Interview with Jen in the October 2006 Issue of Latina

In the October 2006 Issue of Latina Magazine , Pop Star Jennifer Lopez, talks candidly with Esmeralda Santiago about family, marriage to Spanish star Marc Anthony and having a little self respect.

La Vida Lopez

Shoulders back, head high, Jennifer Lopez walks like a Latina. Her famous pompis swaying unabashedly, she strides, as much as it is possible to stride in five-inch wedge slides. In her wake there is a delicious scent, floral but not cloying, unapologetically feminine. On this sweltering New York afternoon, she’s wearing an iris-colored dress influenced by the robes on Greek statues. If she wants to put to rest the rumors that she’s pregnant, this dress does not do it. It flows in graceful folds from just below her breastbone to her ankles, camouflaging her waistline.

Because she has often talked about her desire to have children, the rumors that Jennifer was pregnant began hours after she married Marc Anthony in June 2004. So far, no babies have been born to the couple, but you can’t help but wonder: Is she or isn’t she? She won’t talk about it. She’s told reporters she won’t talk about her personal life. And really, who can blame her?

Soon after she graced the cover of the first-ever issue of Latina in the summer of 1996, Jennifer’s personal life became more fascinating to the press than her artistic work. At the time, Jennifer Lopez the megastar was still a tantalizing couple of years away. She was girlish and open—what journalists call “accessible”—which, translated, means that the celebrity will say anything with no regard for how it will be interpreted, innocent of the certain possibility that a complete answer to what seems an innocuous question will be truncated into a quotable bite.

In the interview for Latina’s premiere issue, she spoke frankly about her recently failed romance with David Cruz, whom she had met while they were still teenagers in the Bronx. She also spoke of the painful break from her mother that had occurred only a few years earlier. But by then they had reconciled, although Doña Lupe, Jennifer confessed, still mourned the fact that her daughter had left home without the requisite velo y corona of the properly raised Puerto Rican Catholic girl. La Doña also closed her eyes during the sexy scenes between Jennifer and her male costars. It’s easy to imagine Mam wincing, perhaps even crossing herself in relief, at Jennifer’s statement to Latina that “I never had to go-go dance, thank God … When you start making $500 a night, it’s easy to say, What’s the big deal if I take off my top?”

Today, Jennifer still has that ingenuousness, although what was once girlish innocence now looks like vulnerability of a different kind. She is now a 36-year-old woman who has been through a whirlwind of changes in the last 10 years and racking up the lessons.

We meet at Sweetface Fashion Company, the headquarters for her fashion lines, high above New York City’s Bryant Park. She greets me with a firm handshake and leads me to her corner office. Except for a vase of white lilies on the windowsill, the office is surprisingly conventional, with the expected clutter of a workplace. Folders are stacked on the credenza and on the corner of her glass-top desk. A computer buzzes on another corner.

Before my interview with her, like anyone else not under a rock, I had heard and read all the flaps, the accusations that she’s a demanding diva or that she long buried “Jenny from the Block” in the depths of her Versace-clad soul.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from her, so when we finally come face to face I am surprised by how refreshingly humilde she is. Translate humilde to English—humble—and it loses its emotional meaning and power. Humildad is not just about modesty; it is about awareness of who you are and where your place is. It is not about accepting your position in life unquestioningly, but about taking responsibility for and pride in the life you have created. Pride without humildad is arrogance. And that’s not what I sense in Jennifer at all. Instead, I see a Bronxarican girl with big dreams. “For me,” she says, “and this is the absolute truth, it was never about fame. For me it was about: I want to be a great actress. I want to be a great dancer. I want to be a great singer. And to this day, those are still my goals. I would like to be a better singer, a better actress, even though I know I’m better than I was 10 years ago.”

In spite of her efforts to soften her New York accent to expand the kinds of roles she will be considered for, Jennifer’s voice has the nasal quality of a native New Yorker, and her speech still carries the inflections of the Bronx and the staccato rhythm of the street. As she speaks, she forms ideas with her hands so that the gold bracelets on both wrists click and jangle, punctuating the frequent, earnest, “You know what I mean?” of someone who very much wants to be understood. And that, too, is part of her humildad.

As we talk, she begins to look back at her early days and fondly recalls Larry Maldonado, her first dance teacher at the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx. She admits that once she overheard him tell her mother that while he did not consider Jennifer the best dancer, he always put her at the front of the line because she gave the most.

What happened in the years that followed, of course, is now the stuff of Latino Hollywood lore: She became a Fly Girl on the ’90s hit show In Living Color; she landed a small role on Gregory Nava’s epic, Mi Familia, then bounced around other films with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Wesley Snipes and Robin Williams. The big break came in 1997 when she played the late Tejano singer Selena in the biopic about the murdered star’s short life. Jennifer not only walked away with the biggest paycheck ever given to a Hispanic actress at the time—$1 million—but her performance also earned her a Golden Globe nomination and catapulted her into a new stratosphere of fame.

It has been, however, her personal life—her two failed marriages, one to waiter Ojani Noa and another to dancer Chris Judd, and two spectacularly failed romances with Sean “Diddy” Combs and Ben Affleck—that has provided the most entertainment for the masses. These days, that is precisely what she is trying to change: Not only is she decidedly quieter than ever before about her private life, but she is also trying hard to bring attention to the kind of meaningful work that marked her arrival in Hollywood in the first place. She’s hoping to achieve this with roles in two new films—Bordertown and El Cantante—expected to be released next year. Both are serious movies, and both have deep roots in the Hispanic community.

It’s all part of the changes in what she calls Phase 2 of her life. “I think my 20s were kind of crazy,” she recalls. “I was an artist, I was a dancer, I was a singer, I was an actress. I was auditioning, I started doing movies, traveling all over the world. And I didn’t have much time to get to know me.”

In Bordertown, directed by Gregory Nava and costarring Antonio Banderas, Jennifer plays a Mexican American journalist who is “not in touch with her roots” but who undergoes a transformation when she is assigned to write about the unsolved murders of women working in or living near the maquiladoras in Juarez, Mexico. The movie is based on the real-life serial (and still unsolved) murders of hundreds of women. “I could just feel it when he sat me down and told me the story,” she recalls of the day Gregory brought her the idea. In fact, she insisted on both starring in and producing it and on making the film one of the first releases to come out of her production company, Nuyorican Productions. “This was a story I felt needed to be told,” she says. “We need to bring some attention to that situation down there because it’s been going on for so many years.”

And in El Cantante, directed by Leon Ichaso and also produced by Nuyorican Productions, Jennifer pairs up with husband Marc to tell the life story of the legendary Puerto Rican singer Hector Lavoe. The script was first brought to Lopez four years ago, when “I was in a different relationship and Marc was married to somebody else.”

Marc plays the tragically flawed Hector, and Jennifer plays Puchi, the wife who facilitated his drug addictions at the same time as she saw they could destroy him. “Everything that we know as people, as artists,” she says, “we were able to put into that film.” Parts of it were shot in New York, and some pivotal scenes were shot in Puerto Rico, with the press hovering nearby, covering every aspect of the production and of Jennifer and Marc’s movements. “It’s not an easy dynamic,” she says of the process of creating demanding work with a spouse. “But we actually love working together because he respects what I do and I respect what he does.”

Respeto. There’s another Latino concept and word for which the literal English translation—respect—can’t begin to convey its entire meaning. Respeto isn’t just about what we do that merits admiration; it’s about who we are in the context of our culture. “We’re a very matriarchal society, Latinos,” she says. “Mothers run the household. But because of that we’re strong, we’re able, we’re powerful, we know how to run things, we know how to take care of house, of home and of any other place. So when you put us in a work environment, we come with that same attack. I did.”

In a less famous person, or in a man, that ability to run things would be worthy of admiration. In a Latina in the public glare, it can at times be portrayed as over-aggressiveness. But Jennifer isn’t apologizing. “My mother is that strong and powerful, my grandmother is that strong and powerful, my aunt is that strong and powerful. I come from a family of very, very strong women—and at the same time, all of us serve our husbands dinner. I was taught that, and I’m very proud of it.”

It was precisely this strong sense of a shared culture that drew Jennifer and Marc together eight years ago, when they worked on her first album, On the 6. Their artistic collaboration evolved into a friendship that weathered clumsy romances and marriages played out in the English- and Spanish-language media in headlines that always seemed to end in exclamation points. But Marc, who has been more successful in keeping his private life private, has enabled Jennifer to do what she says she has long needed and wanted: He’s protected her from the public glare and has encouraged her to claim the space she needs to grow as an artist. “Being with Marc,” she muses, “with both of us being Puerto Rican, both of us being from New York, too, there is a different understanding. There is a different level of ‘I get you.’?”

She goes on: “I think Marc understanding who I am is what makes us work,” she says, and almost imperceptibly, her voice breaks with emotion, and she must take a breath. “If he didn’t, it just wouldn’t…”

Marc, on his end, has said it’s not easy for non-Latinos to understand the ambitious, driven, powerful but unashamedly feminine Latina. “I get what you’re about,” Jennifer says, speaking for him, her voice earnest. “I know why you act that way, I know why you talk that way, I know why you cook that way. I know all of those things because I saw my sister do it and my mother do it.”

The two are also working together on Jennifer’s next album, the fully Spanish-language Como Ama una Mujer, due out next year. It took two years to complete, and in it a different Jennifer emerges. Her voice is a register lower, with a smoky sultriness that matches the mature artist. “It is my masterpiece,” she says proudly. “My work of art.”

I find it telling that, for Jennifer, her masterpiece, her work of art, is in Spanish, the language of her Puerto Rican heritage. Growing up in the Bronx, she spoke English at school and household Spanish to la familia. When she was criticized for not speaking “perfect” Spanish, she made sure to improve it and now feels comfortable enough to use it every day. Learning Spanish has been part of her process of maturing as a Latina, she says, and of claiming her place in her culture at the same time as she straddles American pop culture. It is a familiar juggling act for Latinas in the United States, and Jennifer is aware of it and of the role she plays in inspiring other Latinos. “I know I represent a community,” she says. “I am very well aware of that, and so I would never want to do anything that would be disgraceful to that community.”

It is also important to Jennifer that Latinos—and everyone else, too—see that she’s more than an artist. In the last decade she’s focused on becoming a businessperson as well. And her empire is anything but insignificant: Between her two clothing lines (Sweetface and JLO by Jennifer Lopez), multiple fragrances, her restaurant in Pasadena, California (Madre’s), and the proceeds from her film and music work, she’s estimated to be worth more than $250 million. And if you think she’s just a figurehead for the ventures, someone who lends only her name and doesn’t bother with the details, then think again. She works extremely closely with the designers of her clothing lines, helping develop and approving everything. And she makes a point of actually wearing her brands both on time off and in her music videos.

So when does she sleep? Jennifer laughs and describes the last decade as a time in which she often felt “caught in that little hamster wheel” of constantly thinking not about what was happening at the moment, but about what would be next. “At one point it just gets so tiring, it’s exhausting. . . and it’s not fun anymore.” She says one of the things she’s had to learn is how to take care of herself, to listen to her instincts and to take enough time “to allow myself to dream.”

When asked what she considers to be her highest artistic achievement to date, she doesn’t need to think for a second. “Not yet!” she insists. “I don’t think I ever will get to that point, where I feel like, That’s it, I’ve done it all!” She takes a moment to reflect on what she’s just said, and while she’s satisfied, she’s not sure if I get it. She leans back in her chair, looking up to the ceiling as if an answer were written up there, and lowers her voice. “That’s the only thing I can ask for on my deathbed. That I can look back and say I was constantly growing, all along the way, challenging myself. I’ll never let that go. I’d be very proud of myself at the end of the day if I could just do that. I’d feel like I had a fulfilled life. You know what I mean?”

Esmeralda Santiago is the author of the memoirs When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman and The Turkish Lover.

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