Shakira

SOLIDARITY: Carlos Slim HelĂș (front, from left), Shakira and Howard Graham Buffett raise their interlocked hands to support early childhood development funding in Latin America. (Sarah Meghan Lee / For the Times / May 15, 2008)

MEXICO CITY -- Not so long ago, Latin American artists who spoke up for social causes often risked prison, exile or far worse.

What a difference a generation makes. On Thursday, a phalanx of Spanish-speaking pop artists headed by Colombian superstar Shakira and Spanish-Italian singer Miguel Bosé gathered here to promote a new initiative to aid Latin America's millions of poor, malnourished and undereducated children. They were joined by the world's second-richest man, a top U.S. philanthropist and an international mob of reporters drawn by a potent cocktail of celebrity, money and power, laced with an emerging social conscience.

Swathed in showbiz glamour, the philanthropic-promotional project will culminate this afternoon with two free all-star concerts, one in the Zócalo, or massive central plaza, of the Mexican capital, the other in the Costanera Sur, an ecological reserve on the edge of downtown Buenos Aires.

"What's very inspiring is to see Latin America for the first time in charge of its own issues," said Shakira, the polyglot 31-year-old chanteuse who for years has helped children through her own Barefoot Foundation and lately has been keeping company with the likes of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick.

She'll perform in Buenos Aires as part of a roster that is supposed to include Alejandro Sanz, Calle 13, Gustavo Cerati, Paulina Rubio and Jorge Drexler. The Mexico City lineup lists Aleks Syntek, Juanes, Los Tigres del Norte, Maná, Babasonicos, Diego Torres, Ricky Martin and Tania Libertad.

Today's concerts, the most high-profile project yet by Latin artists to fuse charity with celebrity, are expected to draw a total audience in the hundreds of thousands. And while some participants acknowledged that Latin musical artists have lagged behind their U.S. and British counterparts in altruistic enterprises, "the important thing," Shakira said, "is that we're here today."

Shakira was joined by Howard Graham Buffett, eldest son of Warren Buffett, the world’s richest person, according to Forbes magazine, and by Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim Helú, the world's second richest, just ahead of Bill Gates. Both men announced they would increase their support of child development and related programs through their personal foundations, Slim pledging $110 million and Buffett $85 million. "One of the biggest problems anywhere in the world . . . is the concentration of wealth, which creates a gap of those who have it and those who don't have it," said Buffett, whose foundation has given tens of millions of dollars to social programs in Mexico and Central America. "We have those problems at home. But Mexico definitely has that challenge."

In a grim coincidence, on Thursday came an echo from a not-so-distant era when Latin American artists who spoke up about poverty and social inequality took their lives in their hands. In Chile, a judge announced the end of his investigation into the brutal murder of revered folk singer Victor Jara, a leader of Latin America's "new song" folk movement. Jara was arrested after the 1973 coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet and, according to court records, was tortured before being machine-gunned to death.

The judge's decision to charge only one person in the case, a retired army colonel, was met with dismay by Jara's lawyer and widow, who said they would appeal. driven underground or hounded into exile

During the dark times when internecine wars raged and dictators of various political stripes presided over much of Latin America, Argentine novelists, Brazilian progressive rock musicians, Salvadoran poets and many others suffered similar fates or were driven underground.

Even today, with many countries enjoying booming economies and relatively stable democracies, taking a stand on a political or social issue is a rarer, and dicier, act for Latin performers than for Hollywood stars or rock gods such as Bruce Springsteen or U2's Bono (though the Dixie Chicks might have a different idea).

Today's concerts are being staged by the nonprofit organization ALAS (América Latina en Acción Solidaria), which was founded a year and a half ago in Panama City. ALAS (the Spanish word means "wings") is the first Latin American organization to bring together so many prominent artists and financial impresarios behind a single cause, early childhood development assistance.

Jorge Ramos, the longtime anchor of Miami-based Noticiero Univision, the news division of the Univision television network, in a phone interview called ALAS "unprecedented" in Latin America.

"In the past, all these efforts to help the poor were very nationalistic, and male-dominated," Ramos said. ALAS is showing that "young people and artists" are uniting across national and ideological borders and "not expecting politicians to decide their future. They're taking control of their own future."

Jorge RamosThe support of Slim, Buffett and another deep-pocketed ALAS backer, Emilio Azcárraga Jean, chief executive of the Grupo Televisa entertainment company, testifies to the growing clout that Latin America's recording artists have with the region's movers and shakers. In previous generations, novelists such as the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa and Shakira's fellow Colombian, Gabriel García Márquez (ALAS' honorary president), were the most influential cultural figures. Today's pop artists have taken their place.

Rather than raising money or awarding grants, ALAS is encouraging donations and volunteer support for existing nonprofits. "People are condemned to poverty because there are no exits, or choices," Shakira said. "And children who don't receive an opportunity end up as adults being involved with things that they never imagined they would be doing in the first place, like drug trafficking or being recruited into criminal groups."

Today's generation of Spanish-speaking stars isn't the first to take part in charitable endeavors. Romantic crooners such as Julio Iglesias and José José and Cuban salsa queen Celia Cruz have been known for their philanthropic activities.

But some young artists are proving to be as outspoken as their predecessors. The Colombian pop singer-songwriter Juanes, sometimes called the Bono of Latin America, performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies in December, assists mine victims through his Mi Sangre Foundation and in his music regularly addresses the human toll of "narco-political" violence. Ramos said that Latin America's young musical artists also are "breaking barriers in philanthropy" by persuading more members of their countries' privileged elites to part with their wealth for good causes.

"Rich classes in Latin America are not exactly Santa Claus," he said, adding that some earn their wealth not only through hard work but also through "government connections, corruption and monopolies."

It may require a balancing act to maintain support from figures like Slim and Azcárraga, whose companies have been targets of complaints that they are quasi-monopolies. But, Ramos said,"these artists feel protected because they're doing well financially and they're very well known, but also because they have the means to confront those in power and to make them do things."

reed.johnson@latimes.com