Fuego in Tu Ciudad

Though US hegemony over the Americas has forced the formulation of Latinidad beyond its official borders, the category of Latino as we know it today exists largely because of what happens within its borders. Until Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Argentines and Hondurans get to the US and find that they are part of an amalgamation of peoples (both citizens by birth and newly arrived like themselves) that for convenience are called ‘Latino’, they are more likely to identify as, well, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Argentines and Hondurans.

The publishing world appears recently to have taken notice of this widely known, though little acknowledged state of affairs. And that’s not all. Having realized that addressing a group as geographically, culturally, and economically diverse as Latinos is a far from straightforward task, the muscle behind mass circulated magazines has also drummed up a fair amount of excitement over the realization that even the language with which to advertise to Latinos is not a given. Enter Tu Ciudad: Los Angeles (Your City) and Fuego (Fire), two new magazines with distinct regional emphases that are both dedicated to Latinos whose language of choice or language by default is English rather than Spanish.

Fuego, which proclaims itself, “The World’s Hottest Latino Men’s Magazine”, is a quarterly publication that exhibits a strikingly multi-dimensional approach to the interests of its target audience(s). Predictable content for a non-racially specific (read: white) men’s magazine such as ads for Harley-Davidson and Budweiser weaves in and out of standard fare for “ethnic” magazines such as reminders to “represent” and factoids about celebrity Latinos (like heavy metal’s Vince Neil and legendary pelotero Ted Williams).

Then emerge the differences that set Fuego apart from other magazines. Ads for Bling Tones, Barrio Mobile downloadsm and sexy text chat with chicas are juxtaposed with a series of cool featurettes on the regular folk that make up La Raza like Danny Boxer of LA’s Ramona Gardens, who spearheaded a resident-to-work program in his housing project. A photo spread on LA’s Punk Mamas coexists with full stories on celebrities like badass chica Michelle Rodriguez, Puerto Rican rapper Tego Caldern, the phenomenally successful Mars Volta, and a pronounced emphasis on baseball. Add to this a streak of rather biting, if humorous, commentary on cultural and political interests exemplified by a stab at Hollywood’s insistence on casting black Latinas as solely African American and subtle criticism of the United States’ propensity to jail people of color. All of the above is mixed in with unwavering adoration for actress Jessica Alba.

Herein rests the key to Fuego‘s innovation. The magazine unapologetically adopts an open-mindedness that recognizes something crucial about guys with a penchant for pimped rides, baseball and chicks in bikinis. They just might also have political chops-the kind that would appreciate a story on the daily struggles that face Mexican day laborers on Long Island.

Tu Ciudad, a “city magazine” for LA’s bicultural Latino majority, takes a different approach. Published bi-montly, the Emmis Communications magazine is notable for its slick production values (it has a decidedly more glossy aesthetic though it is ostensibly printed on the same type, if not grade, of paper as Fuego) as well as an impressive set of contributors. The latter include Yvette Doss of LA Alternative Press and upstart magazine Frontera and UC Riverside professor Josh Kun, one of LA’s resident authorities on popular music. A stock of lucrative advertisers-not least of which is Hummer-is also a factor. Tu Ciudad is further distinguished by a clear vision of its target audience-LA’s Latino middle class-as well as, according to its founders, what it is not. And that would be a vehicle for solving social problems.

In an interview with Mediaweek’s Nancy Ayala, the magazines founders Jamie Gamboa and Gabriel Gimalt of People en Español and LA Times, respectively, explain that their undertaking, “will feature a familiar mix of glossy regional publication content – celebrity profiles, reportage, listings, restaurant reviews, and design and fashion features – ‘with a Latin twist'” (12 January 2005) for households with a combined annual income that exceeds $65,000. The leaders behind Tu Ciudad insist that their overarching purpose is to give Latinos a positive reflection of themselves. For this reason, Tu Ciudad‘s cover story bemoans the sad statistics that continue to issue from the entertainment industry, where only a small percentage of the people that appear on television are Latino despite our increasing numbers within the population as a whole.

CindyM at Blogging.LA, who is actually quite sympathetic to the publication comments that the story on under representation of Latinos in film and television, “[is] an issue I find important but not one I really care about. I’m not too concerned about whether the people on television look like me. I care more about educational issues and whether or not, politicians, teachers and administrators look like me or even understand the issues of people who look like me”.

Does Tu Ciudad suppose that Latinas are insufficiently imaginative or empathetic to recognize ourselves in a whole range of faces? Identification is, after all, a sly animal that can creep into a slew of surprising places. This is beautifully revealed in The Devil Finds Work (1976), James Baldwin’s arresting exegesis on race in American film culture. Baldwin recalls that upon seeing Bette Davis as a child, he was astounded that a glamorous, white movie star could also be ugly-ugly because her eyes reminded him of his own. Through this glimmer of identification with a white woman, the young Baldwin sees beauty in himself.

Tu Ciudad‘s less than expansive approach to the dynamics of identification is further reflected in a major risk for a publication that strives to represent the local. Namely, it risks descending into the provincial. With a city like Los Angeles, a city through which a legion of intellectuals have theorized the ever increasing amalgamation of the local and the global in a single place and, more often than not, in a single body, a narrow vision of Latinidad is regrettable indeed.

As I reflect on my surprise at learning something new about Latinidad amidst the babydoll nighties and cognac ads in the pages of Fuego, I feel compelled to ask whether the funhouse mirror that Tu Ciudad holds before its readers, a mirror that reflects only the positive does, in fact, transform-for the worse. By targeting “Hispanics who identify strongly with mainstream American culture while also cleaving to their Latin roots” (New York Times, 11 April 2005), Tu Ciudad may do little more than demonstrate that Latinos can be just as banal as “Middle America”. Better, I say, that the middle should be redefined than simply prove more populous, if a little less quemado than anticipated.