When I was in fourth grade, I remember watching Saturday morning cartoons with my younger brother while my mom would sleep late. In between these cartoon shows, ABC began airing these four-minute music videos by a Puerto Rican group of teenage boys who called themselves Menudo. While my brother would point and laugh at these dark-haired pre-pubescent boys wearing matching outfits, shaking their little hips and singing Spanish songs about shopping malls and “Indianapolis,” I was smitten. I’d never seen or heard anything like it growing up in the north San Fernando Valley and I couldn’t get enough. At school, I quickly learned from my half South American friend Sharon that they were a big deal and she taught me all their names. She was in love with Ricky (not Martin, the one before him) and I gave my heart to Ray. From an issue of Sharon’s BOP magazine, we signed up to start our own Menudo fan club. She was the president and historian. I was the vice president and treasurer. I pursuaded my dad to take me to the Wherehouse and buy me their latest cassette tape. I listened to it over and over again and would cry in my room when Ray sang solos. Thanks to his work connections, my dad got tickets for my mom to take me to see Menudo at the Universal Amphitheater. It was my first concert and we were the only non-Spanish speaking people there. I even got to see them a second time and go backstage. By then I was 11 and in the sixth grade and even more whipped. When the five of them walked past me in a line after the show in matching kelly green spandex pants, every molecule of my being froze and I couldn’t speak.
I’m not quite sure what it was about this Latin music phenomenon, but it’s stuck with me over the years. I don’t think I’d still cry if I heard Ray’s squeaky voice today, but I will tell you that whenever I hear that salsa percussion, I transform from a reserved Jewish girl from the Valley to a semi-unbalanced, yet highly excited Dancing with the Stars wannabe.
There were some latent years during my teens when I’d traded in the maracas for keyboard electronica, but one night while living abroad in London during my early 20s, I ended up in a salsa dance club. As soon as I entered this mythic labyrinth, I felt like I’d come home. Decked out in hiking boots and a backpack, I was swept into the spinning and sweaty dance floor. Time had stopped. That’s when I realized, I must have been a Cuban in my former life. Or Puertorican. Whatever I was, I was just happy to have come full circle. This also explained my bizarre craving for fried plantains.
Cut to present day: My pinkish white Irish American husband who grew up on punk rock never tires of teasing me about my deep-seeded love for Latino music. He says it sounds like nails on a chalk board, pero no estoy de acuerdo. To get my fix, I run to Pandora’s salsa and merengue stations, I take an occasional salsa dance class taught by none other than Armen Way of DWTS (my partners vary between a 60-year-old married Asian man and a slippery-palmed, bald dentist name Harold) and…wait for it…I am a Zumba enthusiast. I’m quite good, I have to say. But then again, it’s in my soul.