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Child of Puerto Rico
San Juan, a town nestled deep within the ruggedly landscaped island of Puerto Rico, was and continues to be a place Ricky Martin is proud to call home. As the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan (population 1.5 million) enjoys a comfortable blend of Old World tradition and contemporary mores. As one of the city's 1.3 million Roman Catholics, Ricky Martin has come to embody everything that's good about the Puerto Rican people: their ample pride, intense spirituality, and burning passion for dance and music.
Although it is governed by the policies of the U.S. and is considered a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has held on to its diverse cultural heritage. Intermingling Spanish, African, and Taino traditions, Puerto Rico's cultural backdrop is anything but homogenous. While Spanish is still the main language, American and Amerindian words are sprinkled liberally within the local patois. As for the country's salt-of-the-earth citizens, while they may pray on Catholic altars, they are even more fiercely aligned to homespun spiritualism and folkloric beliefs.
Traveling through Puerto Rico's regions, one can see the impact of commercialization. More noticeable,however, are the expansive colonial towns that resonate with the domestic tranquility of bygone eras. Nestled between Hispaniola and the archipelagoes of the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico owes a great deal of its demographic beauty to the rocky foothills of Cordillera Central, and its cultural splendor can be traced back to the early Spanish settlers.
During the 1970s, San Juan was an explosive mecca of activity, sound, pulsating rhythms, and color. It was a joyful time, when televisions became mainstream, employment opportunities were plentiful, and "salsa" was heard on every street corner. A simpler and more innocent decade, the seventies were permeated with an aura of celebration and optimism.
San Juan sowed the seeds that would later blossom into the international superstar known to millions as Ricky Martin. "That young child is still alive," Ricky reflected, "and he has transformed himself into the judge of the man that I have become."
Born on December 24, 1971, to Nereida Morales and Enrique Martin Negroni, Ricky Martin was the first and only son of the marriage. As the couple's sole child, Ricky enjoyed the unconditional affection, support, and attention of the family; the kind of love that nurtures greatness; the kind of support that would eventually imbue him with the confidence and charisma needed to dazzle mammoth crowds in every corner of the globe.
As a member of a middle class familyhis father was a psychologist and his mother an accountantRicky's early childhood could be described in three simple words: carefree, joyful, and uninhibited. Even when his parents announced that a divorce was imminent on the horizon, Ricky was spared the trauma of a sudden separation. The love of his family sheltered thetwo-year-old from having to witness any fights or conflicts on the family front. For all Ricky knew, his family unit was as tightly knit as ever.
Sadly, that blissful ignorance would not last forever. When petitioning for a divorce, Ricky's mother and father asked him the impossibleto choose whom he would live with. Ricky spent endless hours in deliberation, deciding, in the end, that he loved both parents too much to part from either of them. Thanks to his parents' wisdom, he never had to pick a favorite. They finally agreed that sharing custody would be in their son's best interest. "It was really hard for my parents because when they got a divorce, they fought over who would be my legal guardian," he recounted to Salut. "And it's hard for a child to choose between his mother and father."
Being shepherded from home to home, Ricky savored the variety that his ever-changing settings af forded him, a variety that would later manifest itself in his constant need to be on the move and spread his music throughout the world. Young Ricky appreciated his parents' effort to part on friendly terms. At that point in his life, Nereida and Enrique were very receptive to his wishes, allowing him the freedom to come and go as he pleased. "My childhood was very healthy, near to my parents, who were divorced," Ricky confirmed. "I did whatever I wanted; I lived with my mother, if I wanted to be with her; and with my father in the same way. I had the same affection from both of them."
While most kids his age would be adversely affected by a family's disintegration, Ricky wasn't at all bothered by the new circumstance. Upon realizing what he stood to gain from the arrangement, any initial discomfort or worry he may have felt quickly faded into thebackground. Already a wheeler and dealer, Ricky managed to find a way to take advantage of the divorce by playing on the guilt of his newly single and unsuspecting parents. No matter what he wanted, whether it would a new toy or time off to play with his friends, his parents made sure that Ricky wasn't disappointed. He boasted to Salut, "It was actually in my favor that they had broken up: they dedicated themselves entirely to me, and I made them do whatever I wanted them to do!"
When the dust of the divorce settled, Ricky was free to live the carefree existence of an average kid. As a student at a Catholic school located only a block from his house, he preferred to spend his days riding his bike, getting into trouble with the neighborhood kids, and playing music in his room. From an early age, Ricky was a natural leader. He was extremely social, the type of kid whom everyone is drawn to and wants to befriend. As with many things that come too easily, Ricky took his friendships for granted, assuming that everyone was as popular as he was.
One of his favorite childhood pastimes also included visiting his grandmother, Iraida, who taught him the importance of fighting for his beliefs and the necessity of self-expression. It was she who also gave him the nickname "Kiki," used to this day by his family and close friends. An artist in her own right, Iraida also invested Ricky with his love for painting and writing. While preparing dinner or relaxing in the house, the two would have long conversations about art and literature. She would also weave richly detailed tales about his ancestors and heritage. Ricky remembers those times as some of the most pleasant in his life. "I'm totally in love with my grandmother," he toldStar Club. "She is the one person I'm closest to in the whole world. I have to admit that I've spent more time with her than with my own mother. It's a bit like she brought me up and taught me the things in life. She made me believe in me since the beginning."
Enjoying a close relationship with his grandmother didn't stop Ricky from forming a strong bond to his mother. Working all day, every day to support her family, Nereida Morales tried to devote as much time to Ricky as possible. Alas, the demands of her career were great, and she often relied on Ricky's grandmother to fill the gaps. She did, however, make up for whatever time the two had lost by showering her young son with extra affection. "As soon as she sees me, she's always after me," Ricky told Star Club. "She kisses me and treats me like a king! It can seem stupid but I really appreciate the unconditional love she gives me."
Judging by the amount of attention lavished upon the youngster, it's not difficult to guess where his exhibitionist tendencies came from. A typical only child, he couldn't get enough of the spotlight, craving more and more focus as the years progressed. Besides winning a baby beauty contest as an infant, he was an active participant in church choirs and school plays. For Ricky, being onstage was synonymous with being loved. It was like having an even bigger family to adore and admire his every move and gesture.
Television also played a vital role in spawning his affinity for becoming a media darling. In the 1970s, every middle class family could afford a television, and Ricky's was no exception. He was captivated with the images on the small screen, spending countless hours flipping through the channels. But Ricky could never be satisfied in simply watching other people live outtheir dreams. He wanted a piece of the action for himself, and vowed to one day make his own mark as a performer.
Suffering as he was from the only-child syndrome, Ricky was due for a wake-up call. He got exactly that when both his parents remarried. He wasn't so much disturbed by his step-parents as the fact that he would have five new brothers and sisters usurping his throne. Eventually, the competitive sibling rivalry would subside, with Ricky forming important attachments to all of his five brother and sisters, Fernando, Angel, Eric, Daniel, and Vanessa. "My familiar life is very calm and my family is very united," he expressed to Jet-Set. "I have five brothers and sisters, two of my mother's part and three of my father's part."
Losing the attention he desperately craved from his family, Ricky spent his time daydreaming about becoming a huge superstar, with millions of fans falling at his feet. The idea of worldwide fame, recognition, and big dollars permanently emblazoned itself upon the boy's young mind. He would forever pursue his quest for stardom, or die trying.
Although television was responsible for piquing Ricky's interest in the entertainment industry, music, not acting, was his true dream. While he had never trained formally, he was born with an innate sense of rhythm and pitch. "As you know Puerto Ricans are very musical people," explained Ricky. "They say that babies are born with a sense of rhythm in Puerto Rico. Music is a part of life there. There's no school where you can go and learn it. It's just a question of feeling it."
At the tender age of six, Ricky didn't know what he was going to do. In a manner befitting his age, hereally didn't care what he did so long as everyone knew his name. "I was rather a fickle-minded youngster, footloose and fancy free. I wanted to do so many things," he told The Hindustan Times. Of course, no one could expect him to find his life's purpose so early in his career. He would have many years to figure that out.
In the meanwhile, Ricky had worked hard at getting all the gestures and facial expressions of commercial actors down pat. All that was left to do now was convince his parents to take time out of their busy schedules and act as chaperones during the busy commercial circuit. As he feared that his mother would react adversely to his proposition of entering show business, Ricky first popped the question to his dad. Much to his surprise, his father not only accepted the idea, he also offered to help Ricky realize his dream. His mother also came around when she discovered how talented and ambitious her son had become.
"When I was six, I said to my dad, 'Dad, I want to be an artist!' Well, he didn't know what hit him, of course," Ricky told Hitkrant. "'Where did you get that idea?' But he also said, 'If you want to become an artist, how can we get you there?' But my dad is a psychologist and my mom is an accountant; they don't have anything to do with show business. They wanted to give their son everything he wanted, so they immediately thought: how can we help? 'No problem, I'll handle it,' I said, as opinionated six-year-olds do. My dad took me to a modeling agency and at age seven I did my first commercial for TV and I kept doing that for a while."
Ricky was a natural in front of the camera, or so the casting directors and agents kept telling him. More important,Ricky's skills were evidenced by his success in booking one commercial after another. His Kewpie doll looks and charming smile had the power to open even the most exclusive of doors. And once he was in, Ricky was impossible to resist. His first commercial was for a soda campaign, and he enjoyed the experience thoroughly. So much so, in fact, that it was only a matter of time until he became one of the most sought-after young actors. Landing a myriad of roles in television ads, he enjoyed being pampered and fussed over by the hairstylists and makeup artists. Feeling special had always come easy for the extroverted youngster, but the more affection he received, the more he craved it. Ricky was all about extremes; too much love was simply never enough.
Even as he was gaining immense accolades from casting directors all over town, Ricky started searching for something more. His quest for the good life led him to seek counsel from a fortune-teller. He was only seven years old, but he knew exactly what he wanted to hear. When the "witch," as he calls her, read his fate, she informed the young boy that he would one day grow up to become a famous artist. Ricky was forever haunted by the memory of that event. He was now convinced that total world domination would only be a matter of time. As luck should have it, the fortune-teller was right. "Even this witch had something to do with it, with me wanting to affect people in a positive way when it comes to music," he told the Union-Tribune.
He was now anxious to begin what he thought would be a new life, filled with endless glamour and excitement. Every minute he waited seemed like an eternity. While most of his classmates were too busy playing kick-the-can in the San Juan streets to give their futuremuch thought, Ricky was looking toward a greater destiny.
Because he was very close to his family, he shared his hopes with his parents, grandma, and anyone else who would listen. He would bend their weary ears for hours, describing the places he would visit, the ample hotel suites he would occupy, and the many fans that would adore him. This activity was a regular event in the close-knit household. "I saw myself singing in dif ferent countries," he explained to Diversion.
Ricky's drive to become the best forced his parents to take notice, and they enrolled him in acting and singing courses. Good looks and natural talent were all well and good, but if he was really going to be a big star, he would need all the help he could get. Of course, he had to promise that his schoolwork wouldn't suffer in the meantime. Living within a family of professionals, Ricky was taught to value education from an early age. Balancing his busy school life with his artistic training, the young boy showed his parents that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.
Gaining wide exposure to the world of show business through television, he soon realized his life's ambition. At the time, a boy band going under the title Menudo had been taking the world by storm. They were touring the country, giving interviews, and making appearances on television. Watching the group's show-stopping performances and reading about them in the newspapers was a bittersweet enterprise. On the one hand, he was proud of the Latin boys' success and domination of the pop charts. On the other, he coveted their fame and badly wanted to become a member.
What began as a simple idea soon escalated into a full-blown obsession with everything Menudo. "Well, atthat time there was a boy group, Menudo, in South America and they were very successful," Ricky told Hitkrant. "That became my next project: how can I get into that group? I read an interview with those guys and they said, 'If you want to join the group you have to come to the management's office, fill out an application form. They'll call you and tell you if they're interested or not.'"
Perhaps not surprisingly, artistry had very little to do with drawing young Ricky to Menudo. At that point of his life, he cared very little about honing his craft or spreading his message of cultural tolerance and diversity. Singing was just a means to an end, and the end had everything to do with meeting girls and living the fast life of a rock star. "I didn't want to be a singer. What I wanted was to be in Menudo," said Ricky. "I wanted to give concerts, to travel, to meet the pretty girls. I had been a fan of the group since it began in 1977. I was always stubbornly determined to be one of them."
He even began beefing up the time he spent on singing and dancing lessons. When the opportunity to try out for the group presented itself, he wanted to be ready. His small size, however, seemed to be an obstacle. Although he was short, Ricky believed that he could become taller if he tried. That's how determined he was to become a member.
To achieve his goal, Ricky initiated a rigorous physical training regime. "I told my parents, 'When I'm older, I want to be a Menudo!' That Puerto Rican group, made of five boys aged from twelve to sixteen, got started in 1976 and has been the first of all boy bands," he revealed to Salut. "Those boys were like a dream because they were singing, dancing, traveling all over the world, and getting to meet lots of girls! Andso, between the ages of six and twelve, I prepared myself to become a Menudo. I even started to play basketball to grow faster!"
Nothing was going to sway Ricky from the path he had chosen to pursue. His parents were aware of his desire to go on tour with the group, but dismissed it as just another one of his many half-baked ideas. He was always coming up with some new plan to become successful. From the time he was six years old, he was like a musical entrepreneur generating get-rich-quick schemes. So when Ricky informed them of his plan to enter the esteemed Menudo ranks, they never believed that he would one day make good on his promise.
For years, Ricky ate, slept, and dreamed Menudo. Even his closest friends grew tired of listening to him rattle on about all the fun he was going to have traversing the globe. Much like his parents, they didn't take Ricky's agenda too seriously, choosing to humor him instead. While his plans were met with skepticism from all camps, it was his grandmother that encouraged him to hold tight to his dream. Not for one minute did she doubt his ability to become a part of Menudo. She had firsthand knowledge of Ricky's will power, and was confident that he would indeed be invited to join the group.
Of course, there was the not-so-small matter of an audition to get through. No stranger to making a good impression, Ricky had learned all about auditioning from his days in commercials. He was a pro at smiling on cue, looking sad if need be, or feigning enthusiasm. Of course, when it came to Menudo, he wouldn't have to pretend to be excited. He had been waiting for this day for quite some time.
As soon as he turned twelve years old and becameeligible, Ricky was optimistic that this would be his year; the year that the fortune-teller's sweet prediction would come to pass. The search for the newest Menudo had begun. Ricky Melendez had quit the group, leaving a space open for a new recruit. If ever fate seemed to be on his side, it was now. Not only did he turn twelve years old right around the time a spot opened in the group, he and his predecessor shared the same first name.
Before he could claim his post as the youngest member of Menudo, Ricky would have to fill out a form and wait for the group's manager, Edgardo Diaz, to extend an invitation. To his dismay, Ricky never got the call he waited for. While he had all the credentials needed to join Menudogood looks, a great singing voice, dancing abilityDiaz worried that the young boy's diminutive stature would imbalance the rest of the group's lofty proportions. Ricky was crushed by the disheartening news. He had suspected that his height would interfere, but always hoped that the manager would overlook this minor flaw. Now, he would have to say goodbye to his lifelong dream. Or would he?
Anyone else would have given the dream up for dead, but not Ricky. Instead of viewing the rejection as the final word, he saw it as a mere delay. He was now even more determined to get selected. Nothing would stop him.
Meanwhile, destiny was playing out her own hand. The Menudo managerial team had scoured the countryside looking for a replacement, but wherever they went they couldn't find the person who had that unique combination of brains, looks, and talent. After two years of fruitless searching, they were no closer to finding an adequate substitute. "The first two times I auditioned, they told me no, that I was too little. Ricky Melendezleft, and I was one of the ones hoping to replace him," explained Ricky. "They searched for his replacement for two years, until finally they gave me a third audition."
Before setting out for the audition, Ricky didn't want to get his family's hopes up too high, electing to secretly transport himself by bicycle. He was all anticipation and anxiety. Would this be the moment he had been waiting for, or was he just setting himself up for another disappointment? This question raced through his mind as he sped on his bike to the audition. When he entered the room, the height issue was still paramount in everyone's mind. But this time, Diaz was willing to suspend his skepticism long enough for Ricky to showcase his talents. "[The manager] didn't want me because I was too small," he conveyed to Star Club. "He said no to me three times in a year, until the day when he accepted me. He tested me to see how well I could sing, dance, and play to even out my height. It was frustrating."
Ricky had been waiting for this moment for as long as he could remember. The pressure, however, had very little effect on him. Taking full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he succeeded in impressing the previously recalcitrant man. As he wound down his routine, Ricky could immediately gauge the impression he had made. Diaz nodded approvingly, and wasted no time informing Ricky that he would be the newest member of the Menudo family. The last time proved to be the charm, and he rejoiced at the fact that all of his hard work, dedication, and persistence had finally paid off.
Riding faster than the speed of light, Ricky pedaled home to break the phenomenal news. So elated was heat having fulfilled his deepest desires that he completely forgot about the effect that his long-term separation would have on the family. His parents had never thought Ricky would get so far. They didn't even know where he had been all day. When he stormed into his house, he was so breathless with joy that he could hardly string two sentences together. Through mumbled words and many fits and starts, his family finally made out what had happened. Ricky would be leaving home to join Menudo on the road. As soon as the initial shock wore off, his family expressed a mixed reaction to the news. "My parents were very supportive, but they weren't the typical stage parents," he said during an America Online chat. "I came back home, telling my parents that I was leaving to be an entertainer. I was twelve years old at the time. They started laughing and then they started crying. This was twelve years ago."
Their baby was, after all, only twelve years old. How would he manage to live on his own? Who would take care of him? Would he be able to get through the tough training program exacted by Menudo's managerial team? Ricky's parents were rightly concerned about his welfare. Not yet a teenager, he would be exposed to some of the most unsavory elements of show business.
Since both parents prided themselves on raising their son as a God-fearing Catholic, the idea of his joining the internationally renowned group sat none too well with them. Of course, they couldn't have known that the concerns they had with the music lifestyle were exactly what drew Ricky to the group. He was way ahead of his time, and wanted to meet as many girls and have as much fun as possible. He loved the idea of hanging out with a group of older guys. The allureof finally becoming a man was just too great, and Ricky wasted no time pouting, stamping his feet, and persuading his family to approve the idea. "My parents were terrified, because that meant I had to leave for Orlando, Florida, where the group was based," Ricky told Salut. "But I was so happy. My parents finally accepted, because they knew that was my dream, and they signed the deal with tears in their eyes."
After a lengthy conference with group manager Diaz, Ricky's parents agreed to the proposition, but not before they got the manager's word that Ricky would be well taken care of and shielded from some of the more R-rated facets of pandemonium. It was impossible to resist Ricky's arguments. He had thought of little else for years, and would not let his parents' love and concern deter him from his course. He was a man with a mission if ever there was one.
As soon as the deal was finalized, Ricky's parents wept over the loss of their son. Not only were they a little apprehensive, they were also legitimately hurt. Instead of perceiving his elation as a desire to join the group, they believed that it was a sign that he wasn't happy with his family life. Ricky had always been so close to them, they never for once suspected that leaving the family fold would be so seductive. But as loving parents, they put their selfish feelings aside, choosing to focus instead on the joy and happiness written all over Ricky's beaming face. "I was so enthusiastic about being part of the group that even my parents were surprised about how easily I could distance myself from them," he said. "It seemed unreal to them that a child who was so mild-mannered, and loved being home so much, could leave without any regrets."
The several weeks of anticipation Ricky had to endure before departing for Orlando were spent sailing on cloud nine. The majority of his time went on pondering his glorious fate. He could hardly believe what was happening to him. When he first made it into the group, all he had thought about was convincing his parents to give him their blessing. Now, he was free to fantasize about the exciting new chapter in his life. To that end, the young boy with stars in his eyes daydreamed about America. Having heard many stories about the "land of opportunity," Ricky was anxious to stake his claim on the new frontier. He knew just enough English to communicate with the locals, and looked forward to visiting Disney World and shopping centers. Although he shared a strong connection with his homeland, the lure of America was impossible to resist.
While the luminous future took precedence in Ricky's mind, the last few weeks with his family were still some of the most bittersweet he had known. It was July, 1984, and Ricky was actually scared to leave home. Since his tranquil family atmosphere had shielded him from having to deal with any problems, he fretted about being able to cope with life's many difficulties. Ricky was also concerned about getting homesick. The Menudo schedule was so exacting, he would probably have little time for visits. In the end, however, his desire for fame and celebrity won out. But his feelings of joy presented another problem. He didn't want to insult his family by acting too thrilled at the prospect of flying the coop. While his parents were walking around looking dour, it took all of Ricky's will power to curb his vivacity.
When the day came to say adios, there wasn't a single dry eye in the house. Although the family had organizeda small, informal farewell party, the shindig seemed more like a funeral than a celebration. After receiving his parting gifts and all the kisses and hugs he could stand, Ricky made his way for the door. His vision was fixed on the future, and it seemed that he was forever lost to his family. But as his feet moved briskly toward an unknown world, he turned hesitantly around one last time. Rushing back into his family's loving arms for one last hug, he appeared to be saying that there would be no real goodbyes that day. Ricky would remain a child of Puerto Rico until the end of time.
Copyright © 1999 by Elina Furman.