominate guys they would like to see as future papis.

"For one page of the magazine to generate this much mail says to me that our readers see the fun in the column," Haubegger says, adding that El Papi Chulo took shape during a brainstorming meeting with her staff. "We looked through the magazine and asked, 'What's missing?' Then it dawned on us, 'Where are the papis? Where are the guys?' "

As a term of endearment, "papi" means many things to many people, she says. For instance, a mother may tenderly call her child papi (my son); a daughter might proudly say her father is her papi (my daddy); a wife can label her husband her papi (my old man), or a friend can shout, "Hey, papi!" (Hey, dude).

In that context, it's as old as the Spanish language.

But in matters of love and libido, "papi" implies much more than just sugar and spice. The expression's sidewalk incarnation, "Ay, Papi Chulo!" which loosely translated means, "Hey, hunka-hunka burning love, I'm yours!" is making its way across the country from New York, where Latinas, particularly Puerto Ricans, have been using it forever.

Los Angeles isn't papi exempt. In restaurants ("That waiter is a papi") and on the beach ("Papasito!"), papi perusers are on the prowl.

"A papi is a babe," says Cindy Jordan, 28, who recently described a guy within eyeshot as a papi chulo to her friends. A male member of the same group who had never heard the term soon got his Papi 101 lesson.

Jordan, born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, moved to Los Angeles three years ago. If there's one thing she knows, it's a papi, be it a valet with a goatee, a UPS delivery man in shorts or a suit behind the wheel of a Suburban.

A papi, she says, "is very Latino-looking with dark hair, hazel eyes, tan complexion. He's well-built but not a body-builder type. He's not an Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he's no Pee-Wee Herman either. He's in between. He's Antonio Sabato Jr."

Jordan's friend Ida Brienza, 30, who is Puerto Rican and Italian, says, "If we were at a club and I saw a hunk, I might go, 'Mira [Look] Cindy, papi chulo.' It's just an inside joke with us girls."

Jose Islas, the 26-year-old director of the 800-member Los Angeles Educational Assn. of Puerto Rican Roots, admits to earning a few papi points from the opposite sex.

"When a woman says to me, 'Hey papi chulo!' it's a compliment," he says. "She's saying 'You're a nice-looking guy.' Or maybe she's complimenting the way I act, with dignity for myself and respect toward her."

That, Haubegger says, is what a papi chulo is all about--an aura of respect with rico suave looks--and why Latina magazine has anointed the following:

Marc Anthony, a 27-year-old salsero and recording artist from New York, appeared in the premiere issue beckoning women to join him in dance.

Diego Serrano, a 23-year-old Ecuadorean in the daytime soap "One Life to Live," is ab fab in an unbuttoned shirt, his dark hair brushing his shoulders, in the current fall issue.

And coming in December will be 26-year-old actor Jacob Vargas, who has a starring role in the feature film "Selena" being filmed now in San Antonio. Vargas grew up in Pacoima and graduated from San Fernando High School.

These guys might not be so bold and beautiful to label themselves papi, but others aren't shy.

Last year, New York designers Jesse Rodriguez and Jerome Darby took a cue from the female calls of "Ay Papi!" and whipped up two lines of Papi-emblazoned clothes: one for the more mature man, the other for teenage fly guys. Polo shirts, nylon Windbreakers, drawstring pants, jackets, basketball jerseys, T-shirts, tanks, boxer shorts and caps range in price $12 to $40. (The line is sold at Future Man in West Hollywood, or call [212] 741-3978 for a free catalog.)

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