Every weekend, 21-year-old Jovan Flores drives his black Volkswagen Jetta-with oversize, shining chrome tailpipe-from his house in Norwalk, Connecticut, to the tony town of Ridgefield. On this particular Saturday, with hip hop bleeding from his tinted windows, Flores is driving to the town's new skate park to meet some of his clients-30 little white boys who are learning to be just like him.
Flores, known as Face in hip hop circles, is one of the premiere break dancers in the New York area. In its second coming, the nationwide break dancing charge is being led by Latino youth. Flores, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, teaches break dancing to Ridgefield teens with the help of his friends Juni from Chile, Hydro from Colombia, and Double, an Anglo from Connecticut.
"When you're Latin, you're taught to dance differently because of the different rhythms," says Guillermo Perez, a 19-year-old trend watcher from San Francisco who's seen Latin-style break dancing spread to the West Coast. "There's different hip movement, different leg movement. You're moving so much that it's easy to just throw yourself on the floor and continue."
As Flores cruises into the Ridgefield skate park, it's easy to spot the nervous looks on the faces of many of the adults observing the scene. Clearly, the kids feel differently about his arrival.
"Face!" they yell, gathering around and practically breathing him in, molecule by molecule. Like Face, they wear their baseball caps turned backward, plus beaded necklaces, Esco and Puma shirts, and big Nikes.
In Ridgefield and across the country, it's not just dancing the white kids are picking up on. Young Latinos like Flores and his crew are redefining the way teens talk, walk, and dress.
"The music I used to listen to was lame," says 14-year-old Matt. "I listened to what was on MTV. I was into rock-Metallica, Rage Against the Machine." Now he and his friends prefer Nas, the rapper who endorses the hugely popular Latin-flavored Esco clothing line. "My mom was like, 'Don't get too much into that rap stuff.' But we break it out."
One 19-year-old of Norwegian extraction searches a mix tape for "that Mexican thing"-a song peppered with horn blasts. Another boy, wearing a colorful, South American-style woven hat, practices his head spin.
Flores shakes his head and smiles at the Spanish slang like "moms" and "pops" that colors his students' vocabulary. "If you talk to them now, you'd think they were one of us," he says, shrugging. "And the transformation only took six months."
According to Juan Faura of Cheskin Research, it was just a matter of time before Latino youth began to change the mainstream cultural landscape. "I've been screaming my head off for quite a while that Hispanic teens are the future of marketing," says Faura, director of transcultural research for the California-based market research company. Currently 4.3 million strong, Hispanic youth ages 12 to 19 account for more than 14 percent of the total Hispanic population in the United States, and 13.6 percent of all teens. By the year 2020, the number of Hispanic teens will grow by 62 percent, according to Census Bureau projections, to 7 million, compared with a 10 percent growth in the number of teens overall.
When it comes to spending money, Hispanic teens don't hold back. They blow an average of $320 a month, 4 percent more than the average teen does, according to Teenage Research Unlimited. Overall teen spending was a whopping $141 billion in 1998, and Hispanics contributed $19 billion, or 13.4 percent of the total.
Already, because of their growing numbers, Latino teens are no longer a minority group in some areas of the country. "They don't view themselves as minorities, so their influences kind of rule the school," says Faura. "They're saying, 'You know, there are a lot of us here.' So they're mainstreaming their customs."
In fact, by 2005, Hispanic youth will be the largest ethnic youth population in the country. And the trend will only keep growing. By 2001, 18 percent of all babies born in the United States will be of Hispanic origin.
Even slow-to-change, whitewashed places like Hollywood are beginning to acknowledge the existence of the Latino community-at least when it comes to how much they spend on entertainment. According to a recent report by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, California, Latinos spend 6.5 percent of their entertainment budget on movies, theater, opera, and ballet, compared with 4.7 for Caucasians. That economic power is finally beginning to translate into starring roles for young Latino actors, although the gains are still relatively small. A May report by the Screen Actors Guild on Latino employment in Hollywood found that the number of film and television acting jobs going to Hispanics has actually declined since 1997. But it's no longer acceptable for someone like Madonna to play a famous Latina on screen, like she did in Evita just three years ago.
Though she wanted the role of Frida Kahlo in the upcoming film on the fabled painter's life, Madonna lost the part to Salma Hayek, who is also starring in one of the summer's biggest releases, Wild, Wild West. And Broadway star John Leguizamo, whose one-man show Freak! drew thousands of Latino and Anglo fans, has a starring role in Spike Lee's summer blockbuster, Summer of Sam. Hayek and Leguizamo are further proof to Latino kids that they are part of the big picture and part of the mainstream.
That's a far cry from just a few decades ago, when Puerto Rican Americans like Cristina Benitez were barely accepted in peer groups. "People wouldn't know where I was coming from," says Benitez, now president of Lazos Latinos, a Hispanic marketing company. "They expected Puerto Ricans to have greasy hair and be slashing people's tires."
Anglo kids these days are much more accepting of multicultural ethnic groups. In a recent survey, 53 percent of teens said they have at least one close friend who is of a different race or ethnic group. Benitez credits increased communication and easier travel with helping Latinos hold on to their cultural heritage. "We're free to bring information over and enjoy it more than when I was a kid," Benitez says.
That information and the customs that translate along with it are not only acceptable to Anglo teens, but are now appealing to those in search of some cultural identity. An identity that may not necessarily be their own. The latest installment of MTV's cinema verite soap opera Road Rules, for instance, features six Gen-Y kids driving around Central America in a Fleetwood RV-dubbed "The Woodie"-decorated with Mexican tiles, a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and rosary beads. They even have a Chihuahua along for the ride.
Trend analysts like Marian Salzman, head of the Brand Futures group at Young & Rubicam, have been predicting for the past year that American teens in general are putting a premium on refurbished culture. They're also in search of spirituality, stronger family ties, and a splash of color in their lives-three things that Latino youth culture already embrace.
"One of the reasons Latino culture is crossing over is because it's based on family values," says Benitez. "This is what the country is hungry for. What it's dying for. The stabilization of the home. But at the same time, the culture is fun and infused with emotion. You can have fun with your family-God, what a concept!"
Like most large cultural waves, the music is the first to break through. In the 1940s, for instance, it was Desi Arnaz and Carmen Miranda who made it cool to be Hispanic.
"What's going to be real hot is the emergence of Latino music," says LaRon Batchelor, a partner at Starpower, which leverages brand power for corporate and entertainment properties. "It always begins with the music."
Ricky Martin, the former Menudo member and General Hospital star who stole the Grammy awards show this year with his Spanglish performance, and whose video, "Livin' La Vida Loca," is in the Buzz bin on MTV, is becoming the crossover king. In May, he made the cover of Time magazine, when the English version of his album was released and a new duet with Madonna just hit the airwaves.
"Ricky Martin blew everyone away at the Grammys," says Perez of San Francisco, who has worked on Levi's trend advisory panel. "When they scanned the audience, I swore I saw Puff Daddy sitting there, thinking, 'Oh no. What am I going to do now?'"
Martin is just the tip of the iceberg for Latino music, says Batchelor. Party crews in northern California, young Latin trendsetters who deejay, are often brought in by white kids who want to "have a really tight party," says Faura.
Rappers like Big Pun, the first Latino hip hop artist to go platinum, and C-Note, the new boy-group, are on their turntables. Both of Julio Iglesias' young sons are starting to cross over, as is Selena's brother, A.B. Quintanilla, who just came out with a hip hop-tinged album. Then there's Marc Anthony, the new Menudo, and Chayanne, who are all appealing not only to Latino teens, but to the Anglos as well.
"I believe it'll catch on," says Batchelor of the trend. "Latino music is a music of passion."
Helping to spread the Latino beat is the variety of musical styles available. If you don't like one style, you're bound to like another that suits your tastes. In Southern California, mariachi, banda, and norteno music rule. Cumbia sounds-like tejano, which uses polka beats and accordion-are hot in Texas. But in Miami, Caribbean salsa is big. New York's clubs play a mix of merengue from the Dominican Republic and rock en espanol, not to mention hip hop.
"It's absolutely happening," says John "Gungie" Rivera, New York's biggest Latin party promoter. "It's just cool now. Common sense tells you with so many Latinos in the world and in the U.S., it was bound to happen."
He not only sees Anglos crowding the dance floors of the Conga Room and the Latin Quarter, but fighting for reservations to restaurants like Patria in New York, Topo La Bamba in Chicago, and Cha Cha Cha in Los Angeles. Latin food has always been popular in the United States, but now it's ultra-trendy. Latinos and Latino wannabes alike can be found washing down their fancy $14 lobster-filled empanadas with expensive tequilas and the newest round of imported beers.
In fact, Mexican beer is the fastest-growing import category in the beer industry, says Benitez. "Corona was just leading the way," she says. The newest addition to the market is a beer called Tequiza, which includes the tequila base, agave, and is being marketed by the grandaddy of all brewers, Anheuser-Busch.
Following on the heels of the Latin beat is Latin-influenced fashion. Willie Escobar Montanez, a New York City-based Latino designer, believes that designers like Tommy Hilfiger oversaturated the urban black line. "People are looking for a fresh look from hip hop," he says, "like the Latin look. Our voice is out there now."
Escobar Montanez has added guayabera shirts to his Esco line this year. The boxy, short-sleeved, lightweight shirts were once only popular with old Cuban men because they're extremely comfortable and because of the big breast pocket, perfect for storing cigars. But now kids everywhere, from Miami's South Beach to New York's hip Lower East Side, are sporting the shirts.
Esco isn't the only company making money from the traditional guayabera. In Los Angeles, a young designer named Mario Melendez is making a killing. And down in South Florida, Rene La Villa of Miami Cool Wear has seen his 20-year guayabera business spike by nearly 25 percent in the past two years. Over the Internet, La Villa sells mostly to Anglos. "The guayabera is cool," he says.
Even Donna Karan has added the shirt to her line for women, retailing at a not-so-cool $95.
Other Latin-influenced fashions include baseball shirts with the number 77 printed on them -the former area code for Puerto Rico, explains Escobar Montanez. "The Latin customer immediately identifies with it," he says. "They're not scared of putting something on the garment that says, 'I'm Puerto Rican.' We're no longer refugees."
Straw hats are cropping up in the showrooms of Versace, Dolce and Gabana, and even the Gap. And Che Guevara T-shirts are showing up on college campuses, making the revolutionary the newer, hipper Malcolm X, says one trend watcher.
On the feminine side, embroidered clothes are all the rage. At the national chain retailers Urban Outfitters and Bebe, the Latin theme is big this summer. "I have a friend who works at Bebe who said, 'I think they hired me because I'm Mexican,'" laughs Perez. "I told her, 'Honey, you got that stuff in your closet already.'"
Tighter-fitting, Jennifer Lopez-inspired dresses and pants are also hitting the runways, says Christy Haubegger, president and publisher of Latina magazine. "You're seeing different body types, curvier body types that don't look like Kate Moss," she says. Body art like henna tattoos also started with the Latina culture, as did long, brightly colored, airbrushed nails. "Nail art is moving into the Midwest," says Haubegger. "We did that years ago."
Strong eye make-up, darker lined lips, and liquid eyeliner are other fashion trends that are crossing over from the Latina community. "Latinas never stopped using liquid eyeliner," boasts Haubegger. "But now it's like, 'Oh wow! Gwyneth Paltrow is doing it.'"
Hispanic girls spend 60 percent more on make-up than all female teens; 50 percent more on acne products; and more than twice as much on hair products. That's a lot of eyeliner.
Clothes and makeup aren't the only aspects of the culture that white girls are embracing. From the upscale town of Weehawken, New Jersey, to the more laid-back streets of San Francisco, young Anglo girls can be seen doing the Rosie Perez head wag, talking Spanglish, and smoking Newport cigarettes-a Latino brand of choice.
"They talk fast and wag their head," says Perez (Guillermo, not Rosie). "Half the time, I'm like, 'Girl, what are you saying?'"
Though some companies, like Anheuser-Busch and DKNY, are already riding the Latino wave, many more are still ignorant of the hip crossover trends, barely even marketing to Latinos themselves, let alone the wannabes, says Faura. They've ignored the fact that the Hispanic population is 30 million strong and is growing four times faster than the general population. Projected Hispanic buying power has increased by 67 percent since 1990, to $356 billion.
"Marketers have to understand that the new majority is going to be people of color," says Salzman of Young & Rubicam. "The new minority is going to be your white, 'all-American' kind of kid."
"The sooner the corporations catch wind of it, the better," says Phil Colon, marketing and sales director of Urban Latino magazine. "Companies who are behind the curve on this thing might just miss it." A Tommy Hilfiger-like fashion explosion drawing on Latino trends is in America's forecast, says Colon. He believes using the Hispanic community to sell to the wider Anglo audience is inevitable, and a very smart move.
Because the Latin community is so brand loyal, marketing to them pays off in more than just the crossover connection. Once you solidify your support in the Latin community, you have it for years, says Faura. "If you can connect, you've got consumers for life."
However, reaching the target-the young Latin community and their Anglo wannabes-calls for some alternative advertising. "Companies have to start using more nonconventional means," says Colon. "Kids are not hanging out in front of the television. They're not home. They're playing ball or are outside hanging out. Television is not the medium to reach youth. It never was and never will be."
Instead, radio, billboards, stickers, and bus wrapping are both effective and cost-effective, he says.
Faura agrees that marketing to a mass audience using Latino youth culture is not only inevitable but could be hugely successful-more successful than even the recent African American hip hop crossover. "Part of being Hispanic is being authentic and real," says Faura. "There's the soul of it. And if you can capture that in your fashions and in the way you position them, you'll make a bigger splash than Tommy Hilfiger did."
In some ways, it may be harder to market the Latino look than it was the hip hop trend because of the diversity inherent in the Latin culture.
"It's hard to capture the essence of Hispanic teens in one product in terms of clothing and music," explains Angelo Figueroa, editor of the fast-growing People en Espanol, whose circulation rose 25 percent from 1998 to 1999. "Hispanic teens are culturally all very, very different, unlike African American teens in the U.S. who are basically listening to the same kind of music. You have to walk this fine line to make sure it appeals equally to all these groups."
But, he says, branding from Latino trends is not impossible. Just a lot more tricky. Because the population is so huge and is home grown, the ultimate crossover appeal of Latino teen culture could be wider and even more hard hitting than any cultural crossover in the past.
"It'll be harder to do," says Colon, "but the rewards are a lot bigger."