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Must a Critic's Heritage Dictate His Opinions?

September 01, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA

Irish writers aren't expected to promote U2.

Canadian critics aren't bound to back Neil Young.

So why must a Mexican reporter be partial to singer Paulina Rubio just because she's Mexican too?

That thinking seemed to be behind some of the negative response to an article I recently wrote about Rubio, the former teen star who launched a crossover attempt this year with her English album, "Border Girl." Some readers thought the piece was too critical. One even posted a rebuttal on a local Spanish-language radio station's Web site wondering if I have something against Mexican performers.

It's an old dilemma: Minority journalists have long faced pressure to show their loyalty to their ethnic group more than to their profession. The mentality is a holdover from the days when minority journalists were a rarity in newsrooms. If you were one of the few who made it, you had a responsibility to the many who didn't.

Taken to extremes, minority journalists were expected to be cheerleaders for their ethnic group. Those who betrayed the charge were labeled vendidos--sellouts.

Those sentiments have faded somewhat, with the era that spawned them. But the issue still raises its ugly head every once in a while, including in coverage of the arts.

That's where it gets especially tricky.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a mildly critical column about Ricky Martin, the Puerto Rican singer who was riding high with his crossover smash "Livin' la Vida Loca." All I said, essentially, was that Martin's success may mislead people into thinking he represented real Latin music.

Some Latino readers, obvious Ricky fans, responded with racial vitriol. They questioned whether I was really a Latino. One caller made a cynical remark about my dark complexion, apparent from my picture that appeared with my former culture column in the old Metro section. How could I be so dark, she asked, and turn against a Latino performer? She ignored the fact that Martin is a fair-skinned Puerto Rican.

Rubio, who hails from Mexico City, is also so blond and fair that she goes by the nickname "La Chica Dorada," the Golden Girl. Her European looks have been essential to her success as a singer and soap opera star in Mexico, where the media are notoriously biased against people with dark, indigenous features.

Mexican TV, until recently a monopoly, has come under fire for creating a color line for stardom. European-looking artists are groomed for celebrity, while those who look too Indian are relegated to roles as maids or chauffeurs.

Rubio comes out of that star-making machinery. As a girl, she was a member of the teeny-bop group Timbiriche, a pop-music creation of Televisa, Mexico's media conglomerate.

The group actually had its charm and wide pop appeal. You could compare it to a younger version of the Monkees, the pre-fab '60s pop group that was made for TV. Like the Monkees, the members of Timbiriche were scorned to some degree for being pretty faces without real talent.

The difference is that fans here could have fun with the Monkees and get their real musical fix from the Rolling Stones or the Doors.

In Mexico, however, Timbiriche was all there was. Not literally, of course. But the media monopoly was so powerful at one time that virtually no performers could break through on a mass scale without the blessing of Televisa.

To some, that was the ruin of Mexican pop culture. Musical tastes were imposed from the top down, like politics. Fresh or challenging ideas in art were considered a threat, like true democracy.

That history was the backdrop to my critical profile of Rubio, which questioned the artistic value of her latest marketing move into the U.S. I didn't criticize her because she was Mexican, but because of what she represents to Mexicans.

Maybe I should have made that point more explicit. Because if I have a bias, it's in favor of those alternative Mexican performers who have struggled so hard against their country's unforgiving star-making machinery.

In the past year, I've written favorably about alt-rock singer Ely Guerra, folk-style guitarist and composer Fernando Delgadillo, musical historian and performer Jaramar, and aging rock guitarist Javier Batiz.

All are Mexicans like me. In light of their neglected artistry, I confess feeling a twinge of patriotism about promoting them.

*

Austin Gurza is a Times staff writer.

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