Indeed, "Despacito" is breaking records left and right but could it signal a greater opportunity for Latin culture to break into the mainstream?
If we are on the cusp of a "Latinization" sweeping over America's mainstream culture, it would not be the first time we've heard that kind of hype. Think back to the mid-1990s when the Spanish-language sensation "Macarena" hit No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100 in 1996 with its accompanying dance craze and the year following Jennifer Lopez broke out with her role as Selena in the late singer's biopic, followed by English-language hits by Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias, among others. By all appearances, we are again having one of those moments.
There are some notable differences this time around, however. Notably, "Despacito" did not need an English version to appeal to the U.S. market. As well, the emergence of music streaming has helped make the song accessible internationally instantly. And, probably most importantly, America's Latin population is at an all time high. Thanks to that last point, Spanish-language television is seeing some "Despacito"-level success as well.
With the U.S. Latin population now at 54 million, with burgeoning new bilingual generations the country's leading Spanish-language television companies are seeing success moving towards the mainstream. Univision and Telemundo are now multi billion-dollar behemoths who are increasingly looking toward multilingual programming, while they compete over millions of viewers with potential for growth. The NBCUniversal-owned Telemundo has 1.5 million prime time viewers this season, threatening Univision’s current seat on top with 1.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
Largely, Telemundo executives credit their network's success to its strategic Super Series prime time programming targeting Hispanic Americans with Hollywood-style fast-action dramas featuring charismatic leads such as Rafael Amaya in El Señor de los Cielos and Kate del Castillo in La Reina del Sur. While Univision had been importing old-style telenovelas from the Mexico-based Grupo Televisa, a part owner of Univision, Telemundo has been producing original Super Series and other shows in Miami, where Telemundo is headquartered. For the past two years, Telemundo has held the top spot among all broadcast networks among adults 18-34 in the 10-11 p.m. prime time hour on weekdays, regardless of language. It beats NBC, CBS, ABC, Univision and others, according to Nielsen PeopleMeter. On top of that, Telemundo claims some of the most streamed series on Netflix, all with English subtitles, according to an internal Netflix report.
“The Super Series are attracting wider audiences,” Glenda Pacanins, senior vice president for programming strategy at Telemundo, tells Billboard. Though she said Telemundo didn’t have data breaking down its audience by language, she speculated that the network’s ratings growth was at least in part due to English-speaking and bilingual viewers. Not surprising, NBCUniversal and Telemundo jointly plan to soon make movies for both English- and Spanish-speaking audiences.
As well, the general market entertainment industry is taking into account the economic impact of U.S. Latinos -- the world’s third-fastest growing economy if Latinos had their own country, according to a report from the Latino Donor Collaborative. But Latinos, like other ethnic and racial minorities and women, have barely broken through the Hollywood establishment and herein lies the problem.
It’s not enough that Sofia Vergara, the Colombian model and actress, is the highest paid TV actress in America, or that Jennifer Lopez, a multitalented Puerto Rican, is a global enterprise all her own, or that Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Nuyorican, has made history with Hamilton, or that the Academy Awards (where Latin winners can be counted on 10 fingers) awarded two Oscars in a row to the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and one to his fellow countryman Alfonso Cuarón. A Hollywood Diversity Report in 2016 found that Latinos are the most underrepresented group on TV.
Hollywood must do more. While cable and broadcast networks try to come up every season with shows with a Latino twist, looking for a winning format that will cross languages and class, they’ve scored few successes. But as new generation Latinos -- many born in the United States -- become the largest Latino demographic, language will cease to be a barrier. It will become a bridge. Like “Despacito.’’
It could be sheer coincidence that “Despacito” broke through just as the most anti-immigrant president in modern history was taking office, bullying and insulting Latinos and threatening to build a huge border wall. But despite President Trump's tough anti-Latino rhetoric, a Spanish-language song rooted in Latin culture, has become the anthem of the summer in these states -- blue and red alike. Now it's time for the rest of the entertainment industry to catch on and follow suit.
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, a New York-based journalist, writes about politics, media, Latino issues, and culture. She is the author of, most recently, Before the Rain: A Memoir of Love & Revolution.