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Style & Culture

A post-NAFTA star

Texas-born Eva Longoria is a phenomenon by herself. But she's also part of a bigger happening: A growing hybrid pop culture with a bilingual sensibility all its own.

May 28, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — QUICK, somebody, seal the border! Call out the National Guard, the Minutemen, the Motion Picture Assn. of America! Round up the chief accomplices -- Gael Garcia Bernal, the writers of "Desperate Housewives" -- and notify Congress muy pronto.

America is being invaded by Mexican culture, and our republic may never be the same.

This spring, the barriers that once used to keep out the southern hordes (telenovelas, ranchera tunes) began to crumble like the walls of the Alamo. In March, the L.A. Coliseum played host to some 60,000 screaming pubescent devotees of the Mexican pop group RBD, a spinoff of the Mexican-import TV show "Rebelde," which has teeny-boppers swooning on both banks of the Rio Bravo. Meanwhile, Televisa, the Mexican network giant that produces "Rebelde," has become one of the leading candidates to acquire Univision Communications Inc., the nation's preeminent Spanish-language media conglomerate.

But none of these events could have prepared Americans for the, ah, cultural temblor of this month's issue of Maxim. There at center stage in the lustful laddie magazine was Eva Longoria, the Mexican American model-actress who plays the sultry, strong-willed Latina trophy wife Gabrielle Solis on "Desperate Housewives," the hit ABC prime-time soap opera that wrapped up its second season last week. Reflecting both the show's success and her own surging career, Longoria for the second year in a row topped Maxim's "annual Hot List," besting such fair-skinned rivals as Lindsay Lohan, Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley.

Granted, this news bulletin is unlikely to sway the deliberations of the U.S. Senate as it ponders a slew of controversial immigration reforms. But at a time when Mexico and the United States are again struggling to sort out their tangled political relationship, the Texas-born Longoria is a potent symbol of how Mexicans, and Mexican Americans, are dramatically reshaping U.S. pop culture -- and being reshaped by it. More specifically, Longoria represents the emergence of a new hybrid popular culture with a frisky, bilingual sensibility all its own.

The political brouhaha over the vast numbers of Mexican illegal immigrants pouring into the United States is likely to be with us for years to come. But lost in the uproar over demonstrators waving Mexican flags, and the Spanish-language version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," is that most Mexican and Latin immigrants, particularly children and young people, begin to assimilate American cultural values practically the moment they set foot in the United States, even before some of them learn to speak English.

"The whole acculturation process begins the minute they cross that border," says Manny Gonzalez, vice president and managing director of Hill Holliday Hispanic/abece, a Miami-based ad agency that specializes in the Latino market. In fact, Gonzalez says, there are two concurrent transformations happening today. "While American mainstream culture is changing because it's being Latinized, Latino culture in itself is changing," he says.

The resultant phenomenon goes beyond the periodic "Latin crazes" that have swept America every decade or so, then vanished as suddenly as they began, says Gonzalez, who was born in Ciudad Juarez and moved to Los Angeles with his family as a child. The new wave is not merely a tokenistic fad, like Carmen Miranda turbans, Ricky Ricardo's mambo club on "I Love Lucy" or the Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin livin' la vida loca. Fernando Valenzuela on a corn flakes box is one thing; Longoria in a wet negligee in the pages of a leading men's magazine -- or, in more formal attire, doing charity work on behalf of Latin Americans -- is quite another.

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Through the mainstream

TO begin with, Longoria, 31, cannot be viewed simply as the latest incarnation of the exotic Latin American Other, like the Mexican screen goddesses and pinup girls of old. The former Miss Corpus Christi is as much a U.S. citizen as any Boston Brahmin descended from Cotton Mather.

Her path to showbiz stardom is similarly mainstream: talent show contests, some modest TV parts ("General Hospital," "Beverly Hills, 90210") before landing her current breakout role. So there's no need to trot out the usual metaphors about the "spicy" new ingredient in the national stew. Longoria's success story is as American as apple pie, or hot sauce. She even likes guns -- what's more American than that?

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