Ricky Martin’s Long Career Is a Lesson in Surviving

In the late 1990s, when Ricky Martin dominated the record industry with a new kind of Latin pop stardom, he captivated everyone with a song laden with postmodern irony. “Livin’ la Vida Loca” was more based on arena rock and Jamaican ska than it was on “Latin,” or Afro-Cuban music, and it gave a slightly edgy pop take on urban love, a cheeky warning about a risky woman delivered by a not-yet self-proclaimed gay man.

Martin’s performance of normalized sexuality, replete with a hip-shaking pioneered by Elvis Presley 40 years before, had roots in Menudo, the teen pop group he starred in during their massive 1980s international pop success story. Like Menudo, he popularized music that had few “Latin” elements other than its danceability and the fact that it was often sung in Spanish by a Latin American singer. And like Menudo, his stardom concealed something beneath the surface.

“Ricky, from the beginning, he was the golden kid,” said former Menudo member Ray Acevedo in episode two of “Menudo: Forever Young,” which recently premiered on HBOMax (which shares a parent company with CNN, and in which I briefly appear as a journalist/commentator). Martin, who was 12 years old when he joined Menudo, appeared when the group began making lineup changes, ostensibly because as they aged, their voices changed, making 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 the way the group’s manager, Edgardo Díaz, exerted exploitative control over the group by making everyone replaceable. 

Ricky Martin & Menudo in a circa 1980s file photo in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The recent allegations of harassment against Martin, leveled by his 21-year-old nephew and withdrawn on Thursday feel eerie and unfortunate alongside the debut of “Menudo: Forever Young,” which is a stunning, hard-to-watch cautionary tale that seems stuck in time but still resonates today. Using interviews from former Menudo members – though 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 that in some ways recall recent exposés about R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein. The use of damaged archival video, which is blurred and distorted as if played through a cheap VCR, effectively underlines the pathos of these stories. 

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

Menudo manager Díaz is exposed early on as a nefarious and ruthless leader, profiting handsomely on a marketing concept designed to capture an “international youth culture” and its desirable market of teens and tweens. According to the documentary series, his control over the band increased as he awarded contracts to new members. This allowed him to keep members younger and more vulnerable to his exploitative methods, and in some cases, according to the allegations in the documentary, sexual desires. 

Teen pop group Menudo perform onstage at the Aire Crown Theater in Chicago Illinois, November 18, 1983.

As the series notes, Díaz did not respond to requests for an interview or for comment on the allegations in the documentary. After ex-Menudo member Roy Rosselló accused Díaz of sexual abuse in 2014, Díaz released a statement that said: “I am 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, called “The Allegations,” is the most riveting of the series, since it documents how accusations from former Menudo members began to surface, as well as the repression of those allegations. When members like Ralphy Rodríguez agreed to appear on Puerto Rican journalist 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 ultimately went on, days later, without Díaz, who refused Jovet’s invitation. Soon after, Díaz appeared on Cristina Saralegui’s Miami-based show on Univision, which allowed him to deny all wrongdoing and present his new version of Menudo to suggest former members were motivated by money. 

Martin’s career served to transcend this scandal much more effectively than Díaz’s new version of Menudo. He went from Broadway to becoming part of the Latin pop explosion of the late 1990s with hits like “The Cup of Life” and the aforementioned “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” He collaborated with ex-Menudo Draco (Robi) Rosa, who helped write and produce both songs. Rosa has had a remarkable career himself, alternating between best-selling pop ballads and dark rock albums, perhaps allowing him to embrace both the lightness and pain of being in Menudo. Rosa’s father appeared on one of the Jovet shows that denounced Díaz, though the HBOMax special only mentions he spoke out about harsh working conditions and not sexual abuse.

By coming out as gay in 2010, Martin helped a deeply Catholic Puerto Rico come to terms with and accept LGBTQ people. He struck a blow against entrenched machismo by normalizing his marriage to Swedish-born Syrian painter Jwan Yosef, having children and continuing to record successful albums. While homophobia and transphobia still exist in Puerto Rico, it’s hard to imagine the success of megastar reggaetón rapper Bad Bunny – making his film debut with Brad Pitt in “Bullet Train,” which officially opens on August 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 at large. Machismo still plagues Latinx communities, and its underpinnings of domination and exploitation must be banished to truly fulfill this process. Menudo’s prescient boy-band formula not only created a new musical genre but helped put Puerto Ricans, and young Latin Americans, on the entertainment media map. Despite the bleak melodrama its manager created, a montage at the end of the series depicts thriving ex-Menudo members, for the moment proving that it is not only possible to survive sexual abuse, but the process can be positive and life-affirming.

[Originally published on cnn.com July 26. 2022]


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