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"Oh, he's joking!" laughs Barbarita Hernan, on-air personality at oldies radio station Clasica 92 (WCMQ-FM 92.3). Barbarita squeals as programming director German Estrada introduces the voluptuous bottled-honey-blonde as "Marilyn Monroe." Consulting a log prepared for her by Estrada, Barbarita punches buttons on the control panel and pops numbered compact discs in and out of a series of slots. As she swivels from task to task, her long locks bounce against her back to the rhythm of her constant patter, on and off the air. She recounts with a smile how she is proud to have come from Cuba in 1980, during the Mariel boatlift. "So do you like that song, 'Could She Be a Virgin'?" I ask, referring to a hit popular on the island at the time of the Mariel exodus and still in rotation on Clasica. Barbarita squeals again. "If German told you that, he's joking," she says. "Listen, that song is from a movie that came out in Cuba when we were leaving the island. All the starlets who sang in the movie had big -- ," she cups her hands in front of her chest, " -- and a big -- ," she points down behind her back. "He says I like that song because I have mmm -- ," she gestures front, " -- and mmm -- ," she gestures back, "too."
To set the record straight, Estrada brought up "Could She Be a Virgin?" to demonstrate the anatomy not of Clasica's most effusive star, but of the station's unique music programming. Dedicated to music from the 1960s through the early 1980s, Clasica 92 re-creates the sounds Latin Americans now living in Miami remember hearing in their home countries. "We try to play songs that have meaning for particular groups. Nicaraguans really like 'I Manage to Forget You' by Hernando. For the Marielitos Carmen Sevilla's song 'Could She Be a Virgin?' brings back memories."
In an era when corporate playlists rule the airwaves, and market surveys generate identical programming across the nation, Estrada plucks the music played on Clasica right out of his head. "I don't need to do any research," says Estrada. "I lived those years." In his native Honduras, Estrada began introducing the latest in Latin-American and U.S. pop to listeners as programming director of a radio station at the age of nineteen. "It's practically like going back to that era," Estrada observes, comparing Clasica today with what aired in his hometown, San Pedro de Sula, from 1969 through 1977. "I think a song that was a hit in its own time remains a hit forever." Rather than rely on the promotions departments of major labels, Estrada mines Clasica's audience for new material. "If someone requests a song I don't know or a song we don't have at the moment, I try to find it," he explains. "It's hard to get these kinds of recordings, but the station has faithful listeners who bring me records from their own collections." To prove his point, he holds up a copy of Pat Boone's White Christmas on vinyl, the cover tattered and stained.
From the preening of Cuban starlets to the crooning of Pat Boone, Clasica 92 taps more memories than just tropical tunes and balmy ballads en español. This soundtrack of yesteryear also features the English language doo-wop, classic rock, lounge, and soul that flooded Latin-American airwaves -- and the countless Spanish language translations and imitations those hits spawned. An hour of Clasica 92 packs more kitsch delights than a month of Sundays spent at a thrift shop. A typical run begins with Tom Jones's masterwork of smarm, "Love Me Tonight"; dives into an abyss with Olga Guillot's "Bravo" ("you deserve applause for the way you've wounded me"); then bobs up again with an instrumental version of "Love Will Keep Us Together," played on an otherworldly Moog synthesizer. Forget about Austin Powers's velvet-jacketed British Isles: The grooviest sounds of the century came from our neighbors to the south. Unable to drown out the din of Uncle Sam's pop culture machine, the rest of the hemisphere responded by playing the music right back in distorted imitation. What might sound derivative or even offensive to the imperialists' ears really was a dulcet-toned declaration of independence within a global culture under U.S. control. Latin America took a swizzle stick to the United States' musical version of manifest destiny, stirring in the absurd comedy of mambo and the tragic notes of filin (a.k.a. "feeling") to serve up a perpetual Radio Free America cocktail hour.
Latin America's resistance to U.S. cultural imperialism by Spanish immersion and wacky subversion fared better than did more conventional revolutions on the continent. Devoted listener Vanessa Mana compares Clasica with the radio stations she heard growing up under the Sandinista regime. "Down there the programming was the same, except in Nicaragua you would hear more music in English," she recalls. Together with her husband Carlos, Vanessa has supplied Clasica with a series of home-burnt compilation CDs of their personal favorites, ranging from Central American folklore to Colombian cumbias to U.S. disco gems like Sylvester's "Do You Wanna Funk?" and the Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love." Some years shy of Clasica's demographic target of 35 to 64 years old, the Manas started collecting young. Rifling through a pile of vinyl albums, Vanessa pulls out the extended single "Living on Video" by obscure Canadian Hi-NRG duo Trans X: "This was on the radio all the time in Nicaragua." Above the photo of the woman with dark eyeliner and spiked blond hair, the Mexican distributors translate the song as "Bailando en video," as though "dancing" and "living" mean the same thing. Vanessa recounts how music seemed like life to her when she was a little girl: "My mother bought this for me when I was eight years old. My father would always complain that she bought me too much music, but I had to have it."
The couple crams their collection of more than 1500 CDs and an equal number of albums and cassettes into the pink two-bedroom ranch in Little Havana they share with their two children and Vanessa's parents. Precious Moments collectible figurines share the nightstand with a mixing board and a digital recording system. A PlayStation game threatens to drown out the snippets of songs Carlos selects, as their eight-year-old son battles dinosaurs and unsettles the discs scattered across his parents' double bed. The Manas supply music not only to Clasica but to the locally based Nica Records, as well as to a wide circle of friends. Vanessa adds to their collection by scouring the bargain bins across the city, while a cousin who DJs at radio station Stereo Hit in Managua sends her recent Nicaraguan releases and rare vintage finds. Asked why they bother listening to the radio with so much to choose from at home, Vanessa confesses that she keeps four radios going at all times at a branch office of Union Planters Bank, where she works as head teller. "They can fire me, but I have to have my music," she says with a laugh. "And I can't carry all these CDs there every day." Carlos agrees: "We listen to the radio because you don't want to be changing the disk yourself every couple of minutes. We give Clasica the music we want to hear and let them play it."
Back at the microphone, Barbarita obliges, announcing in Spanish Abba's 1976 glitterball classic, "Dancing Queen." With the Swedish superstars' squeaky harmonies in the background, the DJ recalls how "American" music invaded the revolutionary Cuba of her youth. "Back when I was thirteen, fourteen years old, the music had to be American, even though we didn't understand the lyrics. We used to tape Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, the Eagles, groups like that, off radio stations from up here in Florida." By the time she entered the theater program at Cuba's prestigious National School for the Arts, the young Barbarita had joined a group of friends imitating Abba at Havana's Miramar Theater. As "Dancing Queen" fades, she plugs her morning show, proclaiming, "She is the queen of the night, but I am the empress of the morning." Empress, Virgin, Marilyn Monroe. Barbarita -- like Clasica -- confronts the juggernaut of American culture by imitation, challenging the tyranny of the U.S. music industry by making the songs her own.