Not a Cross-Over Act: The Pop Stardom of Camila Cabello
Nathan Rossi / University of Texas at Austin

Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ recent duet “Señorita” has been inescapable all summer.

In summer 2019, Cuban-Mexican American pop star Camila Cabello has released two collaborations that have relied on tropical imagery. [ ((Here, I use “tropical” in reference to what Frances Aparacio and Susana Chávez-Silverman (1997) have conceptualized as tropicalism, or the “system of ideological fictions with which the dominant (Anglo and European) cultures trope Latin American and U.S. Latino/a identities and cultures.” See Aparicio, Frances and Susana Chávez-Silverman. “Introduction.” In Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad, edited by Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman. Hanover: Dartmouth/University Press of New England, 1997, pg. 1))] The stronger of the two releases is “Señorita” with Shawn Mendes, which tells the story of a passionate summer fling in Miami. She also joined Ed Sheeran and Cardi B on his track “South of the Border,” in which Sheeran (in white male gaze mode) sings of lusting after the “caramel thighs” of a Latina lover in a locale outside of Buenos Aires. Cabello’s embrace of cliché Latinidad signifiers act as a performance of what Myra Mendible has called “unambiguous self-tropicalization,” or the binding of a Latina femininity to an exotic otherness that can result in “imbuing Latinidad with a fixed set of traits, values, and images.” [ ((Mendible, Myra. “Introduction: Embodying Latinidad.” In From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, edited by Myra Mendible. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pg 3.))] However, as Mendible notes, self-tropicalization can potentially be subversive. Indeed, Cabello’s use of tropical imagery can be seen as a strategic tactic to differentiate herself in the pop landscape, while also enabling her to build a platform to politically embrace her Latina and immigrant identity in a particularly heated moment of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.

Cabello’s debut single “Crying in the Club,” co-written by Sia, [ ((“Crying” perhaps sounded too similar to Sia’s own past Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit “Cheap Thrills” featuring Sean Paul))] was released in April 2017. The single underperformed and failed to match the success of her initial collaborations as a solo artist. Cabello’s next two singles were released simultaneously on August 3, 2017: “OMG” featuring Quavo and “Havana” featuring Young Thug. Each distinctive in sound, the release acted as an A/B test, leaving fans and potential new listeners to choose which version of Cabello they liked best. Critics were quick to point out the differences in the tracks. Billboard thought the later radiated a “Latin flare,” MTV UK noted the “sultry Latin” influence of “Havana,” and Idolator went so far as to name it the stand out track of the two thanks to its “sultry Cuban rhythms.” Based on streaming counts, “OMG” debuted higher on the charts, only to be quickly outpaced by “Havana.” Cabello has noted in interviews, she had to fight for her record label to release the song after they initially wanted to push trap inspired “OMG” as her next single after the failure of “Crying in the Club.”

“Havana” became Cabello’s breakout single as a lead artist.

“Havana” relies on what producer Frank Dukes describes as a “seesawing, Latin-inspired piano loop” that he created after Cabello stressed the importance of bringing her Cuban-American identity into the music. The resulting single, worked on by 10 songwriters, is simple, yet catchy. Other than the use of the word “malo” and the theme of Cabello being in love with a man from East Atlanta, while her heart is in Havana, the song relies on the singer’s charismatic vocal performance, rather than any deep lyrical insights to Cubana, Latina or immigrant identity. As songwriter Ali Tamposi has suggested, after the loop had been constructed the songwriting team wrote the chorus quickly and used East Atlanta as a counter destination simply because it rhymed with Havana and opened an obvious opportunity to invite a guest rapper onto the track.

Camila Cabello previews Havana the Movie on Instagram
Camila Cabello previews “Havana the Movie” on her Instagram feed.

The packaging of “Havana” from its countdown to being released, to the debut of its music video, presented as “Havana the Movie,” combined the imagery of the Good Neighbor Policy era of apolitical classical Hollywood films set in Latin America with the tropes of a telenovela. In other words, they presented the audience with familiar signifiers of Latinidad. Put another way, while “Havana” might invoke specific romanticized images of the Cuban capital, the music video also uses more general imagery of Latinidad to make the song and visuals more accessible to a larger audience. Either way, Cabello’s producers, management team, and friends have suggested the performance and packaging of the song lend authenticity to her Latina identity.

So far peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Señorita” similarly capitalizes on the use of vague tropicalism in its lyrics and video. Mendes sings about his instant attraction to a Latina love interest whom he dances with under a “tequila sunrise” in Miami, with its “hot air from summer rain.” The song’s more important allure, however, may be how it fuels rumors of a relationship between the young pop stars. Indeed, Cabello’s verse and the duo’s chemistry in the music video suggest that the two are dating in real life. Consequently, like “Havana,” her latest single presents a Latinidad that exudes tropical signifiers as the background to a sensual romance.

Cabello’s commercial Latinidad might signal to some an example of how media industries package safe non-threatening panethnic Latina images to U.S. and international audiences, but it also signals a greater acceptance of Latinas in the U.S. pop music landscape. Although Cabello has what Arlene Dávila has described as the Latin Look most desired by media executives: dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and European facial features, [ ((Dávila, Arlene. Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.))] one of the most significant qualities of her rise to stardom is that, unlike the generation of Latinx and Latin American stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that scholars Mary Beltrán and María Elena Cepeda have chronicled and that had their success measured by their ability to “cross-over” to the U.S. market [ ((See Beltrán, Mary. “The Hollywood Latina Body as Site of Social Struggle: Media Constructions of Stardom and Jennifer Lopez’s ‘Cross-Over Butt.'” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 19 (1), 2002, pgs.71-86. and Cepeda, María Elena. Musical ImagiNation: U.S.-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom. New York: New York University Press, 2010.))], Cabello has never been marketed as a cross-over act and has, instead, been embraced as a U.S. Latina pop star. Further, unlike the generation of pop singers before her, like Mexican American stars Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato who have historically refrained from centering their Latin roots, Cabello has always embraced her Cuban-Mexican heritage. Indeed, the chart success of “Havana” and “Señorita” suggests that audiences and fans have welcomed her performance of Latinidad.

While part of this is due to the fact that Cabello was a known entity before her solo career as a member of girl group, Fifth Harmony, her success as a solo star was never guaranteed. It did, however, open up different ways for the media to characterize Cabello’s success. Cover stories and newspaper articles have most commonly characterized the release of “Havana” and her subsequent debut album Camila, as Cabello “finding her voice,” “creating herself,” and becoming pop’s latest “breakthrough.” If Fifth Harmony was manufactured pop, Cabello the solo artist is authentic and real. While part of the authenticity narrative centered Cabello’s Latina identity, it also centered her story as uniquely American.

Camila shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram
Camila Cabello shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram.

A June 2018 feature story in Rolling Stone titled “Camila Cabello’s American Dream” is indicative of how the star and mainstream press have constructed her narrative as a rags to riches story of how hard work pays off. Profiles such as these emphasize her family’s immigrant and working-class background and allude to dominant understandings of Latinx cultural values, such as deep family ties and a strong work ethic. While these narrative elements can be constituted as what Dávila has called “Latino Spin,” or the circulation and production of sanitized images of Latinx immigrants as an apolitical unthreatening body [ ((Dávila, Arlene. Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race. New York: New York University Press, 2009.))], I argue that Cabello’s narrative begins to contest the image of the depoliticized immigrant. In particular, Cabello has acknowledged the past mixed-status of her family and the effect it had on her upbringing. In her interview with Rolling Stone and an earlier post on POPSUGAR Latina, Cabello is open about how her father physically risked his life crossing the Rio Grande to be with her and her mother in their new home of Miami. On the one hand, this narrative helps normalize the lived experiences of Latinx immigrants in a political climate shaped by nativist sentiment. On the other hand, aside from her occasional social media post or the dedication of her “Havana” video to the Dreamers, Cabello’s pop star text is still most heavily shaped by her performance of a safe familiar Latinidad, rather than a radical or even political identity.

Still early in her career and currently recording her sophomore album, it will be interesting to see how Cabello continues to balance the demands of the music industry’s need to create globally consumable images of Latinidad with the vulnerability she has already demonstrated as a pop artist, Latina, and immigrant.

Image Credits:

1. Camila Cabello previews “Havana the Movie” on her Instagram feed.
2. Camila Cabello shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram.

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Combating Nativist Ideology: Latinx Representation and Immigration Reform
Nathan Rossi / University of Texas at Austin

Families Belong Together Protesters in Austin, TX

In a June 2018 press conference, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen accused the media of ignoring narratives of crime, drugs, and human traffickers when it comes to their reporting of Latinx migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Her comments were in response to public outrage against the current administration’s horrific act of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen’s contention is particularly frustrating to hear considering that journalistic discourses have historically treated Latinx migrants as a threat to the prosperity of U.S. citizens. [ ((See Chavez, Leo. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, 2nd Edition. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. and Santa Ana, Otta. Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.))] In entertainment narratives, Latinos have likewise been marginalized and discriminated against since the dawn of Hollywood. [ ((See Beltrán, Mary. Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009., Ramírez Berg, Charles. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002., and Valdivia, Angharad. A Latina in the Land of Hollywood. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000.))] Indeed, both news and entertainment media have more in common with the president’s latest xenophobic and racist round of tweets that have pushed forth Latino threat narratives than they do with calls for progressive immigration reform or better treatment of Latinxs in general.

In this article, I consider Hector Amaya’s work on citizenship excess to explore current Latinx representation in entertainment television. According to Amaya, citizenship excess is an understanding of citizenship as an uneven distribution and accumulation of political capital along ethno-racial lines. [ ((Amaya, Hector. Citizenship Excess: Latino/as, Media, and the Nation. New York: New York University Press, 2013, pg. 2.))] In other words, citizenship excess explains the longstanding exclusion of Latinx voices from a majoritarian public sphere and how the media can empower a nativist hegemony that paints Latinx populations (and immigrants in particular) as a threat to prosperity of white U.S. citizens. In media specifically, citizenship excess is a “pushing down” and “pushing away” of Latinx participation in media discourses and industries. [ ((Amaya, pg. 3.))] Latinxs are pushed down by the use of stereotypical narratives or exclusion from representation in English-language culture and pushed away “through processes of ethnic and linguistic balkanization that separate Spanish-language media” into a Latinx public sphere that is marginalized from the dominant. I note that the current popularity of Latin American drug war narratives in television is contributing to an increased pushing down of Latinx populations. We are beginning to see, however, increased visibility for Latinx creative voices in the television industry that are complicating or combatting these narratives.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Netflix's Narcos
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s Narcos

In the past 10 years, Latin American drug cartel storylines have helped drive the plots of border-state set dramas, such as AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), FX’s The Bridge (2013-2014), USA’s Queen of the South (2016-) and AMC’s upcoming Mayans MC (2018-). However, Latinx cartel characters have not been limited to border state settings. Veteran Puerto Rican actor Esai Morales, who once scored leading roles in popular Chicano films in the 1980s including La Bomba (1987), has most recently only found work as a Mexican Cartel leader trafficking drugs and money in season one of Netflix’s Missouri set Ozark (2017-) and as a more mysterious Latino villain in ABC’s Philadelphia set How to get away with Murder (2014-). Netflix’s Narcos (2015-), while mostly set in Colombia, begins with a depiction of a once sunny Miami dragged into the darkness after the infiltration of cocaine from South America in the 1970s. Latino drug-runner stereotypes, however, are not limited to television dramas. They can also be found in dark comedies like Showtime’s Weeds (2005-2012) and HBO’s Barry (2018-). Together these shows promote imagery of a Latino threat that is boundless and omnipresent throughout the U.S. This abundance of programming contributes to a one-size fits all representation of Latinos as tied to criminal or illegal activity. While these shows are not specifically immigrant narratives, they are often the most visible acting roles available to Latinxs and lend legitimization to discourses of the dangers of insecure borders.

Two counter examples to these images of violent criminal activity would be recent citizenship arcs on The CW’s Jane the Virgin (2014-) and Netflix’s One Day at Time (2017-). While these shows do the work of humanizing Latinx immigrants, it is significant to note that in both programs, only elderly Latinx characters gain U.S. citizenship. Put another way, it seems the image of young Latinxs gaining citizenship might be too threatening to be accepted by mainstream television viewers. Although, One Day at a Time critiques this view by juxtaposing Lydia (Rita Moreno) becoming a citizen with that of white male character Schneider (Todd Grinell), a Canadian, receiving his citizenship decked out in U.S. Flag clothing.

One Day at a Time
Schneider in Patriotic Clothing

Lydia is given her citizenship exam by a soft spoken and calm man who is charmed by her flirting and Cuban accent. Despite passing her test with ease, Lydia is forced to wait outside after the agent discovers an unspoken issue with her application. Schneider, on the other hand, is given his test by a terse woman who is uncharmed by his own flirting. Despite insulting the woman’s daughter and home state, as well as admitting to a prior case of public nudity that he later shares with her on YouTube, he is granted citizenship without much visible hesitation. While Lydia waits in the reception room, her granddaughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), remarks, “This is because you’re Latinx. The white guy goes in there and cruises to citizenship despite having nothing to offer this country.” Indeed the show depicts the lack of scrutiny given to Schneider’s application, while a tiny error in Lydia’s papers is enough for the agent to move from flirtatious and friendly to serious in tone. The scene also highlights the stakes of a citizenship test for Latinxs, who may fear deportation and are more likely to be racially profiled by immigration enforcers than a white male.

In closing, I question whether the current state of Latinx representation is enough to counter the nativist hegemony that Amaya argues has made it nearly impossible for a pro-immigration movement to enter the majoritarian public sphere.[ ((Amaya, pg. 85-86.))] On the one hand, the proliferation of drug war narratives is undeniable. However, it is heartening to know that the latest productions, such as Queen of the South and Mayans MC have Latinx showrunners or executive producers who may be more capable of telling nuanced stories that complicate past simplified narratives. Further, outside of drug dramas, there are more shows that offer representation of various Latinx experiences, such as One Day at a Time, Starz’ Vida (2018-), and Netflix’s On my Block (2018-). Combined these developments suggest an industry where Latinx voices are combatting the pushing down that citizenship excess enables.

OneVidaAtaTime participants
The Participants in the #OneVidaAtATime challenge

Further, as Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts has noted, these Latinx centric shows can help launch future producers and stars. [ ((Sanchez, Felix. “Latinos thrive in radio and TV despite Trump.” CNN. 11 June 17. https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/10/opinions/latinos-thrive-in-tv-and-radio-despite-trump-sanchez/index.html))] This has rung true for Gina Rodriguez and Pedro Pascal, who have used their television stardom as launching pads for film roles and producing their own content. Lastly, the recent #OneVidaAtATime challenge to raise money and awareness for pro-immigration organization Raices offers one example of Latinx voices being able to push Latinx issues into dominant industrial discourses. While the challenge began as a way for the writer’s rooms of One Day at a Time and Vida to challenge other Latinx creators to donate to the cause, it soon spread to dozens of other shows, including those with little connection to Latinx storytelling.

Given the nature of rapidly changing news cycles, it is important that we not let coverage of the current Latinx immigration crisis fade. I also believe, however, that in entertainment media, recent developments point to the potential of not just narrative television, but also music and other forms of popular culture to bring more inclusive and pro-immigration discourses into a majoritarian public sphere in order to combat the nativist hegemony that is currently driving immigration policy.

Image Credits:
1. Families Belong Together Protesters
2. Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar
3. Author’s Screengrab
4. The participants in the #OneVidaAtATime Challenge

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