Opinion: Ricky Martin’s long career is a lesson in survival

Martin’s performance on normalized sexuality, filled with a hip-shaking pioneered by Elvis Presley 40 years prior, had roots in Menudo, the teenage pop group he played in during their huge international pop success of the 1980s. Like Menudo, he popularized music that had few “Latin” elements other than her dancing and the fact that she was often sung in Spanish by a Latin American singer. And like Menudo, his stardom hid something beneath the surface.
“Ricky, from the start, he was the golden kid,” former Menudo member Ray Acevedo said in episode two of “Menudo: Forever young,which recently premiered on HBOMax (which shares a parent company with CNN, and in which I appear briefly as a reporter/commentator). Martin, who was 12 when he joined Menudo, appeared when the group began making line-up changes, apparently because as they got older their voices changed, rendering them unable to hit the high notes required by the songs in their repertoire. But the documentary series implies that these changes were part of of how the band’s manager, Edgardo Díaz, exercised undue control over the band by making everyone replaceable.
The recent harassment allegations against Martin, made by his 21-year-old nephew and dropped on Thursday, seem strange and unfortunate alongside the debut of “Menudo: Forever Young,” which is a cautionary, hard-to-watch tale that seems stuck in time but still resonates today. Using interviews with former members of Menudo – but notably not including Martin himself – and others associated with the band’s history, the series celebrates its triumphs while laying bare a series of sordid scandals reminiscent of in some respects the recent exposes on R. Kelly and Jeffrey. Epstein. The use of damaged stock footage, which is blurry and distorted as if playing on a cheap VCR, effectively underscores the pathos of these stories.

Martin and Menudo’s breakthroughs have a lot to do with the invisibility and misunderstanding of Latin cultures in the United States and Latin America. They were presented as fresh, innocent young faces to counter gangster stereotypes of poor urban Latinos living on the margins of society. While Menudo’s staggering material success paved the way for the boy group model used by *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men and today’s reigning K-Pop titans BTS, it was partly made possible by an entertainment medium that largely ignored the international projection of classic salsa and pop of the 1970s and 1980s.

Menudo’s manager, Díaz, is exposed early on as an infamous and ruthless leader, profiting liberally from a marketing concept designed to capture an “international youth culture” and its desirable market of teens and tweens. According the documentary series, his control over the group increased as he awarded contracts to new members. This allowed him to keep the members younger and more vulnerable to his methods of exploitation and, in some cases, according to the documentary’s allegations, to sexual desires.
As the series notes, Díaz did not respond to requests for an interview or comment on the documentary’s allegations. After former Menudo member Roy Rosselló accused Díaz of sexual abuse in 2014, Díaz released a statement that said“I’m not going to spend the rest of my life defending myself and responding to allegations. You only have one life, and I live in peace.”
The third episode, titled “The Allegations”, is the most gripping of the series, as it documents how accusations from former Menudo members began to surface, as well as the crackdown on those allegations. When members like Ralphy Rodríguez agreed to appear on the Puerto Rican Reporter Carmen Jovet’s talk show, Puerto Rican police arrived to shut it down. The documentary suggests this may have happened because Díaz had ties to powerful Puerto Rican elites. The show finally went on, a few days later, without Díaz, who declined Jovet’s invitation. Shortly after, Díaz appeared on At Cristina Saralegui’s Miami-based show on Univision, which allowed him to deny any wrongdoing and showcase his new take on Menudo to suggest former members were motivated by money.

Martin’s career has served to transcend this scandal much more effectively than Menudo de Díaz’s new version. He went from Broadway to being among the Latin pols who denounced Díaz, although the HBOMax special only mentions that he spoke about the harsh working conditions and not the sexual abuse.

By come out gay in 2010Martin helped a Puerto Rico, deeply Catholic, is accepting and accepting of LGBTQ people. He dealt a blow to entrenched machismo by normalizing his marriage to Swedish-born Syrian painter Jwan Yosef, having children and continuing to record hit albums. While homophobia and transphobia still exist in Puerto Rico, it’s hard to imagine the success of the megastar reggaetón rapper bad bunny — making his film debut with Brad Pitt in “Bullet Train,” which officially opens Aug. 5 — who often appears in gender-ambiguous clothing, without the anti-machista precedent set by Ricky Martin.

Yet, as “Menudo: Forever Young” reminds us, healing is a process shared by individual victims and society as a whole. Machismo still runs rampant in Latinx communities, and its foundations of domination and exploitation must be banished to see this process through. Menudo’s prescient boy band formula not only created a new musical genre, but also helped put Puerto Ricans and young Latin Americans on the entertainment media map. Despite the dark melodrama created by his manager, a montage at the end of the series depicts successful former members of Menudo, proving for the moment that it is not only possible to survive sexual abuse, but that the process can be positive and rewarding.

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