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Present state of Latino visibility

February 18, 2009|Reed Johnson

There's been an understandable amount of head-scratching and second-guessing in some quarters over the shortage of Latino and Latin American musical artists presenting trophies at the Grammys earlier this month.

Musically, CBS' 3 1/2 -hour broadcast on Feb. 8 reflected what Times pop critic Ann Powers called "the great wide mess of styles and sounds that fill the marketplace," including artists as dissimilar as Neil Diamond and Lil Wayne. But while Latino musicians were represented within that mishmash, they were noticeably absent from the presenters' ranks.

Should the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences -- or, for that matter, the Oscars or the Super Bowl halftime show -- be striving to include Latinos, in proportional numbers, in all aspects of their broadcasts?

It's a question, obviously, that cuts to the essence of how Americans perceive themselves and their popular culture in relation to equal opportunity and other weighty societal matters. Conventional wisdom holds that the era of ethnic- or sexuality-based identity politics ended somewhere between the crossover of hip-hop's influence to mainstream pop and Barack Obama's inaugural address.

But even if we've stepped into some glorious new era, it would be naive to think that Americans of various ethnicities have stopped scanning music, movies, TV shows and sporting events, searching for signifiers of their (hopefully) growing acceptance and social status.

When invited last week to comment about the Grammy telecast, the NARAS forwarded e-mail responses by academy President and CEO Neil Portnow to questions posed by Billboard magazine. Asked whether "the launch of the Latin Grammys had anything to do with the demise of Latin presence in the mainstream Grammy awards," Portnow said that, "There hasn't really been a 'demise' of Latin presence on the GRAMMY Awards."

"If anything," he wrote, "since the Latin GRAMMYs has been around the last 10 years, there have been more Latins on the telecast in the last 10 years as opposed to the 40 before that."

The recording academy's evenhanded response might not satisfy some Latin American and Latino music producers, promoters and label owners who questioned why not even one Latino musician was among last week's presenters.

But Julio Rumbaut, president of the Miami-based media and consulting firm Rumbaut & Co., said that "whether it be content in television, award shows, [the presidential] cabinet, academia, I think the days of someone making it on the basis of ethnic origin are over."

"Whether it be the Grammys or the Oscars or the Clios, I think it's based on talent and competency," he said. "But at the same time, the organization, the decision maker, would be smart [to] mix those groups in."

Interestingly, the Colombian rocker Juanes, a no-show at the Grammys, was back in the spotlight last Sunday, performing at the NBA All-Star Game's halftime show in Phoenix. Like the music industry, the NBA wants to keep growing its Latino and Latin American fan base, especially now that U.S. pro basketball has a number of Spanish-speaking stars to promote.

And that's telling. In the eyes of many TV and recording executives, Hollywood producers, sports marketers and advertising agents, "Latino" is increasingly denoting a cultural orientation as much as, or even more than, a language preference, let alone a skin tone (always a misleading criterion). The very concept of Latino embraces a fusion of languages, ethnicities and histories.

U.S. Latino culture is in an extremely dynamic period right now, continually redefining itself in relation to Latin America, the Spanish- and English-speaking United States and its own past (including the Chicano movement of the 1960s and '70s). That transformation is becoming more complex than just a question of the number of accented vowels in a surname, or the number of presenters on an award show.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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