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As Latinx music climbs up the charts, it has increasingly become subject to miscategorisation in mainstream pop culture. Here, Rachel Grace Almeida considers the consequences, and how they affect Latinx people longing for representation.

The first time I saw a Latinx artist on MTV, it was a posthumous video of Selena’s Dreaming of You, released in 1995. I was only a child then, casually tuning in to the tribute coverage that my abuela was watching in the aftermath of her tragic murder. They played Amor Prohibido, Bidi Bidi Bom Bom, Como La Flor – all of her greatest hits. Suddenly, I found myself obsessed with an artist that sounded like me. I felt emboldened to speak my native Spanish at school – my English-speaking, white American school – and even dressed up like Selena for our Halloween fair, all because I saw her on national television. It changed the way I moved in the world.

“The way I moved my hips started to feel less like a point of contention and more like something I could be proud of”

Nine years later, I was 13 years old, and Daddy Yankee had just released Gasolina. At this point I was fully enthralled by mainstream pop culture, old enough to engage with the lyrics and aesthetics that all of my favourite artists churned out. Soon after, Latin music became more popular in the charts. Gasolina was a global hit and was playing everywhere you turned: supermarkets, adverts and even my school disco, an event usually reserved for bubblegum pop or unpopular country cuts. It was like my caucasian classmates located their waists for the first time – a welcome respite from the usual stiffness around me.

Seeing Latinx artists thrive in mainstream music gave me a voice. Seeing a Latinx artist single handedly usher in a new era for reggaeton and urbano, let alone make such an impact in pop music in general, validated my identity. Something as seemingly trivial as a song purely created for grinding reminded me that I’m not alone in my experiences. The way I moved my hips started to feel less like a point of contention and more like something I could be proud of.

In August, Rosalía won the award for Best Latin at the VMAs, alongside collaborator J Balvin, for their seismic reggaeton hit Con Altura. She made history as the first ever Catalan artist to win the award. It was a momentous and deserved win for an artist that has reshaped and redefined the pop landscape in the past year, introducing mainstream audiences to the folkloric high-drama of flamenco. But the award she took home was for the impudently- titled trophy – language already steeped in othering – not ‘Best White European’. This left a sour taste in many people’s mouth, including my own.

Of course, this wasn’t Rosalía’s fault as an individual. It points to a bigger problem within the top-dollar music industry and its inability to celebrate Spanish-language music without homogenising every single act into one category. An incapacity – or even aversion – to understand the nuances and variations of Latinx identities, and a complete dismissal of history. This not only feels like cultural erasure, but it’s ham-fisted ignorance to the fact Spain and Latin America share a language, but not a diaspora.

Still, Latinx music is seen as crossover culture rather than a definitive movement, only given its dues when an impact is made on Western audiences, fulfilling Western metrics of success (like award shows or mainstream media attention). It’s impossible to ignore the cultural and economic impact reggaeton, urbano, Latin trap and champeta has had on the music industry in the past two years alone. You only have to look as far as Despacito’s world domination – the track has been streamed over 4.6 billion times and counting. If mainstream culture wants to capitalise on our dembow, then they need to learn to distinguish it from white European music.

“Genuine representation matters, especially in a world that’s increasingly dangerous for ethnic minorities”

Spanish people don’t face the same oppression Latinx people do. Refusing to acknowledge their European identity is to deny their geographical and social privilege, their ability to move freely among 28 first-world countries without the immediate threat of violence or,
in many cases, death. It is to ignore the effects of Spanish colonisation of the Americas and the Caribbean, and the role it has played in Latinx underdevelopment. There aren’t entire Western political and media campaigns directly attacking their very identity, or questioning their very right to exist. There are no talks of building walls.

Genuine representation matters, especially in a world that’s increasingly dangerous for ethnic minorities. A music awards ceremony might not explicitly oppress Latinx people, but it does undermine the importance of our culture’s contribution to pop culture – especially when Latinxs have added so much to it. Recognition relieves the isolation of growing up in an environment that not only misunderstands our culture, but is also largely intolerant of it when it doesn’t benefit them. Now, in a moment when Latinx artists’ reach is truly global, and its cultural impact vibrates across the world, it’s time to question who really benefits – and who loses – from this snub.