How Fiesta Latina Used Music To Shift Focus Back To Relief In Puerto Rico

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On a warm Saturday evening last week, the citizens of Miami converged en masse on the immense American Airlines Arena, heavy with anticipation. iHeartRadio was hosting its annual Fiesta Latina, and the deck was stacked with a near-who’s who of Latin Pop Music. One of the biggest names in the genres history, Ricky Martin was tasked with opening the show. Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” renown would be there too; so will Yandel, CNCO, Camila Cabela, and Jesse Y Joy. Diplo is also on the lineup for some reason.

I would never claim to be the world’s biggest Latin pop fan. Like many, I grew up dancing to the “Macarena” at junior prom and blasting Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in my dad’s car but that’s pretty much as far as it goes for me. Reggaeton however, now that’s a genre I’m quite familiar with. I spent the ages of 19 through 21 living in El Paso, Texas just around the height of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” fever. You couldn’t hit a club without hearing that track play five times a night minimum. The distinctive boom, da, boom, duh beat is ingrained in my DNA.

So it was with intense interest that I made my way inside the home of the Miami Heat, eager to fully immerse myself in a world I’m wholly unfamiliar with. Oh, did I mention I don’t speak or understand a lick of Spanish? Except for a little onstage banter here and there, for about five hours I remained completely and totally unaware of much of what anyone said or sang about. Regardless of all these limitations, I have to tell you, the experience was thrilling!

Right from the jump, the energy in the room felt electric. Just before 8 PM, a countdown ticker began running down from 60 on the big jumbo screen above the stage. iHeartRadio host Enrique Santos appeared to introduce the first, and biggest act of the night, Ricky Martin. At the mere mention of his name, a torrent of screaming broke out that was only surpassed by the appearance of the man himself, clad all in black, with a shirt buttoned up just low enough to expose his tanned chest.

Martin launched right away into his 2015 hit “La Mordidita,” a dark and slinky track propelled by a heavy, thumping bass drum. From there he segued into the soaring ballad “Gracias Por Pensar En Mi,” which got a significant contingent of couples in the audience looking longingly into each other’s eyes. As compelling as the music was however, the real focus of the evening was the devastation in Puerto Rico following the touchdown of Hurricane Maria that killed 54 people, left thousands more homeless, and sparked a major humanitarian crisis.

After playing his pair of opening tracks, Martin was interrupted by Santos to be presented with the Corazón Latino Award for his recent work in Puerto Rico and his efforts to stop human trafficking. Overhead, shots of Martin on the Island delivering supplies and meeting with people flashed across the screen. “This is a long commitment,” he said after receiving his trophy. “This is only the beginning.” Afterwards, he busted out his most recent hit, the song “Vente Pa’ Ca” and exited the stage through an enormous cloud of confetti.

For the next three and a half hours, the 20,000 in attendance were treated to the best that the Latin Pop world has to offer. Among the crowd was a collection of 2,000 first-responders who had helped in hurricane relief efforts, invited as the personal, special guests of Marriott. The hotel chain launched the #LoveTravels initiative to give these heroes and their families a night off to celebrate and be celebrated, and they were honored in stunning fashion, with a bevy of personal salutes onstage. One of the biggest cheers of the night actually was given to a FEMA Search and Rescue dog.

The efforts to highlight the plight of Puerto Rico didn’t end there. All through the evening, different messages were relayed on the big screen, telling folks how they could donate. Puerto Rican flags were almost everywhere you looked as well. For Luis Fonsi, the other big attraction of the show, and a Puerto Rican native, the evening took on a special level of significance.

In an interview with People the day before Fiesta Latina, Fonsi rang a hopeful note. “Everyone’s support has been keeping the spirit of my people alive,” he said. “People on the island have really come together to help each other. It is this generosity, this hospitality, and the beauty of our island that makes Puerto Rico an amazing place. The resiliency and strength of our people will get us through the days ahead.”

Just like Martin, when Fonsi walked into view gently strumming an acoustic guitar, the crowd practically exploded. He launched headway into his song “Corazon En La Maleta,” then hit us with “No Me Doy Por Vencido,” and “Party Animal,” before slipping into one of the most streamed songs in history, “Despacito.” Since I’d spent the night before and the earlier portion of the day in Miami, ‘d already heard that song pouring out of the windows of open car windows no less than a dozen different times. It was inescapable. To hear it again live, among that crowd who went totally ape-sh*t for it, was a thill I won’t soon forget.

If Fiesta Latina accomplished anything, it showed, once again, that music is imbued with an undeniable capacity to bring people together in times of intense trauma. Its healing powers are undeniable, and the people who make it, and the organizations who support its creation are true healers. Puerto Rico, Florida, Houston and other Hurricane-affected areas have a long way to go on the road to recovery. As evidenced by their words onstage and their actions leading up to the show, the Latin music community has only just begun their commitment to getting them to the finish line.