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With Abraham Lincoln glowering in the background and fireworks bursting in the sky, Ricky Martin swung his famous hips at the opening ceremony of the presidential inauguration to his bombastic hit "The Cup of Life." His dance pupil, barely president-elect George W. Bush, put his hands on his own stationary nether region and tilted from side to side in a move that looked more like "I'm a Little Tea Pot." For an administration with questionable legitimacy, a strained relationship with gays and non-whites, and a sad lack of star power, Ricky's hips seemed to stir up just the tempest of sexy Latin celebrity that might make sense of George W.'s claims to welcome all into his big Republican tent. "I want everybody to hear loud and clear," he said while standing still, "that I'm going to be the president of everybody."
Songwriter Robi "Draco" Rosa did not like the message one bit. "Singing “The Cup of Life' at George Bush's inauguration is like playing the fiddle while Rome burns," he claimed in a widely published statement that protested the use of his song at the Republican Convention and the inaugural celebration. "This is a president who would have people in his cabinet who would obstruct the exercise of civil rights, human rights, consumer rights, the right to choose, the right to be free of gun violence, and the right to a clean environment," alleged Draco, who also has lent his pen to Martin's other megahits, "Maria" and "Livin' la Vida Loca." For this fellow ex-Menudo, Ricky's presidential performance went beyond the partisan to a question of patriotism. "This is a betrayal of everything that every Puerto Rican should stand for," concluded the angry rockero.
Certainly Puerto Rican artists have long stood for their people when there were no politicians willing or able to do so. In the unique position of a "free associated state" (some say that means colony; others say, does not), Puerto Rico has had an odd relationship with mainland rule since the island's residents were granted a limited U.S. citizenship in 1911 (the good news is Puerto Ricans can still present their own candidate for Miss Universe). In the decades after World War II, under a program known as Operation Bootstrap, the U.S. government herded half of the island's working class up north to work in factories in New York City and other industrial outposts like my hometown, Lorain, Ohio. Playwright René Marques sized up the whole scene by saying that U.S. rule created a creature he called "the docile Puerto Rican": a being eager to please and even more eager to speak English. The barrio superstars of salsa in the 1970s changed all that, singing in Spanish of life on the mean streets of both the mainland and the island -- claiming a country whose national anthem they could hear anywhere anyone played the clave.
You don't hear a lot about life on the street in salsa anymore. In the recent avalanche of Puerto Rican-powered crossover hits, you don't hear the clave much either. Any Spanish that crops up is as easy as "un, dos, tres/allez, allez, allez" (oops, I guess that last part is French). For Ricky Martin the whole politics thing is bewildering, as a transcript from an interview with Mark McEwen on CBS after the inauguration shows. What was his response to the presidential invitation? "Let's do it," said the pop star in a version of the "Go! Go! Go!" chorus of "The Cup of Life."
Then he stammered through the reasoning: "Because this is -- it was not a -- I -- I must say this. I am not political at all. I -- I just don't like it." It was about making history. "S -- and it -- and it was n -- it was not a political event. It was -- it was -- it was about performing for the, you know, new president of the United States of America." Or maybe it had to do with Ricky's Buddhism. "Let's do it. It's all about growing." Or maybe it was his desperate need for exposure. "I've -- I've had the opportunity to be on big stages and -- and all I have to say is that each and every one of them are very addictive and that's what I -- that's what I need to live." Then he offered those words so many fans have been waiting the world over to hear: "When I'm invited, I'll say yes."
A Republican president dances on national television with a gay Puerto Rican hunk who says he is caving into an addiction. Could this be the beginning of a "just say yes" administration? It's true, as Rosa warns, George W.'s cabinet selections do not bode well for those of us who are not white, wealthy, procreative males. And it is not out of the kindness of his heart that the new president makes an effort to recognize us, even if only by renting someone else's hips for a night. It is instead a testament to our growing political power. Now it's up to us to demand that he make good on his promise to be "the president of everybody" -- whether he does so kicking and screaming, or swinging and gyrating.