The night that Zuleyka Rivera was crowned Miss Universe, the charred body of a woman was found in the trunk of an abandoned car in Carolina. At first, detectives thought that it was a woman reported kidnapped earlier that morning. “You come with me or I kill that asshole that you”re with,” the man had declared upon discovering his partner speaking to a friend. Later, the police informed that the burnt body was not the kidnapped woman, who was now safe and sound at “home.”
That night on the news, the implacable and voracious lens captured the splendor of the “techno-body” of universal beauty. It also delighted on the other, still unidentified body reduced to ashes, and it showed us the resurrection of the kidnapped body, an obese woman in her twenties. Inspired by Zuleyka”s victory, few Puerto Ricans would ponder the life —or lack there of— of the other two women, annoying residues of a society that values “beauty” and obsesses over personal safety. What fate if not oblivion can life afford to those who cannot become successful people?
In the contemporary world, the individual has to take on the frailty of the institutions that used to assure his personal well-being and his sense of belonging in a community. Unlike modem and industrial society, centered on work and community life, postmodernism is built on the immense power that digital technologies and biotechnology have in the production of bodies and subjectivities. People must be responsible for their own fate in an environment that calls for them as consumers; consumers that easily become sale products. According to Paula Sibilia, in contemporary society “a certain displacement of references is observed: subjects are defined less in function of the national State as the geopolitical territory in which they were born or reside, and more by virtue of their relationships with the corporations of the global market, those whose products and services they consume and those they sell their personal services to.”
Others, those who cannot be educated in the arts of consumerism —and of debt—or cannot become marketable products, are not necessary. They are out or are simply redundant. Consumerism, either in Plaza Las Americas or in Disney World, at the mega star concert in the Choliseo or on the Internet, is a sign of membership, as virtual and temporary as it may be. As Zygmunt Bauman suggests in his book Wasted Lives, failed consumers generate suspicion and run the risk of being declared criminals, as is the case with “illegal immigrants” and people displaced by wars. In a country where legislators mix with presumed drug dealers and the theft of weapons in police headquarters is an inside job, another perverse logic takes possession of souls and bodies: your success is guaranteed if you become a criminal.
In view of that possible destination, the beauty pageant queen is a true example of a successful singularity. Take the comments of the beauty pageant experts and trainers about the trajectory of Zuleyka Rivera, for example. At the age of ten her parents enrolled her in modeling school and two years later she began to compete in beauty pageants, being first runner up for Miss Puerto Rico Teen at the age of thirteen. Before her fifteenth birthday she had her first cover in a local magazine marketed in the United States and in Latin America. After winning the Miss Puerto Rico crown, she postponed her college education in Communications —a very interesting career choice— to devote herself to construct a body and a face “worthy” of a universal beauty.
In this type of competition one can or cannot be talented; what is not negotiable is the necessary flexibility to undergo a strict regimen —physical and psychological— as a condition of success. If you do not win the pageant, there is always the possibility to reinvent yourself as a character in a comedy show, as hostess, or as a main character of a “local” soap opera. The models to emulate pass through the filter of ethnicity, not as a product of a shared ethos, but as a computer code or software that facilitates infinite combinations. Identity no longer shelters a single dwelling or body, nor is it expressed in a single language. It is an interchangeable mask according to individual motivations. “I have many things in my favor, my freshness, my youth, my toned body, hair that fascinates me, my features and the sort of mix that makes me stand out”. A hybridism that women like Eva Longoria of Desperate House Wives, the German-Argentinean model Gisselle Bundchen and the Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova, among others have been able to capitalize on thanks to the scalpel and to “cryosculpting” technologies. That is how the student of public communication and the beauty pageant contestant find “their place” on Larry King Live.
In analyzing the spirit of our times, it is impossible to ignore how people struggle to take advantage of the relationship between what is “local” and what is “global” It is the twisting bodies of metro sexual singers like Ricky Martin and Chayanne, and the serpentine curves of Jennifer López, what has placed Puerto Rico in the circuit of global consumerism and virtual sense consumerism. The runway model, the star boxer, the transnational sportsman, the reality show hostess, the chic weathergirl, the celebrity architect, and the crossover singer share that vision of a successful life. They do not want to be losers in a society where employment is more and more uncertain, and where the State seems to act against its citizens. Because they know that, all delay in the satisfaction of a desire can be interpreted as failure, they rush into the quest for instant success. That does not mean that those who aspire to be media figures lack the will or that they achieve their goals with less effort.
Actually, the stories of “unique lives” emphasize the humble beginnings of many major league players and the determination of Hollywood newcomers. For example, the retired ex-world champion of boxing, Tito Trinidad, earned around 80 million dollars in revenues during his 15 year long career. That does not include his investments in real estate and commercial endorsements from Advil, McDonalds, and KFC. Although he is a millionaire, Tito affirms that he does not forget his humble beginnings in Cupey. He frequently visits public schools and offers lectures against drug use. “I tell them that many things are achieved by studying and practicing sports and that it is necessary to stay close to God.” (Notice the frequency with which the successful invoke God). For Tito, however, education was not an option. Nor has it been an option for young Puerto Ricans that leave school before obtaining a high school diploma or that obtained it because they fulfilled the task of intimidating their teachers. For them, another path is possible: the world of music and its glamorous ties with illegality.
An example is offered by the King of Reggaetón, Raymond Ayala, best known as Daddy Yankee. His album Barrio Fino sold more than 1.6 million copies in the United States alone, and won a Latin Grammy. His single, La gasolina became a generation`s anthem, not only in the clubs dedicated to that musical gender in Puerto Rico, but also in Buenos Aires, Madrid and Paris. The success of its catchy rhythm is compared only to that of Ricky Martin”s Livin La Vida Loca, in 1999. At the age of 29, Daddy Yankee is proud of his achievements: to be one of the best dressed performers according to People and Vanity Fair magazines, to have completed a tour of several cities in the United States, Latin America and Europe, and a juicy contract as spokesman for Reebok tennis shoes. Even in Japan people listen to reggaetón.
The success of El Cangri, another of Raymond Ayala”s nicknames, is due to the arrival of reggaetón, that hip-hop combination in Spanish with other Caribbean rhythms such as Jamaican reggae and Dominican bachata, in San Juan`s hotels. It is also possibly due to Tego Calderón`s role in popularizing perreo—the dance that became an indispensable companion of reggaetón—. In spite of the attempts of legislators to criminalize rap as immoral, and police raiding recording studios, the 2004 electoral campaign used reggaetón jingles. Politicians would even exhibit their mastery of perreo on stage.The journey of the musical genre, from underground to mainstream, became evident when René Pérez, best known as Residente Calle 13, was part of the Ni una bala más (“Not one more bullet”) campaign promoted by the Governor”s Office during Christmas 2005.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Daddy Yankee confirmed his presence in the underground world of rap long before being catapulted to fame, a journey similar to that of many exponents of Afro-American hip-hop in the United States. When he was 16 years old and lived in Villa Kennedy, a stray bullet reached his left thigh, disabling him for six months. The incident persuaded him to put all his energies into his company, Cartel Records, and into the complicated world of show business. This includes his claim of being number one, and the exchange of insults with Don Omar and Hector, The Father. Contrary to Julio Voltio and Mejicano, El Cangri does not have cases pending in court.
The phenomenon has much to do with the interest that multinational companies have in developing “Hispanic population” consumerism, and with their ability to market cultural products in destinations as distant as Japan. A lot has been argued about show business and its ability to expropriate a common product, emptying it of beliefs and traditions.
In that sense Giorgio Agamben`s approaches on gesture in his book Means without Ends (2001) are useful. His analysis offers hints for understanding perreo and its positive effects. For Agamben, gesture is an example of an action apart from both acting and making. The author offers dance as an example: If dancing is gesture, it is because it consists in supporting and exhibiting character through corporal movements. I wonder, will perreo be the way to show something that escapes language?, maybe a piece of another life, a memoir in the body of original violence, the force of life and death, of which Freud spoke so much in Civilization and Its Discontents?
In perreo a fragment of life is put at stake. In other words, we risk our lives. Those feverish bodies, swinging violently, “lose their heads.” The silence of perreo, its shortage of words, places it in the political sphere. Vituperated for its association with animalism, pelvic demand of males in heat and sweaty cadences of Lolita-girls, perreo starts another register of life. Let us return to Agamben, this time in his book Profanations: “Ethics is not the life that simply submits itself to moral laws, but that which accepts to put itself at stake in its gestures, irrevocably and without reservations. Even at the risk of having, in this way, its happiness and its misfortune decided once and for all.”
In what way, then, is the violence that moves perreo connected to the one that reduces the body of the other woman to ashes? In both cases, violence is directed towards women, or rather, to the victim as a body. An excess of corporal significance seems to deform and silence their lives. It`s a body “possessed by perreo, the bitch that does not deserve better. That passion of gesture, does it persist more with some bodies than with others? Do “they” put themselves at stake, risking their happiness and misfortune?
Like the murdered woman, the dancer who perrea will be consigned to oblivion, even more so if she gains a couple of pounds or loses her youth. She is the background; he is the figure; the king of reggaetón; the man of the house. Maybe the only successful woman in our world is the real bitch, Martha Stewart or the arrogant businesswoman with exquisite taste that Meryl Streep plays in the movie The Devil Wears Prada.
“But there is no reason to despair,” exclaims the beauty pageant fan. Last July, the reggaetón singer René Pérez, Calle 13, and Miss Universe 2001, Denisse Quiñones announced to ecstatic fans that they were now an official couple.
María Isabel Quiñones
Anthropologist General Studies Departament
University of Puerto Rico- Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 24, 2010.
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