To the Critics: Why the Latinx Community Is So Excited for the Halftime Show
I still remember the first time I learned to be ashamed of my Latina identity. I was in the 4th grade in Mrs. Prevost class. She let me bring in my Gloria Estefan’s Greatest Hits cd to share with the class. I was so excited to play the music that I loved so much, that got me pumped and invited me to sashay around my bedroom, with my friends. Bright synchopated rhythms with English lyrics, so I could sing along with every word (though Spanish lyrics have never stopped me from singing along either). I was sure my ethusiasm would be shared by my fellow classmates.
As Gloria Estefan belted through our little classroom boombox, Mrs. Prevost suddenly stopped the music and folded her arms, looking furious. She scolded the class for making fun of the music and my enthusiasm. I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t even realized that some of my peers were mocking me. Mrs. Prevost returned the cd to me, and I remained in a solemn mood for the rest of the day. As I walked to my daycare’s transportation pick up location, I burst into tears. It was a formative moment. I learned that my Puerto Rican identity was not always welcome. That my love for Spanish music needed to be relegated to my own house and boombox. My judgment was called into question: this music, this culture, this identity, is it actually good? Have I been mistaken this whole time?
This week, I find myself called back to that moment, feeling like that little girl all over again in the wake of the SuperBowl halftime show. I don’t care for football, so the halftime show (and snacks) were my primary foci of the night. And the show was exhilirating! I sang along in English and Spanish to the songs that represented my Latinx brothers and sisters. I let out a “woop” when JLo revealed the Puerto Rican flag underneath the American one. I squealed with delight when Bad Bunny took the stage. I absolutely loved it. It was a beautiful, fun celebration and affirmation of the Latinx culture, and I was here for it.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by all the push back the show received. But like that 4th grader who was caught off guard by the disapproval of her peers, I was once again dumbfounded.
“Not kid friendly.”
These are just a few of the phrases I saw thrown around the Internet to describe this year’s halftime show. Honestly, I was heartbroken. Did we watch the same show? Did I miss something? I just didn’t understand.
I’ve had some time to think about it, and I have since come to the conclusion that it’s not I who missed something but the critics.
Why was the show so meaningful for Latino/as? Why are we so excited and energized?
Consider this: when we see hips shaking and thrusting, we don’t see a provocative invitation. We see a celebration. We see (and feel) joy. We see affirmation that our bodies are good, a vessel for enjoyment. Dancing is the visual and physical manifestation of the music. In the words of Gloria Estefan, “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and so we surrender. We are the final instrument in the band.
When I was middle school, I fought with my hair. This is not uncommon for many girls (and women), but I particulary struggled because my hair was voluminous and curly. Curly hair products were not as abundant as they are now. The current style for hair was straight and sleek a la Jennifer Anniston. Chi flat irons were a way of life. But to straighten all my hair took an hour. It was its own arm work out. I never saw myself represented. That is, until “Hips Don’t Lie” became a hit. And Shakira was everywhere. And suddenly, when I looked in the mirror, I no longer felt like Mia Thermopolis. I felt like Shakria. And I made peace with my hair.
Seeing Shakira perform is always a reminder of that affirmation. It is so meaningful to see the woman who helped me overcome my hair woes take a national stage, to see her confident and unapologetic, Lebanese and Colombian.
Many take issue with JLo’s pole dancing. I can appreciate the concern, but what Jennifer Lopez did at the SuperBowl would more likely fall under the category of contemporary pole dancing (Note: I am not a professional dancer, but I am a dance teacher, and I can tell the difference between the kind of dance found at a strip club and the kind peformed on an artist’s stage). It is a real art form, and it is incredible!! It takes strength and grace to do well, and Jenny from the block killed it.
Additionally, the fuss over the “appropriate-ness” of JLo and Shakira’s performance detracts from other key notes of the show. Children were placed in glowing cages, taking a stand about children in detention centers. JLo’s daughter singing “Born in the USA” along with her mother’s feathered cape was a reminder that Puerto Rico is a part of the US. Shakira’s “tongue waggling” is actually an Arab expression of joy called a zaghrouta. And in case we forgot, Shakria showed us the full scope of her talent as a singer, dancer, and musician when she played her guitar AND drums. Bad Bunny is not only an incredible artist but an activisit who participated in protests against corruption in the Puerto Rican government and regularly challenges machismo culture in his music. What was 2019 without J. Balvin? Demi Lovato, overcoming struggles with addiction and mental illness, fulfilled her dream of singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. And of course, our beloved headliners are both middle age mamas, boldly proclaiming that celebration is ageless.
So basically, there was a lot to be excited about.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see ON YOUR FEET!, the musical about the life and music of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. I knew it would likely be a good show with fun energy. But nothing could prepare me for how good it was. As the show reached it’s final number, I was powerless to hold back my tears. I sobbed. For awhile. It was more than just a beautiful story about the tremendous impact of music and overcoming tragedy. The musical answered a question I hadn’t realized my heart had been asking since the 4th grade: Is my Latinx culture, identity, and music good? Is this worth being excited about?
The answer was a resouding “¡Sí!”
In writing this, I know I will not change the minds of many. And that’s ok. But I do hope to illuminate the significance of Shak and JLo’s performance for the Latinx family, both communally and personally. In the spirit of Latinx hospitatlity, I’d like to extend an invitation to the celebration because I know what we have to offer is good. When my muscles tremble as I work out, I think of my hermanas and breathe a prayer, “My body is good.” When I feel frustrated and unheard, I blast my music loud in the car and belt out, “Vivir Mi Vida,” so my voice has a place. And when life disappointments me, I dance some salsa and remember that set backs are really just steps back, but the step forward always comes, my hips and smile ready.