With their search for the "spirit of Latin American culture" in ¡Q'Viva! The Chosen, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony are making a splash in U.S. reality television entertainment. The iconic Latino power couple -- who recently separated -- are televising their search to cast a live Latin music and performance spectacle in Las Vegas. But while Q'Viva touts J Lo and Marc Anthony as making the dreams of "undiscovered" Latin artists come true in Hollywood -- or at least in Vegas -- it often reads like just another example of reality TV exploitation. (For starters, there's no financial compensation for the artists, whose talent as well as their stories of personal struggle and tragedy are used to market the show.) Ultimately, the real dream makers in this story are not J.Lo and Marc Anthony; they are some of the contestants, a group of young people called Son Batá who are teaching kids how to dream of social change in the ghettos of Medellin, Colombia. And as it turns out, these dreams can't be made in Hollywood.
Q'Viva follows J Lo and Marc Anthony as they travel to 21 Latin American countries selecting artists to come to Los Angeles to compete for a spot in the live show in Vegas. Currently being broadcast in the U.S. on Univision and Fox (as well as across Latin America and Canada), this "legacy project" is quickly becoming a landmark in the mainstreaming of Latin-focused, bilingual entertainment in America; it's the first bilingual reality TV show to be broadcast on a major U.S. network. Q'Viva's unironic use of colonial-era stylized maps complements the narrative of discovery as J.Lo and Marc Anthony make the "journey of a lifetime." For J.Lo, "This is like me being able to really, really go: I AM LATINA AND THIS IS WHO WE ARE!" This passion project is undisputedly fulfilling the dreams of J.Lo and Marc Anthony. But what about the contestants?
The Afro-Colombian music group known as Son Batá is from the most notoriously violent part of the city of Medellin, Colombia -- a city made famous by the drug trafficker Pablo Escobar and some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Their neighborhood, Comuna 13, has long been divided block by block between warring armed gangs. It was the site of dramatic military operations in the 1990s and early 2000s; some members of Son Batá remember hiding under mattresses and furniture to avoid stray bullets. To this day Comuna 13 remains divided along invisible borders controlled by complex networks of armed gangs.
Having witnessed the murder of many of their friends, Jhon Jaime Sanchez, Jhon Freddy Aspirilla and Carlos Alberto Sánchez started Son Batá in 2005 when they were teenagers to create an alternative to gang membership for youth and children. Their weapons? Drums, clarinets, dance, theater, and hip hop. (Son Batá is a play on words that translates as both the sound of drums and "they are drums.") As Sanchez explains, "In a city, in a neighborhood where normally people are accustomed to hearing gun shot after gun shot, then to suddenly hear the sound of musical instruments, laughter, song, everyone starts to come out to their windows, on their balconies, 'look at what they're doing'!" Through art and music, Son Batá is creating what they call a territory of artists, running a kind of informal school where youth teach other youth not only how to play music, dance and act, but also how to be a proactive citizen and promote non-violence. Son Batá's work is effecting real social transformation, replacing the sound of gun shots with the sounds of drums, and membership in armed gangs with membership in a music group -- and it has gained city-wide, national and international recognition for doing so.
As Jhon Freddy Aspirilla explains, Son Batá tries to "recuperate young people's ability to dream... it's not just about the art; the goal of Son Batá is not to develop great artists but rather to create better people. Because change starts with the individual," says Aspirilla. He co-founded the hip hop group that eventually became Son Batá when he was 16. Now 24, he and Son Batá have influenced the lives of nearly 500 youth, making it possible for them to choose musical instruments over guns in a place where joining an armed gang is often the fastest way to gain respect and earn an income.
When Marc Anthony travelled to the outskirts of Medellín -- far from his "five-star life" -- to "discover" Son Batá he remarked, "when you do something artistic to survive, it just comes from a totally different place. This is what it's all about... we have to come to these barrios to find talent like Son Batá." It certainly makes for a good story. So he brought 21 of them to Hollywood.
Nelson Córdoba, known on Q'Viva as "Bomby", has grown up in Son Batá. Bomby is quiet and shy offstage but onstage he steals the show. By the time he was 14 he was the star of the group, playing his clarinet and getting a rise out of audiences across the city as well as around the country. Recently he and others from Son Batá opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Bogotá.
Now 16, Bomby has been caught in the crossfire of one of Q'Viva's dramatic sub-plots: In Episode 4 (Episode 2 on Fox) he was offered a spot in the Vegas show but the rest of his group was cut. The show has leveraged the theme of breaking up artistic collaborators, using the familiar Latino experience of separation to spice up the drama. In addition to Son Batá, salsa and tango partners have been divided as some are chosen and others rejected --though not without resistance by the dancers and a lot of tears. Some choose not to go without their partners. Their stories become a central part of Q'Viva's narrative, providing emotional scenes and cliff-hangers between segments. Against the backdrop of a diaspora so characterized by divided families, the turmoil of separation seems purposefully manufactured by the show's producers to resonate with its Latino audiences.
The tension for Son Batá is that they operate as a collective (colectivo), which means they see their strength as greater than the sum of their parts. And their mission is bigger than the music; the music is a means to bring about social change. In Q'Viva, Bomby is thus faced with a difficult choice: whether or not to trade his identity as part of Son Batá (which he calls "mi familia") and the bonds of solidarity for the potential fame promised by Marc Anthony if he goes solo.
For legal reasons documented ad nauseum in the non-disclosure agreement that Son Batá and all of the participants in Q'Viva had to sign, the details of their behind-the-scenes experience and the judges' choice cannot be revealed. Nor can the negotiations that ensued between Son Batá and the show's producers, or the final outcome of Bomby's decision. Suffice it to say, even before they were cut from the talent competition, the bubble of hope surrounding this "Hollywood dream" had started to pop and its superficiality revealed. As one member of the group summed it up, "It was all very Hollywood."
Son Batá is about process more than product; the real fruits of their music are the young dreamers who choose life over death and become positive agents of change. They may not be the most polished and professionalized performers, but they bring the calentura and put on a great show that inspires many to follow in their footsteps. So far, what Q'Viva has illustrated is that some things can't be imported by Hollywood for commercial consumption: the culture of collectivity, and art for the sake of social transformation.
The Hollywood dream -- J.Lo and Marc Anthony's dream -- is one of individual fame. For some, the dream of becoming a better person and working together to bring about social change is more meaningful than becoming famous. While Son Batá may not be among "The Chosen," they return to Colombia to help more youth choose life over death, a clarinet instead of a pistol.