Dictators, Puerto Rican boy bands, and yellow bracelets

The heat in the badly ventilated sound stage was the first thing that started to get to me. Shortly thereafter, the screaming and crying (wailing actually) started all around me. Suddenly, I realized that the lack of fresh air was the least of my problems. Five hundred teenage girls, all holding up posters and banners tantrumed in unison in the small soundproofed room. All these young girls, my sister included, were there to see the Puerto Rican boy-band Menudo perform live for television cameras. My mom had pulled some strings in order to get my sister in that day. My brother and me, who proudly listened to Kiss records almost exclusively at the time, went along...although I'm not sure why. The performance was mostly dreadful, with the pubescent boys in tight pants doing an embarrassing lip synced performance.

This is what Menudo looked like back then...either that, or this was going to be Rock Racing's newest kit before the team fell apart.

It may sound funny to say this, but going to that performance was akin to seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sure, the lasting effect of the performance I went to was just slightly less impressive, but for all the young girls there that day, this was a huge deal. Their incessant screams, and loud crying let everyone know just how important this moment was. It was in the midst of all this screaming and carrying on that my mother delivered a hilarious blow. After the performance ended, the music quieted down. The crowd's crying and screaming began to subside, as the members of Menudo walked out of the sound stage, near where we were sitting. I was bored, feeling uncomfortable around all these girls, listening to music that I found to be foolish and un-Kiss like. But my mom made things fun. As the boy-band members walked near us, my mother calmly but sternly got the attention one of the members, who was named Johnny:

"Hey Johnny!" she said, as he turned around and looked in her direction. "You are SO ugly!"

I laughed. My mom had made my day. In a sea of screaming girls, she had chosen to be the contrarian figure. The iconoclast. Sure, you can argue that Menudo were never icons, but at that moment, and in that room, they most certainly were. You could also argue that an adult telling a teenager (famous or not) that he's ugly is a bit rough. But I must admit that I laughed that day.

Lessons I learned
While I most certainly had posters of numerous bands and sports figures on my walls as a kid, I was also taught not to idolize them. In some cases, and in the hand of my mother, this sentiment took on the form of trying to shame celebrities...and it wasn't just members of Puerto Rican boy bands that endured my mother's wrath. Consider the time that my mother spoke with the highly regarded Colombian writer and journalist German Castro Caicedo at a cocktail party being held in his honor. During that conversation, my mother told him that his books were terribly overrated, and that he lacked the necessary talent to become a real figure in Colombian literature. She was not saying this to merely insult him, but did so because (she would later tell me), "no one will tell these people the truth to their face." But she would. And although that last point is debatable (that my mother was the lone beacon of truth in all of Colombia), I always found these stories amusing when I was a kid. My mother was a superhero of sorts. She wore no cape, and couldn't fly, but she stood as the last bastion of sense and taste in Colombia. At least it felt that way to me, but I guess all kids idolize their parents in one way or another. I was no different. Plus, her behavior was perfectly consistent with the general distrust of celebrities and icons that was common in my family. It made sense to me. My father corrected the grammar of television newscasters by yelling at the screen, he wrote letters to newspapers correcting flaws in their reports of historical events...and my mother told teen superstars they were ugly. This is how I was raised.

To say that I come from a long line of iconoclasts would be stretching the truth, but I think my family's history explains why this distrust of public figures (big and small) grew over several generations. My father's family escaped Nazi Germany (with my grandfather being active in the resistance movement), while my maternal grandfather had to flee his native city of Ibague as he was pursued by local politicians and their paid thugs. Similarly, my father's memories of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla's dictatorship in Colombia were always vivid, and often conveyed to us. Watching the news as a family (a nightly event at our house), my father often weighed in on how certain politicians or celebrities were attempting to manipulate their image. One such event proved to be true, when then candidate for mayor (and eventual president) Andres Pastrana had himself kidnapped, in order to gain votes and general goodwill from the public. While these examples are extreme (since they include a murderous anti-Semite, a dictator, and a megalomaniac), the lessons they instilled in me were strong, and applied to others. I learned not to believe the image you see or read about. It's probably fake, and possibly an attempt to create a cult of personality (even if at a low level). This is not to say that I was raised to have a fatalist view of life, but rather that I often felt distant from the furor that took over so many in Colombia at different times. This was even true when our beloved national soccer team (who everyone, me included, loved) was known to have obvious ties to the likes of Pablo Escobar. This didn't take away from my excitement about their performances. I jumped around and cheered them on like everyone else, but my parents' insights taught me to keep that excitement within the realm of sport. In Colombia, nothing was at it seemed, so it was best to keep your emotions contained to what you were seeing on screen. Nothing more.

Rojas Pinilla, Colombia's dictator during much of the 50's, was—by Latin American standards— far less brutal than other dictators. Having said that, his time in office is not remembered fondly by anyone who lived through it.

Yellow bracelets
It's with all this in mind that I have trouble reconciling just how insanely hurt, shocked or defensive people are on a very personal level because of the current state of the Armstrong ordeal. Sure, Armstrong achieved more than Menudo did (though its a close call, because their outfits were simply superb), and his bout with cancer added to the value which people saw in his legacy. I can't (or rather, won't) mock the inspiration he caused in some, but I wonder how it came to be that while my father was suffering from cancer, I never once thought of Armstrong as inspiration or anything of the sort...perhaps a rarity in the United States I think. Even years ago, when my father was nearing the end, people sent him yellow Livestrong bracelets in the mail, we merely looked at them and carelessly threw them over the big pile of medical bills and unopened mail that sat on the kitchen table. "Uh...what good are these going to do me?" my father joked. None of us thought for a minute about wearing them. Our plight was a personal one, and a public sports figure simply didn't register in any of our minds in any way when it came to his illness. Not because we actively disliked him, but because my family saw no value in symbolism or in the person behind that symbol. Someone else's struggle (whether real, manufactured, or exploited) had nothing to do with ours. Those bracelets, and the image they conveyed all relied heavily on cancer, and thus on families and individuals at their absolute lowest, and hardest times. But for some reason, none of it resonated with us.

Perhaps this had more to do with the closed-off and private nature of my family, more than any deep or well-thought out sentiment regarding icons and public figures. I'm not sure.

Beating them to the punch
As a fan of cycling, I have to admit that I'm following the Armstrong investigation. But in the context of current events, I can't understand how personally hurt people are by someone else's possible transgressions. I say this because their anger often has little to do purely with sport, but rather the image that was created. The truth (or myth) that they believed in might be false, and they become scorned lovers of sorts as they come to grips with the whole thing. The fact that someone would have to "come to grips" with any of this is beyond me. But then again, look at how I was raised.

Conversely, it's interesting to see how defensive many are of someone they've never met, all based on that same image. For me, the youngest in a family of low-level iconoclasts, it's always easy to take great pleasure at times like this. Almost too easy, and too pleasurable actually. I don't say this with great pride, but rather in the spirit of full disclosure. I don't claim to be more advanced or smarter than anyone else simply because I have always been doubtful of celebrities and their image, particularly those who create and mange their image. As a matter of fact, my standard reaction of general incredulity is perhaps no different than that of someone who believes and trusts by default. Both are borne out of habit. So I'm no better, and/or no worse. I hope.

In the end, perhaps this is all proof of how cold and detached I can be at times. I'm unable to invest any emotion on what may turn out to be false, focusing on what I can see (even though what I can see can itself be false in the end too). Like everyone in Colombia, I'm always on the lookout for someone to cheat me. There's even a term for this, "malicia indigena", which is a mix of streetsmarts, and being cunning to the point of trying to cheat the guy that's trying to cheat you first. You can't really lie to me, if I never believed to begin with...and I can always beat you to the punch, because I was already a step ahead of you anyway.

So you can blame it on my upbringing...but I always feel as though I'm mere seconds away from doing what my mother did on that muggy sound stage in Bogota years ago. I'm always on the brink of getting really close to someone, and telling them just how ugly they are. Even if they're not, but because I want them to know that I never believed...or as we Colombians will often put it, that I never fell for it. I was always one step ahead because of my strong sense of disbelief.