MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We are celebrating Latino Heritage Month. It's the time of the year when we make a special effort to celebrate the accomplishments of Latino Americans. And just in time, People en Espanol magazine has released a new book called "Legends." It's a carefully crafted collection showcasing 100 20th-century icons from film and theater to dance and music who have influenced both Latino culture and mainstream America.
Joining us now is Nicole Raymond. She is the executive editor at People en Espanol and also NPR's own Felix Contreras. He specializes in coverage of jazz, world music, and Latino arts and culture. Welcome to you both.
FELIX CONTRERAS: Thank you.
Ms. NICOLE RAYMOND (Executive Editor, People en Espanol): Hi. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Nicole, at some point, I guess you had to decide for reasons of space and cost, because this is an expensively produced work, to limit it to 100 legends. How did you ever decide whom to include and whom to leave out? There must have been some knockdown dragouts about this in the editorial meetings.
Ms. RAYMOND: Of course. I mean, we had long, long discussions when we're putting together "Legends." And all the editors, we have different backgrounds. We have Cuban people, Mexicans, Chileans and Argentineans. So what it just kept coming back to was who are the most iconic entertainers - Hispanic entertainers - of the 20th century? And I think that was the criteria we used.
MARTIN: One of the first people you see when you open the book is a picture of a dreamy-eyed Desi Arnaz. That's a name and a voice everybody of a certain age will know, of course, of "I Love Lucy" fame. I want to play just a short clip of him in his role as Ricky Ricardo, who is Lucy's husband in the show.
(Soundbite of TV show "I Love Lucy")
Mr. DESI ARNAZ: (As Ricky Ricardo) Hello. Is Ralph Brady there? Will you please tell him to call Ricky Ricardo when he comes home? Ricky Ricardo. R-I-C-K. C. C, like in Cuba. No, no, no. Cuba. C-U-B-A. B. B, like in Barracuda.
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
MARTIN: So Felix, what makes Desi Arnaz such an iconic figure?
CONTRERAS: Well, I mean, his character - you kind of have to separate the Desi Arnaz, the television professional, and Ricky Ricardo, the character. As you heard, you know, they're having fun with his language, with his English, trying to speak the language, which he was - you know, the accent was a put on. He was much more fluent in English. So he was primarily known for putting out the Latino image on the television in that era.
You know, you got to remember that that show was number one for six years. The legend was that even crime went down when Lucy was on, when people watched - that many people watched it. So the character, the interracial marriage, the fact that he was a Latino bandleader, it was all very, very progressive back in that time.
MARTIN: The book points out that although maybe people think of him primarily as a performer, he was a very pioneering producer. He lobbied very hard when Lucy became pregnant in real life to show a pregnant woman on TV. The formatting - it was produced live before a live studio audience, which is something that he innovated. He was a very astute businessperson, which you point out in the book.
I also have to point out the format of the book. It's a beautiful photograph of each legend and also bilingual. Why?
Ms. RAYMOND: Bilingual, exactly. I mean, this is not a book just for Hispanics. It's for everybody that's interested in Hispanic culture. I think we have everything from Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth to telenovela stars like Veronica Castro. So I think it's a wide range of celebrities and stars.
MARTIN: And some of these people, I think, would be very well known to a wide range of people, like Desi Arnaz. But others, perhaps, less, like Sonia Braga. Very well known to some, perhaps not as well known to others, in part, maybe, because her films are considered very erotic or provocative. Why is she an icon?
Ms. RAYMOND: Probably a lot of people when they hear the name Sonia Braga, they just think of a sex symbol, and that's basically what she was. A great actress but also, you know, all this sensuality brought from Brazil. She exemplifies a lot of the journeys that several of these actresses have made. She started in telenovelas, as we know is kind of the soap operas of Latin America. And then after she made this film, "Dona Flor and her Two Husbands," she became well known in the film circuit. And that's how she came to the U.S. And then she did the "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and she became a star here, as well.
MARTIN: And she was also, maybe for people who aren't familiar with her film work, we have a short clip of her in "Sex and the City," where she played a lesbian artist in a relationship with the character of Samantha. Here it is.
(Soundbite of TV show "Sex and the City")
Ms. SONIA BRAGA: (As Maria) You let men come to your door like this in the middle of the night?
Ms. KIM CATTRALL: (As Samantha) Let it go. It's all in the past.
Ms. BRAGA: (As Maria) No! It's not in the past. It's serving his drinks. It's on the answering machine. He's at your door in the middle of the night.
Ms. CATTRALL: (As Samantha) All right. This might come as a shock to you, but I used to have sex with a man.
Ms. BRAGA: (As Maria) This man was here for nothing but sex.
Ms. CATTRALL: (As Samantha) Yes! Which I used to enjoy and haven't had much of since I got into this relationship.
Ms. BRAGA: (As Maria) You call this a relationship?
Ms. CATTRALL: (As Samantha) Well, it's tedious and the sex is dwindling, so from what I've heard, yes.
Ms. BRAGA: (As Maria) If you have something to say to me...
Ms. CATTRALL: (As Samantha) I want passion. I want fireworks! Do you want fireworks?
Ms. BRAGA: (As Maria) I'll show you fireworks!
MARTIN: Yes, that's "Sex and the City." There you have it. Felix, I think many Latina performers have struggled with this whole issue - the fiery, Latina sex bomb. It's something that they've sort of grappled with. Do they want to play with it? Do they want to push against it? Do you think that archetype is still with us?
CONTRERAS: To a certain extent, yeah. The roles that they get offered is still the sexpot, still the maid and all the stereotypical type of roles. And I think what some of these women have done is that they've taken control of that image. They've taken control of the sensuality and taken control of the sexuality and presented it in their own terms. Sonia Braga is a good example. I mean, it was kind of a sophisticated sultriness, and in fact, the sultriness from another culture which initially, you know, "Dona Flor" was part of the whole art house circuit. So it was a different audience, and then she eventually made her way into it and carried that sensuality into things, like, she had a very big role in "The Milagro Beanfield War," that Robert Redford made along with Ruben Blades. She was on the "Bill Cosby Show," a recurring role. So, she still had that dignity but she took control of that very early on and made it work for her, I think. And so have some of these other actresses.
MARTIN: Nicole mentioned the telenovelas. There are a number of stars here, again, who might be very familiar to some audiences, less so to others. Veronica Castro, we have a clip from one of her most famous soaps, "El Derecho De Nacer," which translates into The Right To be Born. She plays a single girl who gets pregnant. In this clip, she's refusing to tell her mother who got her pregnant. Let's play it.
(Soundbite of telenovela "El Derecho De Nacer" in Spanish)
MARTIN: So there you got it. You got the trademark. Crying, weeping.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FELIX: It was a telenovela.
Ms. RAYMOND: I mean, if there's something Veronica Castro knew how to do was to make people cry. I mean, she made the poor cry, the rich cry and even the Russians.
MARTIN: Pretty heavy topic, though, especially for the late '70s. I think - were the Spanish-language soap operas known for this, kind of really tackling these deep issues, or is this an aberration?
Ms. RAYMOND: No. I mean, telenovelas in general have always been very, very close to social issues, and I think that's one of the reasons why they have become so popular. And I mean, it's the main format of entertainment in Latin America these days.
CONTRERAS: And one of the things I did in researching another story about telenovelas is I found out there's a secondary market for telenovelas. They get dubbed into East European languages. They get dubbed into English for Australia and South Africa. A woman like Veronica Castro, you know, she's pretty in any language, so that's what helps market these things all over the world.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with NPR's Felix Contreras and Nicole Raymond. She's the executive editor of People en Espanol. We're talking about the new coffee-table book published by People en Espanol, "Legends." It's about 100 iconic Latino figures.
Talking about sort of the geographic diversity, I noticed a lot of Central American, Caribbean presence. Is there a question about whether there were enough South American names, or could you really not look at it that way? You couldn't really look at it for geographic diversity so much as sort of who the figure was.
Ms. RAYMOND: We tried to have a variety, and probably, I would have to say, the stars that have transcended Latin America, the boarders of Latin America in the U.S., have been mostly Mexican and I would say Dominican, especially here.
MARTIN: But you also have figures who are very important people, like Willie Colon, who's still well known, still doing his thing. Felix, what makes Willie such a unique performer?
CONTRERAS: Well, I thought the selection of Willie Colon was interesting because he's more popular on the East Coast with the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and less so with Mexicans out in the Southwest, at least as far as recent arrivals and in terms of the type of music he was playing. But I think that it's great that he was included because he was a musician that came of age in the early '70s, when salsa was becoming salsa, when the traditional African dance music was New Yorkified in a little bit of an attitude and getting updated, and he was one of the early musicians, one of the early people working in that field and really doing a lot of interesting things with it. So that some of the musical innovations he did, in terms of arrangements, in terms of the instrumentation, they had a reverberation that's still felt in pop music now.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And of course, we must bow to the Queen, the Queen of Salsa, Ms. Celia Cruz. Let's play a short clip from her. Here's a song from 1994 called "La Vida Es Un Carnaval," Life is a carnival. Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of song "La Vida Es Un Carnaval")
MARTIN: Felix, tell me about Celia Cruz.
CONTRERAS: First of all, that voice, I mean, it's a world treasure. It's a nice, deep, resonant voice, and she did so many wonderful things with it. And the thing that strikes me most about Celia Cruz is that she was loved - I mean, loved. People really like some of these other artists but people genuinely loved Celia Cruz. She was just a symbol for so many different people for so many different things.
MARTIN: Why is that?
CONTRERAS: If you saw her perform, you would know, even if you didn't speak a word of Spanish. I mean, she just delivered it as if she was just performing just for you. It was just such a powerful, powerful performance. She had one of the probably the most amazing instrument in salsa in Africano music. That voice is just amazing.
(Soundbite of song "La Vida Es Un Carnaval")
MARTIN: Nicole, I love the story that you tell in the book about how she took care of her voice, that she was very careful to avoid drugs and alcohol, which I think is a kind of an interesting message to say, look, you know, I know that they used to believe that a brandy or a Cognac was good for the throat but I've never liked it. So I said, no, no, no. I'll take care of my throat by myself.
Ms. RAYMOND: Oh, yeah. I mean, Celia was just unique, and she had that joy of living. That's what she communicated to the audience and that's why she was so beloved by everybody.
MARTIN: And of course, there are some folks in the book who had some fairly complicated life stories. I'm thinking about Rita Hayworth. She was a person who, I believe, at some point, felt she had hide her identity to avoid being typecast. She changed her name. She had cosmetic surgery. Nicole, can you tell us a little bit more about her? And was that at all complicated to include her because at times she didn't seem to necessarily embrace her heritage?
Ms. RAYMOND: It was not. I think that when you grow up in Latin American, I still remember my mother telling me, you know that Rita Hayworth was Hispanic? I mean, people were very proud that we had a Hollywood star, and to achieve that, unfortunately, she had to tone down her ethnicity. As you said, apparently she had plastic surgery on her nose. She changed her hairline. She changed her name. She took her mother's maiden name, it was Haworth, and she added the "y," and that's how she became a star. And I think a lot of people relate to the fact that sometimes having an accent or having a foreign last name, sometimes it doesn't help you. I think that has changed a lot in the last 20 years. But I think that people are still proud that there's one of them that was a Hollywood star.
MARTIN: And of course, there are actors like Rita Moreno, who we've had on the program, who has never hid her heritage, and she's still very productive, still working. She was a star, a feature performer in the CBS series, "Cane," last year. She was really a pioneer, Felix.
CONTRERAS: She was, indeed, a pioneer. One of the first, if not the first, to win an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony and an Emmy. Sometimes we tend to put our trailblazers on a pedestal and then not expect anything of them beyond what they've already done, and I think that we can still put Rita Moreno on this pedestal and respect and admire her for her trailblazing, but also admire her because she continues to work and continues to practice her craft.
MARTIN: The edition also includes some very current artists. There's Juanes, and of course, you have Shakira, and I don't know. Let's play a clip of Shakira for the eight people on this planet who have never heard of Shakira's song. Let's play a little bit.
(Soundbite of song "Whenever Wherever")
SHAKIRA: (Singing) Whenever, wherever, we'll learn to be together. I'll be there and you'll be near and that's the deal my dear. They're over, you're under, you'll never have to wonder. We can always play by ear but that's the deal my dear.
MARTIN: Nicole, now, come on, square business. Do you really think that Shakira and Thalia have done enough to be legends? Perhaps a little marketing hype there?
Ms. RAYMOND: I would say no, but I think that Shakira, first, she was a huge star in Latin America before coming to the U.S. She was beloved from Argentina to Mexico, and of course, starting from her home country Colombia. And what she did is unheard of. I would say she was the first female Hispanic singer that crossed over big time in the U.S., and I think that that's very, very - I mean, you can't ignore that.
And regarding Thalia, telenovelas are just really, really big with the Hispanic audience, and we cannot ignore her. I would say that after Veronica Castro and Lucia Mendez, she and Adela Noriega are the biggest telenovela stars of all time.
Ms. RAYMOND: Yes. Yes. I mean, she has her trilogy, the Marias, and it would stop traffic and life in Mexico and throughout Latin America.
MARTIN: What do you think about that, Felix? Are they legends?
CONTRERAS: The influence of these telenovelas are just staggering. I mean, people really don't understand it. You got to think about - they never repeat, so they have new shows, you know, 53, 52 weeks of the year, so these shows have to be there, and they just create the huge stars. I think, in the sense of Shakira and with Juanes, they accomplished so much within the Spanish-speaking market. And in particular, Juanes and Shakira, you know, they're politically active. They're working with orphanages, they're working with bombing victims, they're working with the victims of violence, they're working with all this stuff. You know, think about Bruce Springsteen. Think about some of these people who put their political message behind their music.
MARTIN: OK. Don't ask me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: So I want to ask each of you in just a minute or so that we have left, is there anybody that was left out that's just killing you? You're just thinking, oh, man, if I just had one or two more pages. Nicole?
Ms. RAYMOND: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Spoken like a real executive there. What about you, Felix?
CONTRERAS: Like you said, that editorial medium must have been a knockdown dragout because it's the tip of the iceberg.
MARTIN: Well, we'll have to leave it there. Nicole Raymond is the executive editor at People en Espanol. She joined us from our New York bureau. NPR's arts information reporter, Felix Contreras, joined us here in our Washington studio, and we must brag about Felix that his band, AfroBop Alliance, has been nominated for a Latin Grammy Award. Awards to be presented in November, so fingers crossed, everybody.
CONTRERAS: Thank you.
MARTIN: The new book, "Legends," is available in bookstores now. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
CONTRERAS: Thanks for having me.
Ms. RAYMOND: Thank you.
MARTIN: And for more books to celebrate Latino Heritage Month, Camila Alire, president-elect of the American Library Association, shared some of her favorite books with us. You can hear that conversation on our Web site and get the list of her top picks for adults and younger readers at the Tell Me More page of npr.org. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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