In many ways, Yolanda Perez is a typical Los Angeles girl. The 22-year-old daughter of tradition-minded Mexican parents, she grew up speaking Spanish and listening to Mexican regional music at home.
But at school she spoke English, hung out with black, white, Asian and Middle Eastern kids, and listened to hip-hop and rock. Also like many from her generation, Perez has a boyfriend of a different race and a baby. And she struggles to reconcile her life with the expectations of her family and culture.
What makes Perez atypical is that she is also a rising star of Mexican regional music. And her life in dual worlds has made her a sometimes uncomfortable symbol of a new generation of Latinos for whom mixing languages, music and cultures is as natural as flipping the dial on Los Angeles' wildly varied radio spectrum.
After winning a talent contest at 11, Perez performed brass-laden banda on the Mexican-American rodeo circuit and recorded for small labels. But her early hits, on her first two CDs for powerful Mexican regional label Fonovisa, in 2003 and 2004, capitalized on her fluent biculturalism. On "Estoy Enamorado" (I'm in Love) and "La Reyna del Mall" (Queen of the Mall) recorded with Los Angeles radio personality Don Cheto, Perez is a rebellious Americanized daughter arguing with Cheto's conservative Mexican father about her boyfriend and her manic shopping habits.
"Out here in L.A., I'm the girl who represents all the young ones who go through all the stuff that goes on in those songs," Perez said recently in a phone interview. On her third album, Esto es Amor, she delivers a captivating mix of reggaeton and banda on "Cuando Quieras, Como Quieras" (When you want, the way you want), and a blistering Spanglish rap tell-off of a no-good boyfriend on "Hoy te Digo Adios."
"We're in America, but our parents or family is from Mexico," Perez said. "The culture is mixed, and that's what I'm doing with the music, mixing both cultures, the traditional banda and the hip-hop."
Josh Kun, a freelance writer who profiled Perez for Los Angeles magazine, believes her ability to move between worlds could put her in the vanguard of Latin music.
"There is a new generation of Mexican-Americans who are forging different styles that belong to them for the first time, and feel like they have the freedom and right within American culture to mix these styles together," he said. "The question is how much room is there for that in the Latin music industry."
Perez isn't just crossing borders in her music, but in her personal life. Her boyfriend is African-American, and the couple have a 9-month-old daughter, Mya. For a teen idol to have a child out of wedlock with a black man is a double taboo to some in the Mexican-American community.
Even her extended family (she has 25 aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins) found it hard to accept. "Not my parents, because they've always been very open with me. But everyone else is from Mexico, so it's hard for them to accept an interracial relationship."
It was even harder to tell her label. "I was afraid my career was gonna end," she said. People called radio stations complaining that she was a bad influence on their daughters. She said Fonovisa initially tried to disguise her condition.
"They wanted me to wear big clothes and hide my belly," she said. "But after I had Mya ... I said I don't want to hide her anymore because she's so beautiful to me."
She didn't intend to be a role model when she fell in love. But sometimes she finds herself acting as one. "People come up to me and I feel like I'm going to be insulted, and then they say, 'Can you give me some advice, because I have a black boyfriend, too?' It's normal. It's just not made comfortable for us to share it. You're supposed to stick with your own."
"I feel like it happened to me for a reason. I'm in the public's eye - at least in Latinos' eyes. I'm able to let everyone including parents know that it happens, and it's OK."