Katya Diaz and Chris Hierro (Courtesy Break Out The Crazy)
Talk about a match made in heaven.
Katya Diaz is the daughter of Puerto Rican opera singer Justino Diaz, and Chris Hierro is the son of Henry Hierro, music producer and Dominican leader of the 80’s merengue band La Gran Manzana.
Katya and Chris are singer/songwriters themselves and met while singing background for multi-Grammy-winning Spanish pop singer Alejandro Sanz two years ago. Ever since then, their love for each other blossomed, and they started writing songs together. Their repertoire has a wide range from country/pop to electronic dance music.
“After reaching out to everyone we know, we decided to just upload our demos to the internet via Soundcloud, and now YouTube, under the name ‘Break Out The Crazy’ and try our luck that way,” says Chris, who produces and accompanies other artists and is currently signed with Peer Aquos Music.
His latest project, with girlfriend Katya, is for a cause they are both passionate about – immigration.
“It was originally suggested by our good friend Anthony Valderrama who, like us, was seeing what was happening at the border on the news,” says Chris. “We are usually not political writers, but Katya and I were compelled by the fact that this was affecting innocent children. I am a father of a 4-year-old boy and will always champion for children’s rights.”
Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)
Many have heard of the mysterious killings of the women in Juarez, Mexico, but filmmaker Kimberly Bautista is traveling from country to country to spread the word about what she says is the femicide that’s also common in Guatemala and other Central American countries.
Her award-winning documentary called “Justice For My Sister” is about a 27-year-old Guatemalan mother of three who left for work one day and never returned. It was revealed shortly after that her boyfriend had beaten her to death and had left her on the side of the road. According to Bautista’s data, 580 women were murdered in Guatemala in 2007, and only one percent of those cases have been solved.
The film, which promotes awareness of violence against women, has made the rounds in film festivals in the U.S. and Central America and will screen in San Jose, Costa Rica, Wednesday. It was named the best long-form documentary in Central America as well as in the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival this past October. But most importantly, its anti-femicide message has turned into a movement.
“The goal is to replicate what we’ve done in Guatemala across Central America and to raise awareness about violence and for ways women can get help,” says Bautista, who has also started Texting Peace – a program which allows women to report threats or harassment via text message.
Another aspect of her anti-violence campaign is training youth to learn about the cycle of violence, and engaging men in the conversation.
“Most violence against women is a result of male privilege, because society is constantly justifying their actions – that contributes to more violence,” says Bautista who gets funding through different embassies. “Once they receive their training, they present events in their specific communities.”
Bautista, 28, is originally from Pasadena, Calif. and is born to a Colombian father and Irish-American mother. However, she has been an activist against the violent killing of women in Juarez since 2003.
“I think that to a certain extent domestic violence against women is so marked by silence that I wanted to offer a platform to intervene in that,” she says. “There are many facets of violence – sexual, physical, verbal – it’s just so pervasive…A key part of violence prevention is to provide people with a safe space to develop their leadership skills, so they can be active community members and call out violence when they see it.”
She says she the anti-domestic violence movement in general becomes more proactive through community building and holding people accountable.
“I want people to understand that this isn’t just an issue between two people, — it’s a societal issue,” says Bautista. “When people see the film, they tend to relate to the characters. At the screenings, we’ve heard stories of rape, economic and emotional violence.”
The filmmaker is no stranger to violence herself. During the end of the 4-year period it took to make the documentary, Bautista herself was held hostage and raped by armed assailants in the house she was staying at in Guatemala. Her camera equipment was stolen, but to this date, there’s no resolution to the case, and it’s unclear if the perpetrators had targeted her because of the work she was doing.
“We were able to identify two suspects, but they were released,” says Bautista, which is a similar occurrence that happens in other violence against women cases in Central America, according to the film.
She explains this act of violence towards her made her realize her film could be used as a prevention tool and hopefully encourage especially men to take a stand against violence.
“In the process of making this film, we were able to take justice into our own hands in a transformative way,” says Bautista.
TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)
Freestyle – the dance-pop electronic genre with an added heap of emotion and romance, was at the height of its popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The genre, created by Latinos in New York City, continues to be followed by loyal fans today as they flocked to freestyle concerts across the U.S. this year.
After performing in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall last winter, as well as a summer tour on the West Coast last Saturday, more than 10 freestyle performers, including including Cynthia, Johnny O., and Stevie B, sang to a packed house in New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center. Louis “Kayel” Sharpe Figueroa, the lead singer of TKA, as well as George Lamond were also there, and NBC Latino got to catch up with these two kings of freestyle to find out a little about the beginning of the genre, as well as what they’re up to now.
“Kayel,” also known as “K7,” was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico and moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City when he was four. He is the writer and lead singer of the popular freestyle trio, TKA.
NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?
Kayel: Today I have studio time. I write songs and produce tracks that I submit for different artists. I got into this business to be a musician, so I still crave it and have the hunger for it as when I first got into it. I’m still searching for that next hit, and I’m still in that search, and I haven’t given up on it yet.
We [TKA] perform weekly. The resurgence and popularity of freestyle music has resurfaced. It is feel-good music, and it has some angst. It’s inspiring a new generation to find themselves in music. Today’s music is good, but it’s more macho bravado. TKA, and freestyle music as a whole, still has that bravado, but it is still able to relate to feelings and truth across the board.
I also perform as a solo artist. K7 is more hip-hop based; the energy of both combined together feels very modern. I have new songs coming out with TKA – still freestyle, but I’m the creature of the times, so when I go in to record new music, I’m not there to record what I’ve already done – I’m looking upwards and forwards. Fans like to come to the freestyle shows, but I’ve noticed that in our community when a new artist comes out in freestyle – there’s not many people that rush to buy it, because radio doesn’t rush to play it anymore. Freestyle went the way of jazz. It’s very rare that you hear Miles Davis on the radio. It’s not as prominent as it was in the late 80’s and late 90’s.
NBC Latino: What makes freestyle so special in your eyes?
Kayel: Latinos didn’t have a voice in hip-hop early on. We were part of founding it. There were Latin groups like Rock Steady – a group of break dancers – but the mainstream wasn’t about to accept us in the market yet. We had to find a way in which we could find our niche in this music…We were dancing to the hip-hop and club music, and we found ourselves starting to write these love songs – then we started to rap over the intro, and sing melodies over it after we sped the record up…Our own community started liking it. They could find their pain in urban living and in falling in love. That’s how it grew. Originally freestyle wasn’t called “freestyle,” the real term for this music was called, “Latin hip-hop,” then it was called “heartthrob,” but it wasn’t name that was cool enough. So when people danced to it, they would say “I’m gonna freestyle.” If I could be frank, we embrace it, but we always wished another name would resurface, because it limits us to a box.
NBC Latino: What’s you favorite TKA song?
Kayel: “Tears May Fall” changed the direction of where our music was at the time, and I also wrote “Maria” and “Louder Than Love.” “Maria” was a combination of two girlfriends I had. They both had similar looks…I was describing one that stayed in my head and haunted my mind. When I sing about the projects, it was about another one…In the song, I had to have a villain, so I chose a drug dealer. When I originally wrote the song, I was arguing and asking, “Why are you dating the bad side of me?” I made myself the drug dealer mentally. One guy who didn’t care and did all this wrong to her. The nice side of me was against the bad side of me. The same thing with “Louder Than Love” – it’s based on a relationship between two of my female friends. They really loved each other but couldn’t be in the same room. One of them is Elizabeth Rodriguez – she’s on Broadway now and “Orange is the New Black” – she was the basis of it.
NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?
Kayel: I’m the biggest nerd. I’m kind of proud of that. I’m a big TV buff, and a movie guy. I can tell you what’s going to be cancelled before they cancel it. I’m a human Neilsen box.
George Lamond, now 46, started singing when he was 9, growing up in the Bronx, NY.
NBC Latino: What is your favorite freestyle moment?
George: There was a lot of them, but I guess my favorite one is performing in front of 10,000 in Madison Square Garden. There is nothing like performing in your hometown.
George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)
NBC Latino: Why do you think freestyle was a genre so dominated by Latinos?
George: Because it came from the Bronx where the majority of Puerto Ricans lived. Our parents landed in the Bronx for better jobs. Freestyle, for me, is the sister of disco. That’s the best way to put it. I was a huge disco fan when I was young, and a lot of the songs were played at clubs. I saw TKA perform, and that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do music at a young age – when I went to see Menudo in Radio City Music Hall, and they started singing in Spanish and English.
NBC Latino: What do you think happened to the genre?
George: It ended because the majority of the performers didn’t graduate to bigger and better things…It just got monotonous and died out like everything else, but freestyle is still living as well, because it’s a part of our culture and lifestyle…We have hip-hop, freestyle, and salsa.
I see a resurgence in salsa now – a new singer, David Kada, has new record that is doing very, very well. Record producer Sergio George, has a lot of new kids. When it comes to salsa, it’s not going to go anywhere.
George: I felt a connection to it, because at the time I was going through a really bad relationship with my ex-wife and that song was helping me out. It was a therapeutic moment. I didn’t know the effect I was having on the audience, but they still tell me.
NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?
George: I’m constantly recording and touring a lot. I’m also a dad to a 17, 14, and 7- year-old. I never remarried again. Maybe somebody will want to deal with me one day (says laughing), but I’m looking to put a salsa single together. I’m also releasing a new single called “Brining My Love Down” on Thanksgiving day – this song is another sound of George Lamond – R and B that I’ve been dying to do for my crowd – the people that used to listen to me and now have kids and families – I want to slow it down a little bit. I’ve been doing music for 25 years – it’s my full-time job.
NBC Latino: What is your favorite song to sing?
George: “Without You” – you can hear a pin drop when I sing that song. The title speaks for itself. Have you ever loved someone so passionately and intimately you never want to lose that moment? How do you live without them?
NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?
George: I’m a great cook. I can make a really good lasagna, and a really good shrimp bisque. I invested in a restaurant once, but I thought it would keep me away from my kids. I grew up without a father so I promised I would never leave my kids alone.
Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)
Antonio Morales was born in the second largest housing projects in the U.S. – the Residencial Luis Llorens Torres in San Juan, Puerto Rico – also known as el Caserío. His dad was a drug lord in their intimate, yet violent world consisting of 140 buildings and about 2,600 units, and his mom was one of its drug addicts.
As a boy, Morales would find guns in the closet and drugs under the mattresses, but at 15, he found the arts. Morales had passed a competitive audition to attend the Jose Julian Acosta Theatre Arts Middle and High School in Old San Juan, and that was his one-way ticket out of his violent past.
“I knew I didn’t want to end up like my father,” says Morales. “I found my passion in the arts, and I was convinced that the arts was going to be the most effective tool to get kids off the streets. Once the federal agents arrested my dad, I started Viviendo el Arte – in the housing project…I started to teach theater to other kids in the neighborhood as a way to help them.”
While studying theater at the University of Puerto Rico, Morales says he got the urge to write a play for the kids in el caserío to act out. It was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet’s” family feud. He wrote his own theatrical love story set in the housing project.
Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, the friction was between feuding gangs – Los Caliente and Trebol. In the play Cristal and Angelo meet and fall in love, but their families belong to the feuding gangs. The successful play, “For Love in the Caserío” then became a feature film, and it has had so much success in 16 movie theaters on the island it just started a three-day tour in New York this week through November 14.
“I found so many similarities to our reality,” says Morales about when he first read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school “I found it so amazing that I could include all our social problems in Shakespeare’s plot line…I used all my reality and joined it with a prohibited love story, and it was a success.”
But the success he is most proud is how his art has helped change many lives in a housing project known primarily for its drugs and violence.
“First it transformed the kids, and then it went on to transform the parents, and then the community,” says Morales. “Before I knew it, everyone wanted to come see the play. They knew it was about their lives. They felt I was exposing them, but I also offered different tools to better themselves.”
Since Antonio first wrote the play 12 years ago, it has been presented more than 500 times all over the island, and it has flourished with the involvement of members of el caserío – from lighting to set design.
“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)
He explains that after each show he and the director, Luis Enrique Rodriguez, talk to the audience.
“People in the audience sometimes would confess the bad things they were doing, and with tears in their eyes, say they wanted to be rescued,” says Morales.
Now 31, Morales remembers back when he was 15, and the kids he recruited for his project were around 12.
“I had to be the most outstanding student, because I had the responsibility with other kids in the community,” he says. “I had to understand everything so I could have the answers.”
He happily mentions that many are still active and teaching the next generation involved with Viviendo el Arte, or have careers in the arts themselves. Now in their late 20’s and early 30’s, they are also the actors he used in “For Love in the Caserío.”
“I was very convinced that it had to be done with our kids,” says Morales. His 25-year-old brother Xavier, who started acting in the play at age eight, plays the lead in the movie. “They lived it, it’s their reality.”
When officials at the San Juan office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw the play, they got involved, and continue to meet regularly to provide support to the project. The New York Times reports that, so far, housing officials in Puerto Rico have given $2.8 million for a tour of the play and the production of the film.
After HUD Secretary Maurice Jones saw the play, he received a letter from Morales, which was posted in the HUD web site.
“In the late 1990′s, we learned an increase in prison sentencing and armed police officer presence made little difference in controlling drug crime in Puerto Rico,” wrote Morales. “Moreover, we learned punishment does not drive behavior. However, what has been proven successful and what drives public housing youth to modify behavior has been peer modeling. This is why I created the theater group which includes a group of talented individuals from the largest public housing project in Puerto Rico, Llorens Torres, to star in my play, ‘Por Amor en el Caserío.’”
Morales tells NBC Latino, “Now we’re in New York, and we want to continue to work hard and spread our message. What are the chances to succeed when nobody cares?”
Today, Morales lives with his brother Xavier in an apartment in Guaynabo, near San Juan and works full time in film production and with his theater group, San Juan Drama Company, which is volunteer run and involves more than 100 youth.
Xavier Morales says he had two older brothers to look up to, one was a drug dealer like his dad – both of whom ended up in federal prison – and his brother Antonio.
“Antonio inspires me,” Xavier told an audience after the film screening in John Jay College on Monday. “He changed my life.”
The film’s producers say crime has significantly decreased in the housing project and the drug gangs support Morales’ work after seeing the positive effect it’s had on the youth.
“We want people to see our work because of the social transformation effect it causes,” says Morales. “It’s not just a movie.”
“The audience comes out different than when they entered – that’s how you know your art is working.”
“It’s been a wild ride so far,” says Rios about his life, ever since he got a call from the Governor’s office last week informing him of his new appointment. “It was a special feeling…I grew up in Arizona — on the border — so to be a kid from Nogales, in a state that has so many issues regarding language, and so many things — it’s a pretty good story.”
Rios, has published a total of 10 poetry books, three story books and a memoir called “Capirotada.” His memoir about his youth along the Mexico-Arizona border won the Latino Literacy Hall of Fame Award, and he has also received many other recognitions for his work, including the Walt Whitman Award in Poetry. As English professor at his alma mater, Arizona State University, he reached the highest faculty rank when he was named Regent in 1989, and his work is often taught in college curricula.
“Being a professor, I have a lot to say about who we are, and why are we here,” says Rios, 61. “If it’s so bad, why don’t we all leave, but there’s lots of reasons why we don’t.”
Arizona became the 43rd state to establish a poet laureate, last year, in honor of its centennial year of statehood. The purpose of this position, according to Governor Brewer, is to “commemorate Arizona literary artists whose work and service best represent Arizona’s values, independence and unique Western history and culture.”
Probably few know Arizona’s history and culture better than bicultural Rios – son of a Mexican father and an English mother. Recounting his parents’ love story, he says his father ran away from his home in Chiapas, at age 14 to join the U.S. Army. Eventually, he got a GED and became a staff sergeant and ended up in England, during World War II, where he met his future bride. When he got discharged, he was given no choice but to return to the U.S., and Rios’ mom followed him. They ended up in Nogales.
“Growing up, I had cultures in my house that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” says Rios explaining how they gave him two ways of looking at things and helped him become a writer. “I grew up with an open border.”
And speaking about the “real” border, he remembers the Arizona-Mexico border being more of an imaginary line than it is today.
“You didn’t need papers — the guards were reading newspapers — it wasn’t a big deal to cross the border,” says Rios, also explaining that he had kids in his class who paid tuition and crossed the border every day to go to school in the U.S. “Every holiday, whether Mexican or American, there was a parade.”
Rios says he also remembers, as if it were yesterday, when everything changed.
“It was November 22, 1963 — when President John F. Kennedy was shot,” says Rios, who was in the 5th grade. “One of the first things the country did was close the borders.”
He says phone calls started coming in from parents in Mexico saying they couldn’t pick up their kids.
“I’ll never forget this,” says Rios. “One of the kids who got a phone call started to cry. Then other kids started crying…They had kids on one side of the border and parents on the other side of the border crying. It wasn’t until 4 or 5 in the morning they let the kids go through…For me, I think that’s when the border became something else.”
He says slowly the idyllic, bicultural world he knew became something else. The drug trade started, and people could no longer travel back and forth as easily.
“The border is an uneasy place — it’s more tense, it’s more mean,” says Rios, whose wife is a retired librarian and whose son is an immigration rights attorney.
As poet laureate, he wants to do his part to bring beauty back to the border.
“I absolutely want to talk about these issues – work I’ve been doing my entire life. I’ve always traveled all over the state visiting schools and libraries telling the stories of people’s lives and what this all means,” says Rios. “I try to bring the human side to it all.”
Arizona’s new poet laureate is also working on a public art project and is in the midst of publishing a new poetry book.
“It’s about the southwest,” says Rios. “You have to start somewhere.”
El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)
August 16, 1977 was the day the world lost its hip shaking, soulful singer with slicked black hair, sideburns and a quivering lip — Elvis Presley. But for the past 25 years, Robert Lopez — otherwise known as “El Vez” — has been resurrecting the rock and roll icon with a Mexican-American flair and sharing his songs worldwide with a political twist.
Since 1988, Lopez has been touring the U.S. and Europe singing Elvis songs, except he changed the lyrics to tell a different story and titles to “Viva la Raza,” instead of “Viva Las Vegas,” and “En el Barrio,” replacing “In the Ghetto.”
At 52, he is still touring and making new fans. He also added yoga to his schedule — as he says that’s the secret to maintaining himself “Elvis size.”
“I’ve been on the road every week since April — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, the East Coast, Chicago, Italy, Spain, Virginia, Australia, and San Diego this weekend,” says Lopez.
In 2011, he was made part of the “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” exhibit at The Smithsonian for taking the “Elvis-impersonation phenomenon and reinventing it into a cross-cultural live performance combining a love of Elvis with an impressive knowledge of popular music and a pro-Latino political agenda.” One of his gold suits is displayed in between of the memorabilia of the iconic Ritchie Valens and Celia Cruz.
“To be named at the same thing as Ritchie Valens,” says Lopez about one of his biggest inspirations, “I felt really proud.”
Lopez’ career impersonating “The King” started while working as a curator at an art gallery, La Luz De Jesús, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
“I curated a theme on Elvis Presley,” says Lopez. “I hired an Elvis impersonator, and he wasn’t very good. I started showing him what he should be doing, and I thought ‘I could be the Mexican Elvis.’”
Lopez says he was such a hit with the hardcore Elvis fans passing by the art gallery, they urged him to go to Elvis Tribute Week in Memphis. There, he competed in an Elvis impersonator contest, made it to the finals and the rest is history.
“I was listening to Elvis since I was a baby,” says the Chicano performer, who currently resides in Seattle and has a restaurant named after him in Philadelphia and one coming this fall to New York City. “When I was 16, I was moved by punk rock, but Elvis was the punk rock of ‘56…I knew I wasn’t a regular Elvis impersonator, I think my punk rock attitude made me feel I could do this and do it my way.”
One of the biggest hits, of his more than 20 albums — “Immigration Time” — talks about immigration to the tune of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.”
“It was the hot topic in ‘88, and it’s a sad thing that 25 years later nothing has changed,” says Lopez. “It just shows you that things don’t change, but no reason to stop trying. I go through different phases with my material — I reinterpret it — it’s gone through angrier versions and lighter versions…”
He says he likes to sing as a way to give tribute to Elvis but also to Latino culture.
“It is funny and it is political all at the same time in one song,” says Lopez. “I’ve always been doing music, but I’ve always loved the idea of parody. The best parody is when you really love the subject.”
Salsa singer Ismael Miranda (Courtesy Ismael Miranda)
Ismael Miranda used to be the one of the youngest members of the iconic 70′s salsa band, Fania All Stars. Now he’s one of the few left, with the passing of Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe, but at 63, he’s still going strong. Starting his own rock and roll band at age 11, in New York City, he says he thinks he was born singing instead of crying.
“I am a soloist — I travel all over the world with different bands,” says Miranda, sounding as young and energetic as ever. “I perform all over the world.”
He says he recently started an international tour, celebrating his 45-year musical career until January. This weekend, he will be flying to Los Angeles from his home in Puerto Rico to join thousands of salsa lovers at the 15th Annual International LA Salsa Congress, featuring classic band members from Grupo Niche, El Gran Combo, and the band he joined more than four decades ago — Fania All Stars.
“I’ll be performing with Oscar Hernandez’ band on Saturday,” says Miranda, explaining that only he, Larry Harlow and Adalberto Santiago will be performing from the legendary All Stars. “It’s been a while since I’ve performed with Larry.”
He says Harlow now has his own band as well, but their history goes way back.
“When I started working with Larry, that’s when I started composing,” says Miranda, who was 19 when he joined Fania Records.
“We were together for about four years, and we did nine or eight albums. I was really grateful for that. He was a very important part of my career.”
He says it was because of Harlow discovering him that he was ever a part of Fania All Stars and of the 1972 film, “Our Latin Thing,” and got the role of Hector Lavoe’s father in “El Cantante” (2006).
He often recalls the memories of their international trips to Africa and Europe.
“We went all over the world,” says Miranda. “Fania is the most important band in the history of salsa music. Salsa is never going to stop. It’s been around all of our lives.”
Despite what others might think, he is adamant that the salsa genre is still as popular as ever.
“With the Salsa Congress, all the young people are dancing salsa in Europe, Asia, and in Central and South America,” says Miranda. “Everybody is dancing salsa in the United States. We are traveling all over the world, and there are millions of young people dancing — I think it’s on the upside — it’s one of the rhythms that’s most called for in the world.”
Jimmy Bosch, a younger trombonist who participated in several Fania sessions, and who will be performing with the band this Saturday, agrees.
“It’s hard to put a finger on what it was that made seventies salsa so special,” Jimmy Bosch, a younger trombonist who participated in several Fania sessions and will be performing with the band this Saturday, told Rolling Stone. “It was the times, too – everything that was going on socially and politically. People like me, who discovered that music then, we’ve never steered away from it.”
Miranda says there’s a lot of young performers to look out for such as, Victor Manuelle and Frankie Negron.
“Right now there’s like about 10 bands in South America,” he adds. “The music is not going to stop. There’s a lot of young guys, and they all do a good job.”
This is his third time performing at the Salsa Congress, and he says he’s excited to see his old friends and sing his favorite tunes, including “Maria Luisa,” “Asi se compone un son” and “No me diga que es muy tarde ya.”
And although, he’s nearing retirement age, he says he’s working more now than ever before.
“I started my own recording company,” says Miranda about IM Records. “I do my own booking in my own offices. I do my own albums and everything. I don’t have to retire — I’m still having a nice time.”
The Princess of Salsa, La India (Photo/Uriel Santana)
Linda Caballero, better known as La India, has been giving a powerful voice to women in genres traditionally dominated by men — first with freestyle, then salsa — since she was 14. Three decades later, she’s still singing and joining reggaeton star Ivy Queen on a one-night-only concert in Chicago this Saturday.
She’s also in the midst of recording a new album, which is written and produced by Mexican singer-composer superstar Juan Gabriel.
“He’s a dear friend,” says Caballero in a deep, slightly raspy speaking voice. “He’s always been someone I wanted to work with. Two years ago, I did a romantic mariachi ballad with Juan Gabriel. It was amazing working with him…He loves music so much.”
She also loves music — as much as the air she breathes, it seems. She goes back in time in an instant, remembering how it all started in the Bronx, NY, and where music producer “Little Louie” Vega discovered her through a friend.
“He gave me a microphone while he spun his music, and I would improvise — he saw talent in me,” says Caballero. “I was 14, and I was having a great time. I loved the 80’s…rock, dance music…We were just happy with having fun and aspiring towards where we wanted to go.”
Under the guidance of Vega, she released her first single, “Dancing on Fire,” and later “Lover that Rocks,” which made it to the Top 5 singles spot under the dance genre. This led to her first freestyle album in 1989, “Breaking Night.”
“I wasn’t shy,” she says. “That’s what they loved about me — I wasn’t afraid, and my ability to improvise.”
In her 20′s, Caballero says she started feeling like the industry was viewing her as the “Latin Madonna” and urged her to “be more white.”
“Everything was sounding the same…not growing,” says Caballero, reminiscing about her freestyle peers Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and Lisette Menendez. “It started going under in pace and quality, and I decided to walk away. I told Louie we need to do more current stuff.”
She ended up marrying Vega, the man who discovered her, although they divorced years ago.
“He trusted my vision, and we decided to walk away,” says Caballero, who started collaborating with Tito Puente. “It was the beginning of where I was going with Latin music.”
Composer and pianist Eddie Palmieri, however, gave her the strongest nudge into the Latin music arena with the opportunity to record her first album in Spanish, “Llegó La India vía Eddie Palmieri”/”Here Comes La India via Eddie Palmieri.”
“My first love [though] is rock and roll,” Caballero makes sure to add. “Not a lot of people know about it, except my boyfriend…Janis Joplin was my idol…She shelves it out. I’m like Joplin — when I’m live, I have a lot of range in my voice, and I have the heart and I have the grit — the rock and roll feeling…”
But even though Caballero thoroughly enjoys listening to everything from hip hop to country music, she is not one to forget her Latina roots. She even returned to live in her native Puerto Rico for the past 13 years. She used to live in New Jersey, where she was honored with a star on the Walk of Fame at Union City’s Celia Cruz Park.
“Celia Cruz, she was my girl!” says Caballero, who did many collaborations with the Queen of Salsa before her death. “She would say say, ‘If you keep it up, you’re going to make it — be true to yourself.’ She would always hold my hand before a concert.”
She says everything Celia did, she did with a lot of love.
“She taught me not to be afraid to love,” says Caballero. “She would say, ‘Let’s love each other and have a great time, there’s no time for hate.’ At the end of the day, it’s all about love.”
That’s also what she appreciates so much about the late Pop King, Michael Jackson.
“Michael Jackson was putting out the message of love, and people used to say he was crazy, but I would say no,” says Caballero.
“This is when all Latinos come together for the love he’s given throughout the years,” says Caballero about the Jackson tribute arranged by Succar. “It was really magical…”
Succar calls La India “the most important woman salsa singer icon after Celia Cruz” — one of the reasons he chose her to participate in his project, besides the fact that she understands Michael Jackson. She grew up listening to him.
“The way La India can connect with songs, her artistic feel and passion for music — this is what allows her to give you goose bumps as soon as she sings one word,” he says. “She actually lives the lyrics, she lives what she’s saying…”
Caballero says after all these years, she still believes in her music, as well as herself.
“That’s how you make it happen,” she says is what she tells her fans. “I feel that I made my dream come true — that’s what I feel when I sing salsa.”
The first Latina to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Anita, the tough girlfriend to the Sharks’ gang leader in “West Side Story”), was also one of the few artists to also win an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony Award. The Puerto Rican-born actress has been breaking down barriers in Hollywood for more than 50 years, and last year, she concluded a sold-out run of her one-woman show, “Life Without Makeup,” in Berkeley, Calif. In her book, she talks about all of it, including her love life in between.
“I got inspired by doing a play about my life in Berkeley where I live,” says Moreno about what made her write her memoir now. “It had so much success with audiences, I figured a book would be better, because I could include a lot more material — that’s how it started.”
She says her love for performing and dancing began at a very young age.
“I started dancing for grandpa in Puerto Rico when I was 3 or 5,” says Moreno. “He’d put on some music — I’m sure it was salsa, and I’d shake my little booty and everyone thought it was adorable. I loved the attention. It’s also another way of being appreciated…through an audience.”
The very graceful actress with a feminine voice and manner, was also born very headstrong. She says she felt an incessant pull to audition for her first play at just 13 and asked her mom to take her.
“It was very interesting, because I had never been in a theater,” says Moreno, who had at the time been taking dance lessons. “Doing a play was exotic. It was a wonderful experience, but the play [“Skydrift”] closed the very next day. That gave me the taste of how cruel show business could be…”
She says the business changed a lot since she started her acting career. Moreno says it’s still not really great for Latinos in film yet, but at least the door is ajar.
“It really was impossible,” she remembers. “There were no Latinos anywhere, and if there were, they would play Indians. [Today,] Jennifer Lopez is able to talk like herself. When I did films, I always had to do an accent.”
But the memory that will always bring a smile to her face, she says, is getting an Oscar.
“It was my very first award and still the greatest of all,” she says. “I was really in disbelief. I couldn’t believe I beat Judy Garland. I didn’t have a speech ready. It never occurred to me…I was so unprepared.”
She says she played back the video of that moment in time, many times, to her two grandsons who are now 14 and 12. She can still recite it by memory.
“‘I don’t believe it…pause…Good Lord, I don’t believe it…pause…I leave you with that,’ That was it!” laughs Moreno. “That sure was poetic, huh? It certainly shows I was very surprised.”
Besides her award-winning career, what it was like moving to New York City, and leaving her brother in Puerto Rico at age 5, Moreno also writes openly about a short fling with singer Elvis Presley and her tumultuous 8-year love affair with actor Marlon Brando — which at one point dragged her low enough to almost commit suicide. Since then, she’s learned a lot about herself, and love.
“Love is a great deal about respecting the person you’re with,” says Moreno, who later had a happy 45-year marriage with Leonard Gordon. “That’s what makes a lasting relationship. Romantic love is all based on fantasy. The people who dream of the handsome prince are in for a big surprise.”
Instead of fantasizing, she says she’s learned it’s more practical to follow your instinct and ask yourself, “Is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?”
She says that was one of the biggest questions she’s ever asked herself, but she ultimately chose her husband because she felt he offered her “enormous protection.”
“I had too many frauders in my life,” says Moreno. “Also, he a sense of humor — he really made me laugh — that has always been very important. We met through a mutual friend who just felt we were meant for each other.”
She concurs their gut was right. They had a daughter and spent many happy years together until his death in 2010.
Just last night, she says excitedly that Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to her book party at the house of the producer of HBO’s controversial series, “Oz,” from which she won an ALMA Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series in 1998, 1999 and 2002.
“I loved it,” says Moreno about Sotomayor’s book, which she narrated for audio tape. “It’s a wonderful book and she’s a remarkable woman.”
On March 7, there will be a special screening of “West Side Story,” and a book signing of “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” at New York’s Cinema Arts Centre.
“It’s the whole business of presenting my life to an audience,” she says. “I hope people will be moved by it…cry at the sad stuff…laugh at the funny stuff…”
I was surprised at the longevity of it, and how it translated into different ethnicities,” says Marin, now 66, about the topic of immigration in the film. “I learned that it’s a very universal experience — it affected a lot of people. [When the movie premiered] was just the beginning for the biggest wave of immigration.”
He says what inspired him to write the film was real life.
“I was sitting at my kitchen table, reading the LA Times — [an American] kid was caught in an immigration raid, and he was mistakenly sent to Mexico, and at the same time, ‘Born in USA’ came on the radio.”
He says the story kind of wrote itself after that.
“I really never knew what ‘Born in the USA’ was about, so I had to go out and get the record,” says the comedian, who was really born a couple of blocks away from East L.A. — in South Central.
He says it was the success of the song which made his movie being picked up by Universal Pictures a little easier.
“It was really interesting with social commentary weaved in — bilingual issues, issues at the border,” says actor Tony Plana. “It made people laugh and also think. You can’t meet one Latino who doesn’t have a copy of ‘Born in East LA.’”
Plana, who played “the thug” role, later renamed “Feo,” says he still gets recognized from playing that character so many years later. He also remembers Marin as a very gracious and collaborative director to work with.
“He was open to ideas, and finding the socially relevant insight into what we were doing, as well as finding the comedy,” says Plana, who has been in a myriad of productions since then, from the movie “Three Amigos” to the TV series “Ugly Betty.”
He says they worked together to make his underdeveloped character relevant in some way.
“We wanted to create the ultimate Tijuana nightmare,” says Plana who played a character who looked like a rat with slicked hair, parted in the middle and gold teeth and dressed in a little bow tie. “At the time, we had a couple of religious scandals going on, such as Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart — preachers who sinned publicly. We wanted to satirize them a little bit. We turned Feo into a guy who extorts money in the name of Jesus.”
He says they improvised a lot of the lines they actually used such as, “You don’t have to thank me, you just have to pay me.”
Marin also remembers improvising the scene where he’s standing outside of the bar, during one of his random jobs in Tijuana that he takes to make money to cross the border back to America. He says he just made everything up as normal people walked by.
His all-time favorite scene though was the “wass sappening boys,” where he has to teach non-Mexican immigrants English so they can fit in when they reach Los Angeles.
“When I was writing that scene, I kind of imagined what that alley looked like,” reminisces Marin who filmed in Tijuana for six weeks. “It was exactly as I had pictured in my mind.”
Plana says these humorous scenes really struck a chord in the Latino community and the national community.
“It didn’t give you answers, but it showed the interesting complexity of who we are — specifically Mexican-Americans,” says Plana. “Mexican-Americans tend to lose their connection, and Cheech’s character becomes more aware of what’s going on down there and starts to identify with it.”
He says to him the most powerful scene is at the end, when Cheech starts crossing the border into the U.S. with a plethora of Mexicans.
“It’s almost prophetic in a way,” says Plana. “This is going to continue unless we do something about it.”
Marin agrees that nothing has changed a quarter of a century later.
“We haven’t come up with a solution,” he says. “We’re dealing with contradiction and hypocrisy. We want immigrants to come in, because we want cheap labor and a certain lifestyle, and we want to persecute them at the same time.”