June 19, 2002




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Tongue ties

GREGORIO CORTEZ, a Mexican farmhand born on a Matamoros ranch, didn't speak any English. T.T. Morris, a Texas sheriff with a Mexican problem, didn't speak any Spanish. When the two met for the first time in 1901 – north of the border, in Karnes County – they didn't understand each other. Morris brought along a translator to help him accuse Cortez of stealing a horse. The translator got some words wrong, so when Cortez pleaded his innocence, Morris heard his guilt. Morris ended up dead, Cortez ended up an outlaw hero, and one of Latin music's first great pop songs, "El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez," was born.

The making and marketing of Latin music in the United States has never gotten past the dilemma that the Cortez saga has come to represent. If either Morris or Cortez had spoken the language of the other, there might never have been a song that over time would become not just something sung around campfires to entertain vaqueros during lonely south Texas summer nights but also an identity anthem, a Mexican American call for justice in a country that seemed bent on keeping them down.

The idea that Spanish is for Latinos and English is not, however not true that is on the ground of American cultural life, has given the Latin music industry in the United States its own sense of self and, most important, its own market. The pretense of untranslatability – that in the 21st century Cortez still doesn't speak English, Morris still doesn't speak Spanish, and a bilingual intermediary will still get lost in the translation – is the comfy, budget-padding myth that helps the Latin music industry be what it is: an economic powerhouse built on the linguistic and cultural singularity of U.S. Latinos.

But Cortez and Morris were nowhere to be found at this year's American Latino Media Arts Awards, a ceremony designed to celebrate U.S. Latino arts achievements that painted a far more complicated linguistic portrait. The show opened with blond Spanish-language pop goddess Paulina Rubio doing her new English-language single, "Don't Say Goodbye" (which sounds like Kylie Minogue) while running around the stage with a troupe of writhing dancers (which was very Britney). The routine replicated the song's glossy sci-fi video produced by the Brothers Strause, directors who have kept the Chili Peppers current and put Linkin Park on the MTV map. Rubio, who's from Mexico City, has called the English-language album the song appears on Border Girl. And she knows full well just which border it is: not the U.S.-Mexico border that brought Cortez and Morris to a head, but the border of language, the border of markets.

Security shouldn't be as tight for Rubio's border crossing. Shakira's already got TRL singing along with her forced English in Herb Ritts-directed videos, and both Univision and Telemundo have created spin-off youth networks that dabble in bilingualism. Even Chilean singer Nicole speaks English throughout the promotional press video sent out by her Madonna-owned label, Maverick Musica. Her stylized new album, Viaje infinito – her first to be released stateside – takes all the pop poise of Latin fave Laura Pausini and filters it through enough flute-laced Jamiroquai sessions to make it remix-ready for another Ibiza summer.

But for the rest of the ALMA Awards, the real story was the other crossover – the ways that border is being crossed in the opposite direction. R&B singer Mya sat in with Chile's La Ley and dropped verses and choruses in Spanish on "El Duelo," and in the night's best moment, Portuguese-Canadian alt-popper Nelly Furtado gracefully crooned in Spanish on an emotional duet with Colombia's Juanes. Furtado allegedly sought Juanes out herself and insisted on learning enough Spanish to sing in it. The song, "Fotografia," is the highlight of Juanes's Un día normal, and both on record and onstage Furtado flows through her new language like she's been speaking it for years.

Nelly's and Mya's trips into Spanish-language pop have already been seconded by Puerto Rican pop prince Luis Fonsi and N'Sync's Joey Fatone. The two used to be in an English-language pop group together, and now Fatone has directed the video for Fonsi's "Amor secreto," which comes in both Spanish and English versions, the latter debuting, of all places, on Nickelodeon. Of course, Fatone's done Spanish before: 'N Sync performed in Spanish at the first Latin Grammy Awards, and on the CD single for "Girlfriend" they included a Spanish take on "Gone."

Because the ALMA Awards took place the same week the New York Times began scolding George W. Bush for losing political interest in the Latin American countries he began courting so vigorously earlier in the year (Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil), the performances felt like pop culture's unwitting answer to a dropped political ball. At least for one night, typical Latin American interest in the United States was outdone by north-of-the-border interest in fitting in with Latinos (and benefiting from their expanding consumer markets). It might have been Sheriff Morris's worst nightmare, but it would have saved his life.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.