Why J.Lo’s Spanish turn during Biden’s inauguration meant so much

Enrique Limón
·5-min read

Joseph Robinette Biden’s swearing in as the 46th president came when the nation needed a unifying message the most. It was also a day of firsts: one wherein flags staked on the National Mall grounds replaced the usual cheering hordes; and one during which Kamala Harris was minted as the first woman in US history, as well as the first Black person and first person of South Asian descent, to take the office of the vice presidency.

It was also one that broke tradition, with 96-year-old former president Jimmy Carter skipping the pomp for the first time in four decades due to health concerns, and Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, choosing to duck out as the final temper tantrum in his checkered presidency.

For those of us with accent marks on our names and a higher concentration of melanin in our skin, it was also a banner day in terms of representation. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor swore-in Harris—using a bible once owned by the late Thurgood Marshall, no less.

But it didn't stop there. Enter Jennifer Lopez, decked in winter white, singing a mashup of "This Land Is Your Land" and “America the Beautiful.” Then, two minutes and 15 seconds in, the record scratch heard across many a caucasian household: “¡Una nación bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos!” (The Pledge of Allegiance’s “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”)

Like so many Latinos in the US, because of my name, cultural heritage, the comfort food I eat, the language I speak when I’m with my mom and siblings (in public and elsewhere), many other aspects of my past lived experience, and my current day-to-day, I have been othered my entire life. Growing up, mass media representation came in spurts and instances. They were also few and far between. Witnessing Lopez’s en Español ad-lib was enough to make my Grinchy journalist heart grow three sizes, and almost forgive her for immediately segueing to a sample of her own 1999 hit, “Let’s Get Loud”—almost.

Jennifer Lopez is Puerto Rican, and I’m not. She is a multimillionaire Hollywood star, and I’m not. She’s a doting mother of two. I’m not. But we share a common multiculturalism vein (one that’s become a hot topic as of late.)

Seeing her take center stage at the Capitol Building’s West Front, the same spot that became ground zero for the insurrectionist attack two weeks ago, I was filled with pride. I couldn't help to think about Selena Quintanilla, the slain Tejano singer who Lopez played during her first big Hollywood break. I’m not knocking Lopez’ accomplishments as in the almost 24 years since the biopic came out, she’s become an entertainment juggernaut in her own right, but I still found myself thinking that in an alternate reality where Selena would still be alive, she would have surely taken part in today’s ceremony.

The two singers’ histories are intertwined. When Netflix announced the release of a limited series based on the life of the “Queen of Tex-Mex,” Lopez took to Instagram and referred to her own turn playing Selena as a “landmark moment” in her career. The saccharine series, which just announced its second season release, received mixed reviews, and was knocked for it’s Disneyfication of the Mexican-American singer (and its overuse of crunchy wigs). Still, so many of us will take representation wherever we can find it and you better believe I binged it. While anglo audiences get “The Crown” and “The Queen’s Gambit” during the same calendar year, this is all we might get for a while.

Perhaps it was the percolating reality that the barbaric past four years are now in the rearview mirror. Maybe it was the fresh memory of the high school Nuevo Santander mariachi band performing their own rendition of "This Land Is Your Land” during last night’s under-the-radar virtual Latino Inaugural, but Lopez’ bilingual turn on such a grand scale touched some deep, sensitive fibers.

Along with the nation at large, the US Latino population (estimated to be more than 60 million) has a lot of healing to do, a sea of mourning tears to dry up and a choice as to who to trust moving forward. We are a resilient people. We are also an undeniable force—political and otherwise. We have long memories and are no one's pendejos.

For all of today’s theatrics, as much as they are appreciated, our jaws collectively clench when we think about the still present Hispanic-white wage gap; our hearts break over the news of the countless children separated at the southern border and the horrid human rights violations ICE detainees are subject to; and our blood pressure rises (literally and figuratively) when considering the disparities our community faces in terms of quality healthcare.

With the inefficacy of Trump’s Covid-19 response, plus its effect on the economy, joblessness and national morale (not to mention foreign relations and immigrant, transgender, and many other rights curently in shambles), it’s clear the Biden administration will face an uphill battle. One that once my shriveled little heart goes back to its normal size, will surely reveal a number of missteps and errors in judgement.

But for an hour on Wednesday, I, along with the millions of people who watched the broadcast, found myself to be the most hopeful I’ve been in a long while, with Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman’s words “We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one” resonating in my own bronze-pounded chest.