They call her J-Lo -- "That's the ghetto shit," I'm told by one of the boys standing on the corner of Grand Avenue and 181st Street in the Bronx on a hazy Sunday afternoon. J-Lo is Jennifer Lopez, and this is the neighborhood where she lived, long before she became a Hollywood movie star, an MTV-anointed singing star, the face of L'Oréal, and the first Latina ever to become the No. 1 sex symbol in America -- not to mention, the girlfriend of Sean "Puffy" Combs. ("Puff's in love," says a close friend of the rapper's. "This is not just about the booty.")
"If you had my love and I gave you all my ta-rust . . . would you lie to me?"
J-Lo's No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, "If You Had My Love" ("No Me Ames," her duet with Latin heartthrob Marc Anthony, was No. 1 on the Latin chart), floats thinly out of a radio perched at the edge of a fruit stand, where some stricken-looking oranges and bananas are shrinking in the sun. At the first-ever Teen Choice Awards this month, "If You Had My Love" was named Song of the Summer; it was the song kids got sunburned to, and made out to.
"I love yoooo!" Lopez called to her manager, Benny Medina (Puffy's former manager, too), from the stage as she accepted a giant surfboard trophy.
The boys on the corner of Grand Avenue and 181st Street are sweating, shirtless, and have tattoos, shaved heads, or cornrows. "Trying not to be inside," they say. "We don't have no air-conditioning." At first, they want to know "Are you a cop?" until Jennifer Lopez is mentioned. Then they grin. "Yo, tell her they call me Hot Chocolate." "Tell her I can dance, I wanna be in her video." "She's the Puerto Rican princess," one says, and claims he knows her. "You is dreamin'," the others say.
When J-Lo lived on Grand Avenue, she says, her apartment was "cold in the winter and hot in the summer." Her journey from there, one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, has the stunning quality of a defied impossibility. She says the flavor of the neighborhood still haunts her. "When I moved to Los Angeles, I found that the things I clung to the most were things from my culture," Lopez says in her gentle, sleepy voice. "That was the music that I wanted to hear and the food that I wanted to eat. I wanted to be around people who reminded me of home." She's in L.A. now, making her tenth movie, The Cell -- a thriller in which she plays a forensic psychologist; she makes it clear that she would not like to be typecast in "Latino roles."
"The kind of career I always aspired to was very much from the musicals I used to watch when I was young -- Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Bette Midler," says Lopez.
"She's very important to my daughter," says a woman sitting on a stoop on Grand Avenue, braiding her 10-year-old daughter's shiny black hair.
"I like Britney Spears better," says the girl.
On Grand Avenue, Puerto Rican flags hang in every other window, their bright stars dotting the drab brick buildings with hopeful-looking constellations. The boys on the corner are remembering this summer's Puerto Rican Day Parade, when J-Lo was the grand marshal; she was late, steaming up Fifth Avenue past the mayor to take her place at the front of the cavalcade, almost causing a traffic meltdown. "She drove right by me," one of the boys on the corner brags. "I saw that boonkie."
"I saw," Lopez says, "a lot of proud Puerto Rican people."
"Shake it, shake it.''
"I remember being 2 years old and being put on the table and -- in Spanish they say menéalo, but it means 'shake it, shake it,' '' says Lopez. "I think I was probably dancing out of the womb. We are a very musical people, a very passionate people -- "
"What do you think of the term Latin spitfire?" a reporter at another magazine asked Lopez recently. Since she became the Jennifer Lopez, she's been inundated with questions about what it means to be a Latina -- whatever Latina may mean. She herself points out that ethnicity, race, are issues with which Meg and Gwyneth and Julia rarely have to grapple. ("And they ain't even got the booty," one of the boys on the corner says. "Julia got some," another observes.) "Do you think you're the most famous Lopez?" one interviewer asked, calling Lopez a "tantalizing tomatillo."
She tried to oblige: "Nancy Lopez, the great golfer?" "What does Lopez mean?" the interviewer probed. "I don't know," said J-Lo, then challenging, sly: "Would it tell me something about myself?"
There was Desi, dressed in the same pajamas as "Loo-cee"; Xavier Cugat; Tito Puente; Rita Moreno; Chita Rivera . . . The number of Latino superstars America has allowed for can be counted on one hand, maybe two (don't forget Freddie Prinze). But America is changing; in 30 years, Latinos will outnumber every other minority group in the country, and with that, the faces on magazines, in movies, and in front of news cameras are sure to change. The recent craze for things Latino ("Riiiiiicky!") may be no fad but a harbinger of an America to come; and the success -- the Meg-, Gwyneth-, and Julia-size success -- of Jennifer Lopez may represent the dawning of a new era of pop icons. Jennifer Lopez -- full-bodied, hip-hop J-Lo -- is the face of the future of glamour and beauty. And she -- or perhaps this -- has gotten under some people's skin.
"On Monday, March 22," read page 2 of the Daily News, "in the context of a review of the fashions at the Academy Awards, the Daily News made an editorial error and captioned a photo of Jennifer Lopez with the wording, Reformed Tramp. . . ."