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Social consciousness pops up in Latin stars

May 17, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY -- Not so long ago, Latin American artists who spoke up for social causes often risked prison, exile or far worse.

What a difference a generation makes. On Thursday, a phalanx of Spanish-speaking pop artists headed by Colombian superstar Shakira and Spanish-Italian singer Miguel Bose gathered here to promote a new initiative to aid Latin America's millions of poor, malnourished and undereducated children. They were joined by the world's second-richest man, a top U.S. philanthropist and an international mob of reporters drawn by a potent cocktail of celebrity, money and power, laced with an emerging social conscience.

Swathed in showbiz glamour, the philanthropic-promotional project will culminate this afternoon with two free all-star concerts, one in the Zocalo, or massive central plaza, of the Mexican capital, the other in the Costanera Sur, an ecological reserve on the edge of downtown Buenos Aires.

"What's very inspiring is to see Latin America for the first time in charge of its own issues," said Shakira, the polyglot 31-year-old chanteuse who for years has helped children through her own Barefoot Foundation and lately has been keeping company with the likes of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick.

She'll perform in Buenos Aires as part of a roster that is supposed to include Alejandro Sanz, Calle 13, Gustavo Cerati, Paulina Rubio and Jorge Drexler. The Mexico City lineup lists Aleks Syntek, Juanes, Los Tigres del Norte, Mana, Babasonicos, Diego Torres, Ricky Martin and Tania Libertad.

Today's concerts, the most high-profile project yet by Latin artists to fuse charity with celebrity, are expected to draw a total audience in the hundreds of thousands. And while some participants acknowledged that Latin musical artists have lagged behind their U.S. and British counterparts in altruistic enterprises, "the important thing," Shakira said, "is that we're here today."

Shakira was joined by Howard Graham Buffett, eldest son of Warren Buffett, the world's richest person, according to Forbes magazine, and by Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim Helu, the world's second richest, just ahead of Bill Gates. Both men announced they would increase their support of child development and related programs through their personal foundations, Slim pledging $110 million and Buffett $85 million. "One of the biggest problems anywhere in the world . . . is the concentration of wealth, which creates a gap of those who have it and those who don't have it," said Buffett, whose foundation has given tens of millions of dollars to social programs in Mexico and Central America. "We have those problems at home. But Mexico definitely has that challenge."

In a grim coincidence, on Thursday came an echo from a not-so-distant era when Latin American artists who spoke up about poverty and social inequality took their lives in their hands. In Chile, a judge announced the end of his investigation into the brutal murder of revered folk singer Victor Jara, a leader of Latin America's "new song" folk movement. Jara was arrested after the 1973 coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet and, according to court records, was tortured before being machine-gunned to death.

The judge's decision to charge only one person in the case, a retired army colonel, was met with dismay by Jara's lawyer and widow, who said they would appeal. driven underground or hounded into exile

During the dark times when internecine wars raged and dictators of various political stripes presided over much of Latin America, Argentine novelists, Brazilian progressive rock musicians, Salvadoran poets and many others suffered similar fates or were driven underground.

Even today, with many countries enjoying booming economies and relatively stable democracies, taking a stand on a political or social issue is a rarer, and dicier, act for Latin performers than for Hollywood stars or rock gods such as Bruce Springsteen or U2's Bono (though the Dixie Chicks might have a different idea).

Today's concerts are being staged by the nonprofit organization ALAS (America Latina en Accion Solidaria), which was founded a year and a half ago in Panama City. ALAS (the Spanish word means "wings") is the first Latin American organization to bring together so many prominent artists and financial impresarios behind a single cause, early childhood development assistance.

Jorge Ramos, the longtime anchor of Miami-based Noticiero Univision, the news division of the Univision television network, in a phone interview called ALAS "unprecedented" in Latin America.

"In the past, all these efforts to help the poor were very nationalistic, and male-dominated," Ramos said. ALAS is showing that "young people and artists" are uniting across national and ideological borders and "not expecting politicians to decide their future. They're taking control of their own future."

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