Mexicans don’t have a word for “teenager.” The concept simply doesn’t exist for them. They say jovenes for “young people,” but that can mean anyone up to about thirty, and the clinical term, adolescente, doesn’t begin to describe the mercurial “teenager” who is so worshipped, pampered, feared and despised in the United States.
To sustain an army of such self-absorbed adolescent revelers, a country must first be rich enough to let its young people slack off between childhood and adult responsibility. It must offer them safe havens in the form of free junior high and high schools. And it must provide them with prodigious amounts of pocket money. Even the United States couldn’t do this on a grand scale until the postwar boom of the Fifties and Sixties. The closest Mexico ever came was during a brief window of prosperity in the early 1990s. The country began experimenting at that time with teenage culture, and the name of that experiment was Gloria Trevi.
She was Mexico’s first public teenager — defiant, moody and powerfully sexual in the way James Dean and Elvis were in the Fifties. Trevi was primarily a pop star, singing of love and insubordination in a way no Mexican ever had. She also made movies and appeared on TV, where she delivered brash pronouncements on everything from abortion to the Zapatistas. She was even taken quasi-seriously as a potential presidential candidate. For a time, Gloria Trevi was Mexico’s most exciting social critic.
Now she’s Mexico’s most exciting villain. As her conservative detractors predicted, her brazen ways seem to have led her to perdition. She’d probably still have something witty and trenchant to say about sex, the media and society, if only she weren’t locked away in a Brazilian jail cell.
Gloria de Los Angeles Treviño Ruiz was born in the city of Monterrey on February 15th, 1970, the first daughter of a well-off architect. Many Mexican children drop out after sixth grade to work, but Trevi didn’t even need an after-school job; she went to piano lessons and acting class instead. Divorce is rare in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, but Trevi’s parents split when she was ten, adding a brush stroke of American-style angst to her cosmopolitan canvas. And Monterrey, a sprawling clone of Houston only about 100 miles south of the border, is perhaps the most American of Mexican cities, in the number of U.S. companies operating there and in its crass, strip-developed architectural vision. If you’re going to learn to be a teenager anywhere in Mexico, Monterrey is a likely place.
Trevi put her after-school lessons to good use when, at thirteen, she won a national performance contest and got her first taste of the Mexico City showbiz scene. She loved it; when, her mother ordered her home, she refused, blowing off her formal education to devote herself to auditioning for pop bands. Although a childhood friend says Trevi lived in Mexico City with an uncle, the singer has always made much of her early years “on the street.” She says she sold chewing gum, sang in the subways, begged tacos from street vendors. What is certain is that she banged on a lot of doors, and that when she was fifteen, one of her cattle-call auditions paid off. In 1985, Trevi became one of the original members of an all-girl teen-pop band, Boquitas Pintadas — Little Painted Mouths.
Trevi is, as she liked to say, “an eyeball taco,” with a distinctly Mexican beauty. In this racially complicated country, the tone of Trevi’s skin hits all the right cues for pop stardom. It is a dusky shade closer to European white than to indigenous brown, placing her recognizably in Mexico’s upper-middle class — high enough on the caste ladder to be appealing without being so fair that she seems inaccessible or foreign. Her smile is broad and luscious, her dark eyes and heavy brows telegenically wide-spaced. Her body — about which it’s fair to comment, since she has drawn so much attention to it with a series of seminude calendars — is exaggeratedly curvaceous. She’s softer and heavier of leg than the ropy American ideal, but on her home turf she’s considered close to perfect.
Trevi was just a backup singer in Little Painted Mouths, playing a pink plastic harmonium shaped like an electric guitar. But musicianship wasn’t the point. What mattered was that Little Painted Mouths were created by Sergio Andrade Sánchez.
Andrade was to Mexican pop in the Eighties what Phil Spector was to American pop in the Sixties, a fabulously successful producer who also wrote some of the hit songs his protégés recorded. Born to a powerful Veracruz family in 1956, he is described by associates as “a son of 1968,” meaning that though he was a kid during the days of student protest, his heart remains attuned to those struggles. But as a songwriter, studio musician and engineer, he poured his talent into the kind of commercial, romantic sob songs Mexicans adore.
In the early Eighties, he broke out of the pack, writing a popular ballad for a blind singer named Crystal. He leveraged that success to become a producer of singing acts and quickly displayed a genius for picking and cultivating winners. He took to driving a long black Lincoln and collected sculpture by the surrealist Sergio Bustamente. But he continued dressing in the same disheveled style of the grunge rocker some say he remained in spirit.
In addition to his headliner acts, Andrade produced dozens of small-time bands, to cultivate future stars and keep the cash flowing. These bands, like Little Painted Mouths, typically cut a record, performed once or twice on television, hung in long enough for the record to become a hit and then disappeared, to be replaced by the next Andrade confection. When he hired Trevi, he had stumbled upon his greatest star ever, though he didn’t know it at the time. Little Painted Mouths had their moment of fame and then went away.
To understand Andrade’s power — and its limitations — it’s worth taking a look at the monolithic nature of Mexican pop culture. Anyone lamenting the homogenization and corporate control of American music need only look south to see how good the U.S. has it. Mexican mass media are thoroughly dominated by one company, Televisa, which claims close to ninety percent of Mexico’s TV-watching public and also reaches almost everybody in the country daily with its myriad radio stations, newspapers and magazines. The Azcarraga family, which owns Televisa, is a pillar of the political party that has ruled Mexico for more than seventy years; in effect, the interests of Televisa and those of the state are one. The network promotes a vision of Mexico in which everybody is white, Catholic, virginal until marriage and respectful of social order, says Mexico City journalist Claudia Fernandez Cardenas, who is writing a book about the Azcarragas. It’s a “family values” agenda that makes Dan Quayle look like Marilyn Manson.
Televisa’s only competition is a much smaller national media network, TV Azteca. But TV Azteca is, as Mexico City artist and critic Felipe Ehrenberg puts it, “the fourth stomach of the cow,” churning out bland formulas that Televisa has already digested.
In such a climate, Mexican popular music has never been permitted to evolve organically. Rather, it is manufactured and marketed like floor wax. When Televisa’s acting school produces a starlet for a Televisa TV show, Televisa’s record label, Phonovisa, cuts her album, which is then played endlessly on Televisa radio stations and hyped in Televisa magazines. Year in, year out, Mexican pop songs are identically insipid and romantic, and those who sing them are interchangeably blond and immaculate.
As for genuine rock & roll, forget it. Mexico’s rock scene is somehow both huge and invisible. Every Saturday morning in Mexico City, thousands of fans in leather jackets and black lipstick converge on an outdoor market devoted to rock music. They buy and sell homemade cassettes from an astounding number of local bands. But because it doesn’t fit the family-values image exalted by the Televisa-dominated media, this entire rockero culture is almost absent from the radio and record stores. Well into the Eighties, rock was virtually banned by the government.
“Rockeros were associated with drugs, delinquency, violence and rebellion,” says Jauro Calixto Albarran, who writes about music for the Mexico City daily Excelsior. “You’d get ten kids together to hear a band and the police would show up.” Rock existed only in tiny, windowless clubs, the so-called funky dives, where sweat rolled off the walls and the amplifiers’ blast could peel paint.
“I remember hearing Ghost in the Machine, by the Police, in 1981, and it was like a signal from another planet,” says Luís Salas García, who in 1984 — at age twenty-two — started Mexico’s pioneer rock station and became the first to give airtime to R.E.M., U2 and the Clash, as well as to Mexican rockeros. The station failed within three years.
“Except for a couple of bands, the rockeros withdrew,” Salas says. “It’s like, as soon as a band makes it to the radio, it loses its legitimacy.” With only a handful of exceptions — notably Titan, El Tri, Los Jaguares and Three Souls in My Mind — Mexican bands don’t produce discs that are good enough (or free enough of obscenities) to play on the air. Instead, they perform for their rabid fans at claustrophobic clubs like Mexico City’s Rockotitlan, where the music is so good, it’s hard to believe it isn’t on the radio, pollinating and influencing other music. The result of the rockeros‘ bunker mentality, Salas concludes, is that “Mexican rock is not evolving. It’s stuck.”
When Little Painted Mouths disbanded, within months of forming, Andrade went off to create another clone band, and Trevi went off to live with her boyfriend, a gynecologist. For the next three years, while Andrade churned out more of the same old stuff, Trevi stayed home in the kitchen, where her jealous lover thought she belonged. “I was in love once,” she later told interviewers, “and it was terrible.” In 1989, Trevi limped back home to Monterrey and learned that her great-grandfather had left her an inheritance. She scooped it up, made an about-face and showed up in Mexico City at the door of the man who had given her her first break.
Maybe it was the years of professional frustration after her teeny-bopper band went nowhere, or maybe it was the feuding with her parents and her macho boyfriend, but the young woman who presented herself at Andrade’s doorstep had a very un-Mexican willingness to break some rules. Especially about sex. She’d tell anybody who’d listen that she believed abortion should be legal in Mexico and that women should feel free to sleep with anybody they desire and to marry only for love — outright heresies.
What Sergio Andrade apparently recognized in the sharp tongue and sexual combativeness of the nineteen-year-old girl was an opportunity to sneak some rockero sensibility under the Mexican media’s ultraconservative radar. He changed her name from Treviño to the snappier Trevi. Her first solo album, ¿Qué Hago Aquí? (“What Am I Doing Here?”), got airtime with the mighty Andrade behind it, and Trevi signed a Televisa contract giving the network exclusive rights to her performances.
“She definitely stood out,” says Monica Frías Gil, who interviewed Trevi on the radio early in the singer’s revived career. “She showed up [for the interview] without makeup, which was in itself unusual. She did something else I realized I hardly ever saw Mexican women do: She laughed out loud. She talked about sexual liberation and used words like coger [fuck] in conversation. These weren’t things you saw, especially in the world of pop.”
The lyrics of “Dr. Psychiatrist,” the CD’s first cut, caught people’s attention. “The way this house is decorated/makes me violent/I’m not crazy, I’m not crazy/I’m only desperate,” Trevi sang. Mexicans, bored with corny ballads and romantic boleros, were hearing the seamy side of teenage angst sung on mainstream radio for the first time. “It wasn’t much by the standards of the United States, but it was very refreshing to us here,” says Óscar Sarquíz, the fifty-one-year-old dean of Mexican rock writers. “It was exciting that something — anything — was happening.”
“¿Qué Hago Aquí?,” the album’s title track, was downright anti-romantic: “At home/I can’t stop crying/My parents are at war/All they know how to do is yell/I can’t stand looking at their wedding photo/It’s like staring at a corpse.” Trevi isn’t much of a singer. Her songs were built around choppy phrasing that let her shout as much as sing, and she couldn’t hold a long note with pliers. But there was an undeniably exciting passion in the way Trevi tore rough edges on the lyrics, like Janis Joplin or Pat Benatar. She sounded angry, and that alone made her stand out on Mexican pop radio.
“She might not have been accepted earlier,” says Sarquíz. “But in 1990, times seemed deceptively good. [President Carlos] Salinas [de Gortari] was encouraging Mexico to open up to the world. There was a sense of change.”
Trevi was often called “the Mexican Madonna” because both singers challenged taboos. But Madonna was always very much her own boss, while Trevi leaned on Andrade in a way that some colleagues found creepy. It wasn’t just the gushy thanks she wrote him in the liner notes of her CDs — and the suspicion that he wrote the songs for which she took credit. Andrade always lurked nearby, guiding Trevi from the limo to the concert hall, sitting quietly behind her at press conferences and interviews, watching her. In 1991, Andrade married another singer, a fifteen-year-old named Aline Hernández, but the tabloid press had Andrade and Trevi down as lovers.
After the hit with ¿Qué Hago Aquí?, Andrade engaged in an artful game of marketing La Trevi. First, he dressed her in wacky colors, patterns over patterns, with sparkles and ribbons and sequins. He personally cruised Los Angeles malls to buy outfits for a wildly overdone look that appealed tremendously to preteen girls. Andrade ordered up a Trevi doll, organized Trevi look-alike contests and had Trevi draw a series of campy autobiographical comic books in her childish style.
At the same time, Andrade turned Trevi’s childlike image on its head by making her a sex goddess. He tore teasing holes in her stockings and had her writhe suggestively on the floor during concerts. Her trademark performance gimmick was to drag a man from the audience, strip him to his shorts and whip him with his own belt. Andrade began producing annual million-selling calendars that offered Trevi’s spectacular figure nearly nude in a series of ironic scenes. In one, for example, she posed as a housewife at the stove, her nudity barely covered by an apron — a jab at Mexican men’s image of a woman’s sum-total worth. In another, she played with inflated condoms as though they were balloons. Yet another had her riffing on Pancho Villa, with sombrero and rifle, bandoleers of cartridges crisscrossing her bare breasts.
Simultaneously childlike and sexy: If that isn’t the essence of teenage, what is? Teenagers are at once enviable and appalling precisely because they combine the carefree irresponsibility of children with the sexual desires of adults. Parents spend their time torn between wanting to kill their teenage children and wanting to be them. Which is much the way Mexico responded to Trevi — especially as she released disc after disc, each one pushing the limits further. In “Kiss Me Here,” Trevi insinuated where her lover’s mouth should go. In “Virgin of Virgins,” she mocked a friend who had “done it ten times” and “told each guy he was the first.” “Pregnant Girl” told sympathetically about the plight of one, and added, “I forgot my pills/I couldn’t have cared less about condoms/All for feverishly/Wanting to fuck!”
Sex wasn’t Trevi’s only weapon; she deployed a full arsenal of youthful rebellion. “Los Borregos” (“Sheep”) compared mainstream society to a brainless herd and, with typical bravado, declared a war of resistance. In “One Day More,” a worker threw coffee on her good-for-nothing boss. In “How Lucky That I’m Not Lady Di,” Trevi rejected the princess that Mexican song has always embraced and attacked beauty contests, still sacred in Mexico.
Trevi’s five CDs, released from 1990 to 1995, gained instant popularity. Kids nationwide started dressing like Trevi and packed her concerts, usually with their parents or grandparents in tow. They flocked to her amateurish movies, turning one of them into the biggest-grossing film in the history of Mexican cinema. Latin audiences from Madrid to Los Angeles to Buenos Aires were flocking to see what she was about. Half of Mexico’s population is believed to be under age sixteen, and Andrade scored a bull’s-eye with that vast market. More than 100,000 people joined Trevi fan clubs.
What perhaps nobody expected was that Mexico’s intellectuals went gaga, too, starting with Carlos Monsivais, who was tickled to find “a serpent in the Garden of Eden, dressed in a thong.” The painter Jose Luis Cuevas conducted a scholarly seminar on the meaning of Trevi. She became the pop world’s first emissary to Mexico City’s tweedy intellectual circles. Even if Andrade was managing her every move, her wit was spontaneous. “We were talking about modern art,” remembers the artist Felipe Ehrenberg. “Andrade wasn’t there. She said, ‘I don’t know much about modern art, but I guess I am modern art.’ She knew exactly what she was doing and in what context.” Even the mysterious masked Zapatista rebel leader, Subcommandante Marcos, is said to have promised, “If she comes here, the flowers of the jungle will embrace her.”
La Trevi became a political issue unto herself. “Gloria Trevi is a bad example for youth,” the anti-abortion organization Pro-Vida declared when her first calendar came out. “She should apologize and the authorities should prohibit her actions.” Priests denounced her from the pulpit, and the church banned the sale of the 1994 calendar in Guadalajara. The mainstream response to Trevi had all the features of the American Establishment pulling its beard over “youth culture” thirty years ago: Hardly anybody interviewed on television about the Trevi phenomenon was younger than about fifty, and all discussed her in very … grave … tones. It was Trevi’s performance offstage, as much as her concerts, CDs and calendars, that made her a figure of such fascination.
She was brilliant in TV interviews — warm, sexy, open, daring and smart. Her eyes flashing and her lips asparkle, she reached millions of Mexicans who didn’t see her concerts or listen to her music.
Trevi declared that she was thinking of trying to become “la primera presidenta de Mexico.” Just hearing the word president used in the feminine form was a thrill, and people took her seriously. “Who is more in touch with the problems of this country?” Trevi demanded of an interviewer. “One of those guys who goes off to Oxford or to that University of Yale — whatever they call those things — or someone who has lived in buses, in the Metro, in the street?”
She castigated the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for kidnapping a Mexican suspect on his home soil and expressed tolerance for homosexuals, who are particularly reviled in macho Mexican society. In a typical tirade, she defended prostitution, saying it isn’t for men to judge a woman’s circumstances – and besides, it’s a woman’s right to do with her body what she chooses, despite what Trevi has called “all these male-invented values.”
Trevi was Mexico’s precocious teenage daughter, saying shocking things at the national dinner table — and doing so with such savvy and charm that the country couldn’t bring itself to punish her. For one thing, there was always some truth in her outbursts. For another, Trevi never went too far. She busted up the holy trinity — sex, drugs and rock & roll — by declaring that she neither drank nor took drugs and by encouraging kids to abstain. Her support of the Zapatista rebellion always included kind words as well for the soldiers of the federal army. Even in her raciest interviews, Trevi was careful to genuflect while declaring her faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s holiest icon. And while she’d excoriate Mexico’s corrupt past presidents, she never said a word about the current president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Léon.
“There are three things you don’t make fun of in Mexico: the Virgin of Guadalupe, the president and the army,” says poet and novelist Homer Aridjis. “You watch her interviews, and you see she has her eye on that line and knows not to cross.” It was as though Andrade was whispering in her ear: Thus far shall you go and no further.
It’s become something of a parlor game in Mexico to speculate on the extent to which Andrade controlled Trevi. One school holds that Trevi was always an empty vessel into which Andrade poured the audacious words and style for which she became famous. “He was her Dr. Frankenstein — she the body and the face, he the mind,” says Jose Luis Villarreal, who was director of marketing for Trevi’s record label, BMG Ariola Mexico, until 1996. “She’s a robot. Without him, she’s nothing.” The other school holds that Trevi is her own woman, one whom Andrade could advise and guide but not dominate. “I’ve known Gloria since she was twelve and I was sixteen,” says Hugo Gonzalez, who organized the network of Trevi fan clubs. “She has always been just the way you see her: outspoken, witty and interested in everything.”
What does seem clear is that by the mid-Nineties, as Trevi’s songs rocketed to the top of the hit lists, a pall had fallen over her relationship with Andrade. Maritza López, who shot the famous calendars, says that in the beginning she could discuss important matters with either Andrade or Trevi. “But later,” the photographer says, “strange things started happening.”
Andrade became a tyrant, suddenly refusing to let López talk to Trevi alone. “She talked to nobody — nobody — but Andrade,” says Villareal. “And it was all, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir,’ with her eyes down.” The swarm of young girls who had always hovered around Andrade began to seem less like aspiring singers and more like a ragged cult. The girls were as dirty and tattered as street urchins, and they had “an impressive terror” of Andrade, López recently told the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada. They weren’t allowed to talk or eat, and Trevi had to sneak out for chips and Twinkies, which they would wolf hungrily. In 1995, the magic combination of Trevi and Andrade seemed to stumble. She signed a $6 million contract with Televisa, but all they found for her to do was a moronic game show. It bombed.
And then: gone. In January 1997, Andrade and Trevi simply disappeared. Someone floated a rumor that Andrade was in Italy for cancer treatment. A year passed without a hint of where they had gone or why. But in March 1998, a possible explanation for their vanishing act emerged. Andrade’s then ex-wife, Aline Hernández, published a lurid account of their marriage (his fourth), describing him as a vicious pedophile obsessed with raping and abusing the young girls around him. The book accused Trevi of helping Andrade to lure the girls and of sometimes joining Andrade and the nymphets in bed. Aline described being flogged, locked up and deprived of food. Through promises of fame, Andrade allegedly kept a platoon of underage sex slaves at his mercy.
Aline’s book — with a garish cover featuring Trevi’s face in a ring of fire — was publicized feverishly by TV Azteca, Televisa’s competitor, with whom Aline had a singing contract. The whole thing looked to many like a TV Azteca hatchet job. That is, until other girls came forward with tales that were as horrifying as they were similar. “I was locked in a room and not allowed to go to the bathroom or use the phone,” says Delia Gonzalez, now twenty-five. “Andrade stole my virginity. He beat me up. And Gloria helped him. She’s a victim, because for her he is God. But she’s guilty, too.” Gonzalez says she spent a year as Andrade’s prisoner in the early Nineties: “I said nothing until now, out of fear and embarrassment. Besides, who would have believed me? But lots more girls could tell you the same.”
Lots more have. Seven young women or their families, by latest count, have come forward with nearly identical accounts. They’ve told of being locked up, beaten with belts and forced to have sex with each other while Andrade watched. For some, the ordeal allegedly began when they were as young as twelve. Trevi’s fans leapt to defend her as Andrade’s victim, which didn’t do much for her reputation as a rebel feminist. With breathtaking speed, Trevi fell from being a symbol of independent womanhood to seeming a marionette performing the sexual whims of a pervert.
“We all really thought something interesting was happening,” laments Arturo García Hernández, the journalist for La Jornada who has covered Trevi more thoroughly than anyone. “The feminism, the open sexuality, the playful criticism: We thought Trevi was the start of something. We’re disappointed.”
Trevi reappeared briefly. On August 15th, 1998, Televisa aired a long interview in which she discussed the charges. She sat gorgeously cross-legged on the arm of a couch, breaking into spontaneous song, punching her chest as she described her faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe, wiping away tears as she professed her innocence and her respect for Andrade’s genius. In classic Trevi style, she became the accuser, eyes aflame: “I don’t have a hundred and how many thousand appliance stores in all of the republic,” she said, referring to the ex-president’s retail chain, allegedly bought with ill-gotten gains. “I have my talent and creativity to make songs, that’s all.” Trevi finished by saying: “I have my conscience clear. I’ve been here these last days in Mexico, and here I’m going to stay. I’m not hiding.”
At which point she returned to hiding. In March, the parents of a missing seventeen-year-old girl filed a criminal complaint against Trevi and Andrade, alleging kidnapping and corruption of a minor. When the girl was twelve, the parents charged, Trevi had urged them to place her in the care of Andrade, who said he would make her a star. Instead, the girl gave birth to a baby when she was fifteen, abandoning the child in a Spanish hospital. It took a while, but on November 4th, the prosecutor in the family’s home state of Chihuahua issued a warrant for Trevi, Andrade and two of the young women in their entourage, charging them with corrupting the missing girl.
The face that once pouted from CD covers was splashed across a wanted poster. Shortly before Christmas, the case took another bizarre twist when the alleged victim surfaced, asserting — with almost eerie poise — that she had been neither kidnapped nor abused, and that the child she had abandoned was not Andrade’s. She has been packed off to a shrink for intensive therapy, and police say they are asking other young women with similar stories to file formal charges. While this drama was unfolding in Mexico, rumors and reports placed Trevi and her manager in El Salvador, Guatemala, Texas, even Las Vegas. They were probably in Brazil the whole time, moving from apartment to apartment in the middle-class Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro. When their tourist visas expired, they clumsily used their real passports to renew them.
On January 13th, the Brazilian police — acting on a request from the Mexican police and Interpol — arrested Trevi, Andrade and a young woman who had been around since the Little Painted Mouths, known as María Boquitas (María Little Mouths). The news broke so big in Mexico that TV programming was interrupted for scenes of Trevi, handcuffed, being led to a Rio jail. All three are now behind bars, awaiting extradition to their homeland.
Even before the arrest, though, Gloria Trevi was history. A radio station that once broadcast her songs wall-to-wall played them backward and insisted that one could hear “You must obey Satan” in the mumblings. Masses were held throughout the country to pray for her soul. An effort by BMG Records to revive Trevi-mania by releasing a Trevi cover of a traditional ranchera tune flopped. Many shops refused to stock her CDs. “Sex with children — we don’t like it,” a young employee of a Mexico City record store sniffed.
The ferocity with which Mexico turned on Gloria Trevi indicates more than revulsion at the nature of the charges against her. A small group of aging men still holds the reins of Mexican pop culture, and the Trevi-Andrade scandal may have been just what they needed to turn back the clock. What looked and sounded like genuine youthful rebellion and feminine defiance now appears to have been nothing more than one man’s scheme to exploit youth for sex and profit. Now as ever, nobody approaches stardom but through the proper channels. And no flamboyant firecracker has been invited onto the airwaves to take the rebel’s place. If Gloria Trevi ever blazed a trail for teenagers, that trail is now cold.