Generation N; Raised on Rock and Ricky Martin, the Latin Gen X Is Cruising the American Mainstream, Rediscovering Their Roots and Inventing a New, Bicultural Identity without Losing Anything in the Translation

Article excerpt

El Conquistador, in the trendy Silverlake section of Los Angeles, is a hard place to find, set off from the street by a doorway of hanging straw. But once you're inside, the Mexican food is authentic and excellent. Over shrimp tacos and albondigas, a traditional meatball soup, Olivia Armas and her husband, Rod Hernandez, begin an affectionate round of teasing. Olivia, 29, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants; Rod's family came to Los Angeles from Mexico two generations ago. From the time they met as undergraduates at UCLA, she has ribbed him about his shaky command of Spanish. "I didn't know what to make of him," she says. "I thought, 'Oh my God, he's a wanna-be Chicano who can't speak Spanish'." Now, as Rod, 31, gropes for the Spanish word for haircut, Olivia rolls her eyes. He returns the dig. Olivia's family's idea of cuisine, he says with a laugh, includes cow innards, organs--"parts of the animal that I had never seen before. I have to beg her to not make me eat that stuff. I say, 'Honey, can we please have pasta tonight?' "

In their gentle jousting, Olivia and Rod are performing a cultural balancing act that has become daily life for millions of young Latinos: the fine art of living in two worlds at once without losing anything in the translation. Largely bilingual--often more fluent in English than Spanish--they belong to a growing generation of truly bicultural Latinos, coming into their 20s and 30s with demographic clout, educational skills and cultural juice their parents never imagined. Where previous Hispanic generations crossed geographic borders, they cross cultural ones, sometimes three or four times in one sentence. Raised on rock and Ricky Martin, the Brady Bunch and "Que Pasa U.S.A?," they navigate an extraordinarily complex web of relationships: with their elders, with Anglos and with each other, inventing identity in the interstices. "For our parents, being Latino was a negative in this country," says Nely Galan, 35, president of entertainment at the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo. "For us it's a plus. We get to be 100 percent American when we want to be, but we can switch and say, 'I'm not even American today; I'm totally Latin. I'm going to a Latin club, I'm listening to Latin music, I'm speaking in Spanish'."

Unlike their Anglo peers, they do not live in the shadow of a more populous baby boom. The Latino population is young and getting younger. "This generation is going to permanently change things," says Rudy Acuna, founding chair of Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge. "Past generations have always assimilated. This time around, there are enough of them to say, 'We aren't going to make it your society. We want to make it on our own terms'."

Bill Teck, 31, set out to name this new power generation. Growing up in Miami, the son of Cuban and American parents, he felt left out of the Generation X rubric, especially the slacker part. "If you're the first generation born and educated in the U.S., you really can't have a slacker mentality." Nothing if not entrepreneurial, he coined the term Generation N--it's pronounced EN-yay, the extra flavor unit in the Spanish alphabet--and copyrighted it in 1995 as a full-service brand. The following year, in the first issue of Generation N magazine, he published a letter that was part come-on, part manifesto. "If you know all the words to [the merengue hit] 'Abusadora' and 'Stairway to Heaven','' it ran, "If you grew up on cafe, black beans and 'Three's Company'... If you're thinking of borrowing one of your father's guayaberas... You're Generation N." As peers in California toyed with their own rubric, Generation Mex, a cohort--or at least a marketing target--was born.

Better versed in American pop culture than their parents, N's can also be more assertively Latin. In a special NEWSWEEK Poll, Latinos over 35 were most likely to identify themselves as American; those under 35 were more likely to identify as Hispanic or Latino. …