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How Camila, Lauren, and Jessie Taught Me to Break the Rules Around Bicultural Identity

The rising pop stars are dissolving the boundaries that have trapped Latinx artists in a silo

By Kim Hoyos

I’m a first generation, fully American, fully Colombian woman, born in a cute New Jersey suburb. I’m a bicultural Latina who grew up separating my two cultures because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I wanted to make myself easier to understand for others. Growing up, my Latinx identity felt like something extra I didn’t know how to verbalize. At school, I had all of the same pop culture references, favorite foods, and language as my white peers. Yet my home was a beautiful blend of Spanglish, Colombian food, and Latinx music. My identity existed in silos. I compartmentalized my two identities for where they were most appropriate.

My feelings towards my identity were amplified by how “othered” Latinidad was in music and pop culture in the early 2000s. (Latin America is diverse, dynamic, and consists of a myriad of cultures, but “Latinidad” refers to the collective community of folks from Latin America.) It wasn’t like I couldn’t see parts of myself in music — by then, the careers of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira had already taken off. But even then, Latinx identity in music was not embraced as fully by the average American listener as it is now, the era of “Despacito,” one of the most-streamed songs of all time, and other Spanglish remixes on American airwaves. In fact, even though her hit 2001 record Laundry Service charted as high as No. 3 on the Billboard 200, Shakira’s writing and singing skills in English were chastised by critics. Genres had stricter divisions and cultural identities further separated Latinx and bicultural stars from their non-Latinx counterparts.

Billboard started to track the rankings of “Latin music” in 1985, just as Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine hit their stride with the indelible “Conga.” Selena Quintanilla, Marc Anthony, and Ricky Martin, and J.Lo soon followed as major bicultural power players for the so-called “Latin music” movement in the U.S. These artists created upbeat songs and love ballads occasionally sung in Spanish over Latinx-influenced instrumentals. But because of the identities of these performers, they were pooled into a singular bucket. They could have been included on the same Billboard charts, awards shows, and magazine covers of their pop peers — but they were othered. By that point, the Latinx population had grown by the millions since 1970 — and has continued to — and this changing population can also account for the shifting identity of the music fan and their tastes. But perhaps the industry wasn’t ready to critique music from other cultures or even acknowledge the power and influence these artists held over pop culture.

It would’ve been hard to fathom in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, particularly as a Latinx women, but being Latinx does not automatically assign you to an “othered” genre in which your accomplishments are specifically branded and geared toward one community. Latinx folks are not a single homogenous group. Our countries, foods, racial identities, specific cultures, slang, and interests are dynamic and diverse. So is our success.

Understanding the history of alienation of something as universally loved as music is difficult and confusing. A study of over 3,000 magazine covers across the U.S. and U.K. found that in 2017 only 6 percent of magazine covers surveyed from 2013-2017 featured a Latinx person. There hasn’t been a lack of talent, just a lack of inclusion. Thankfully, a new generation of pop stars have elevated the Latinx community in culture, helping each other along the way. Camila Cabello, Lauren Jauregui, and Jessie Reyez are just a portion of the new crop of bicultural Latina singers who have gained admiration and success not in spite of their dual identities but because of them. These young women speak candidly about their experiences growing up Latinx in the United States and are not seen as mere crossover artists: Their identity is the crossover.

As a child, Camila crossed the U.S. border with her mother, and she honors her roots by untangling memories and feelings to create art that unapologetically expresses her blended identity. Following her has made me feel confident that creating work surrounding my identity won’t alienate other audiences — it has the potential to grow past genre. The infectious “Havana,” for example, which Camila fought to release as a single, amassed a billion streams and earned her two Grammy nominations.

Her former Fifth Harmony bandmate Lauren won my heart and my allegiance when she came out as bisexual in a 2016 letter aimed at Donald Trump. I cried when I read it, as she broke down her sexuality and privilege as a white-passing Latina, something always on my own mind.

“I was born with a lighter complexion and green eyes (thanks genetics) so from that narrow-minded perspective, I'm white,” she explained. “I have experienced the privilege those genes have granted me, and I am grateful and will continue to speak on behalf of the women around the world and in our very own country who do not experience a fraction of that respect because of the color of their skin.”

Lauren has been able to organically embed activism into her public persona in a time where celebrities are either co-opting activism for good press or ignoring social issues altogether. From discussing BLM online to standing with immigrants rights organization United We Dream, she makes her voice heard.

Jessie, likewise, has used her platform to speak out, specifically against sexual misconduct in the music industry using her own experiences. Jessie’s decision to be outspoken about this experience, one that so many young singers on the rise could hide out of fear or embarrassment of backlash has actually allowed her to authentically be herself. The Canadian-born daughter of Colombian immigrants, didn’t learn English until she was five years old and has since featured on Eminem songs and racked up writing and singing creds on Calvin Harris bangers. Her music is defiant. When I listen to it, I feel like I run the world. Her music focuses on reclaiming sexuality, being true to yourself, and making your parents proud. On her first EP, she included a voicemail in Spanish left by grandparents on her birthday, a beautiful and relatable moment of a family missing milestones because of distance. But because of my own experiences, moments like these make me feel closer to her.

Compared to just 15 years ago, it is remarkable that all of these women are internationally-touring artists being given the same marketing pushes and stages as their white counterparts. They’ve all spoken openly about their backgrounds and have cultivated diverse fan bases, dissolving the boundaries that previously trapped Latinx artists in a silo. For a long time, I wanted to feel like I was following the rules, and to believe that, by compartmentalizing my own identity for the sake of others, I was doing the right thing. I thought it would make me more likeable or accepted by others to make myself smaller, more understandable. But I’ve realized that embracing all parts of my identity, especially in my career, is the only way I can truly be myself. Camila, Jessie, and Lauren are all women around my age who are breaking the rules as I learn how to do that as well. They’re blazing a path for more Latinx artists to rise in the U.S. music industry, for steps towards more diversity in pop culture, and for a better, broader understanding as to what being bicultural really means.