Shakira’s Crossover into American Music Taught Me to Reject My Latinx Roots—Then Reclaim Them
The arc of my journey with Shakira traces a path from veneration to rejection to reembrace.
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Creating “Latin music” for the American mainstream produced a sort of flattening. It meant capitalizing on appealing stereotypes and anglicizing lyrics as much as possible. It meant a clave sound here, some bongo drums there, and dousing it all with “Latin flavor” and “spice.” It meant an exaggerated, exoticised Andean flute to color the equally catchy lyrics of Laundry Service’s breakout hit, “Whenever, Wherever.”
I couldn’t pinpoint why at the time, but looking back, Shakira’s crossover, to me, felt like a betrayal. Her rockera Alanis-like persona in Spanish felt so real and attainable, while her bleached-blonde, hyper-sexualized persona in English felt so fake and distant. Rather than stick with the old Shakira, whom I knew and loved, I dug further into my Brittney fandom, which later evolved into a veneration of Avril and early aughts pop punk. I stopped seeking out Spanish-language music altogether.
Listening to Laundry Service now, I can see how painstakingly it was curated. It was meant to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, with the English singles released in the US and the Spanish singles released in Latin America and Spain. In a video promoting the twentieth-anniversary rerelease of Laundry Service, Shakira even explains that she first wrote “Whenever, Wherever” in Spanish: Spanish came first; English came second.
As if to double down on Shakira’s newly minted crossover status, Laundry Service includes an attempt to recreate one of her greatest hits. “Ojos Así,” one of the most popular singles from 1998’s ¿Dónde Están los Ladrones?, gets translated to “Eyes Like Yours” in a laughably awkward word jumble that makes a mockery of the original: “And now it seems / that I without your eyes could never be.”
I took Shakira’s transformation as confirmation that I, too, should continue to transform by becoming a watered-down assimilated self, primed for US consumption.Fueled by Laundry Service and its cultural aftermath, I reached what social psychologist L. Tse refers to as stage two of ethnic identity development: ambivalence and evasion.
By late middle school, I had all but stopped speaking Spanish. The less I spoke it, the more difficult it became and the less I wanted to speak it. It was a vicious cycle. I became the kind of teen that wore a studded belt, wore too much black eyeliner, and frequented the Vans Warped Tour. I sank away from Pies Descalzos, a touchstone of my early cultural identity, and embraced a mainstream American pop-punk identity. This scene was decidedly anglophone and white—I no longer had a model for what it could mean to be Latina and punk.
She Wolf, Shaki’s third English-language album, was a turning point. In a van during my college orientation, we belted out “there’s a she wolf in your closet / let it out so it can breathe,” and it was in that bonding singalong that I started to let my guard down. I embraced this turn in her music somewhat ironically until I started to really reclaim Shaki, not as a childhood role model, but as an international pop diva, as someone who did what early aughts culture demanded she do—dye her hair blonde and sing in English—in order to become that diva. She did what she had to do. We all did.
Then, with 2010’s Sale el Sol, Shakira returned to what I understood to be a more genuine version of herself, borrowing from her pre-crossover persona for several more albums in the 2010s, including the predominantly Spanish-language El Dorado, released in 2017. As an international superstar, she had the flexibility of fame—license to imbue her reinvented selves with remnants of the old-school Shakira I knew and loved.
In 2018, I found myself on a work trip in Mexico City. It came to my attention that Shakira was on her El Dorado tour and that she would be performing in one of Mexico’s largest stadiums, the Estadio Azteca. To get there, my colleagues and I took a long Uber ride across the city, south, past the vastness of the city and to the expansive stadium grounds. From the nosebleed seats, I saw Shakira in the flesh, a tiny speck on the stage below and a towering giant on the screen hanging above. Though she didn’t sing “Pies Descalzos, Sueños Blancos,” she did sing most of her Spanish hits. The group of Mexican teens sitting in front of us knew every single word to every single song. I joined them when I could, singing along to the old-school tracks with the lyrics I had never forgotten.
The arc of my journey with Shakira traces a path from veneration to rejection to reembrace. Though her crossover influenced my assimilationist behavior, her several Spanish-language albums in the 2010s led to a sort of rediscovery. She was still there, hiding beneath her bleached-blonde hair. I was still there, too, it turns out, after years of adolescent rebellion via cultural evasion. I learned to roll my r’s again, revealing a self that I had desperately missed. I dawned hoops and red lipstick, no longer afraid to look too Latina. What I didn’t gain through fame and recognition, like Shaki, I gained through a sort of linguistic and stylistic reconquest.
When a professor asked me to think critically about art, in any form, that had affected me throughout my life, Shakira’s music immediately came to mind. It felt too obvious: Colombian American woman reflects on how the world’s most famous Colombian pop star influenced her. Why did Shakira feel like such a prominent pop culture figure in my life? I had to take a deep dive into Laundry Service, the album that caused the schism between us, to answer that question.
Returning to Laundry Service now, I’m surprised to discover a banger in “Te dejo Madrid.” It’s a track that I’ve been blasting on my bike speakers while pedaling through central Brooklyn this summer. But I barely remember it from its original release. (As it turns out, it was never even released as a single in the US.) The opening rock-guitar riff harkens back to rokera Shakira, while its distinctive, rebellious chorus inspires a deep nostalgia for early aughts Latin pop rock. Maybe “Te dejo Madrid” happens to stand out—to me, today—because it’s a marriage of old-school Shakira and crossover Shakira. The song is rokera Shakira with only a hint of the crossover brand. It’s what I aspire to be. It’s a yes and.
Why did Shakira feel like such a prominent pop culture figure in my life?
The Shakira of today isn’t perfect. She is set to stand trial for tax evasion in Spain and recently announced a separation from longtime partner Gerard Piqué. But the Shakira of today is a Shakira who knows who she is. She has reconciled her pre- and post-crossover identities. Sharing the 2020 Super Bowl stage with JLo (and slaying), Shakira reached undeniable icon status.
Though Shakira’s assimilationist crossover strategy may have been necessary in 2001, no one would buy it today. Today, there seems to be space—and permission, even encouragement—for linguistic and cultural rootedness. You only have to look as far as Bad Bunny, who is at the top of the charts with his all-Spanish-language album Un Verano Sin Ti, released this year, to see that assimilation is now—for the most part—antithetical to critical and popular success.
Smaller but still well-known indie pop acts like the Marías, who collaborated with Bad Bunny on the new album’s track “Otro Atardecer,” are doing something even more groundbreaking, something that I wish I had been exposed to as a kid. They are singing in Spanglish, transcending borders on both ends of the American continent. It goes beyond assimilation or appropriation. It’s wholly representative of a very real, multilingual lived experience.
My crossover, which took place sometime between 1999 and 2009, was less intentional. Assimilating and rejecting my otherness was a coming-of-age mode of survival. Since early college, though, since the days of She Wolf, I have reconnected with what came before.
In 2016, I got a job that took me all over Latin America, and in 2019, I went back to live and work in my native Bogotá. Now, I’m a student in a bilingual graduate journalism program that has forced me to write in my native tongue. I am a product of this country’s flattening cultural directive and of my own drive to reengage with my origins. Maybe I’m also a yes and.Ultimately, I’m still the little girl on the Floridian highway, my feet hanging over the backseat of the car, singing along to my favorite old-school Shakira track.
Tasha is a Colombian-American writer, journalist, and educator based in New York City. As a staff writer for The Bogotá Post, an English-language news outlet in the Colombian capital, she focused on gender and LGBT+ issues. She is a Bilingual MA candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.