For as long as I can remember, Ricky Martin has been a part of my household lexicon. As a Puerto Rican family in New York, we watched closely as he grew from 12-year-old boy-band member to international superstar, representing as he did this whole island and diaspora of people.
I think of my Titi Nereida telling me stories of “following” Menudo with her daughters and sisters throughout the years. They saw them anywhere they could, from the San Juan concert where Ricky Martin was first introduced, to Madison Square Garden, where my grandma danced on her chair the whole time. My cousins even found their way backstage (’cause we are Segarra women and we get shit done) and met Martin. I’m surprised he survived.
I was born in 1987, so Menudo had no real connection to my generation — we simply missed the boat. As a child dedicated to using pop culture as a form of escape, I desperately searched for my people on my TV screen and found none.
Of course, there were great Puerto Ricans throughout history that I could have been learning about, but they don’t teach you about Puerto Ricans in school. No one taught about the history of the Taino Indians, the poetry of Julia de Burgos or the organized resistance of the Young Lords. No one even knew where (or what) Puerto Rico was. In elementary school, I’d often be asked about my green card status, and I felt the pangs of childhood confusion. What am I? Where do I belong? This is what is it to be a Puerto Rican living on U.S. soil: our relationships and our loyalties are hazy. To be represented at all is a very big deal.
So here comes Ricky, exploding on the scene after dedicating his childhood to work. Singing the World Cup anthem “La Copa de la Vida” at the Grammys in 1999, he received a standing ovation, and you could feel him creating a space for Latino pop artists in the mainstream. Soon after, he released “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” one of the best-selling singles of all time. Then, J-Lo, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias followed. Gracias, Ricky.
It could be said that because of him, I am not asked where Puerto Rico is when I’m interviewed. People have a point of reference now. They have been schooled. Though I play a very different style of music from Ricky, I have experienced my own obstacles in the worlds of both the music industry and personal identity. I know that Ricky Martin paved the way for me, and I’m grateful. He was unapologetic. First, he refused to change his accent. Later, he refused to be ashamed about his homosexuality.
In 2010, Ricky came out; he told the world that he was gay and that he was happy to be gay. Abuelas everywhere spit out their café and shook their heads muttering, “Why the fuck did he have to tell everyone?” (That’s Grandma real-talk.) The answer: being a representative is a lot of pressure. Ricky finally decided that he didn’t live for us, but for himself. His loyal fan base was going to have to work through their internalized homophobia if they were going to continue the journey with him.
Now comes the latest chapter in the story of Ricky Martin. His new record represents to me the frightening place we reach after we decide to be authentically ourselves. This choice will be a roller coaster; it may lead you to lovers, but it cannot promise they will stay. It cannot promise you happiness; it can only offer you freedom.
A Quien Quiera Eschuchar — who wants to listen. Ricky knows we’ve got choices. He’s acknowledging the doors he’s opened, but he’s also recognizing we live in a Beyoncentric world. A lot of the Latin artists he helped paved the way for have created steady careers for themselves, and Ricky is coming back to ask if we’re still escuchando. And he’s asking it in Spanish.
The grimy accordion riff at the start of “Adios” was a pleasant surprise. The song — the album’s opening track — is filled with old-world Spanish influence mixed with modern club vibes. To exclaim “Adios” is a perfect introduction, saying hello to life while saying goodbye to the past.
The imagery on this album is dark, from the hypnotic and forbidden allure of “Adios,” to the bullets spearing Ricky’s heart in “Disparo al Corazon” (“Shot to the Heart”), to the vampiric club lust of “Mordidita” (“Little Bite”), to the agony of “Matame Otra Vez” (“Kill Me Once Again”), where he is begging to be killed again by his love. To die slowly in the arms of his lover, to lose the war they have begun, is the most beautiful way to die. For he’d rather die than continue alone. Alongside his white flag of surrender is the island breeziness of tracks like “Náufrago” (“Castaway”). Though its lyrics read like a heartbroken musical version of the movie Cast Away, the production on “Náufrago” makes it feel as if Ricky is letting the abandonment of love blow through his hair as he watches the sun set, once again on his own.
Another song that struck me was “Cuanto Me Acuerdo de Ti” (“How Much I Remember You”). The most poetic work on the album opens with surfy guitar, Ricky’s raspy vocals reciting slowly crawling lyrics about a haunted heart. Utilizing images of desperate war veterans, serpents full of venom and politicians hungry for power, the song plays like a black-and-white film. You feel him tango with his emotions and his memories. The song is full of sensuality and body images — a juxtaposition of the mental and the physical. Martin is still here, a sexual being with his lover’s mouth plaguing his dreams.
For Martin to share his sexual desire with us is a political act. For him to be creating pop music that is filled with the playful and erotic language of a song like “Mordidita” is brave and uncompromisingly queer.
“Isla Bella” (“Beautiful Island”) is another essential song. It may seem like a diversion from the album’s themes of heartbreak but in fact, it is Ricky returning to the story’s core. He revisits the beautiful island of his birth, Puerto Rico, and the neighborhood through which he used to run, where the old people on the corner warned him, “It does not matter what you have when you leave the station. One always returns to their roots.” The opening sound of the coquis chirping and the congas beating, blending with the finger-picked guitar, filled me with pride. He declares, “Who I was and who I am/with and for my beautiful island,” adding another dimension of humanity to the album. There is a delicate balance between the parts of ourselves that come alive in love, and the parts of ourselves that come alive when it’s over. So often, through the tears, we’re led back home.
At the end of the maze through the heart and soul of Ricky Martin comes the album’s most hopeful track, “A Quien Quiera Escuchar.” Maybe the only thing left is his audience; maybe all he has is luck on his side. But, as he says in the title track, “If tomorrow is a mistake, I want to be wrong.” Ricky, after all, is a trailblazer, an artist and a survivor. He will always have himself.