Generation N

El Conquistador, in the trendy Silverlake section of Los Angeles, is a hard place to find, set off from the street by a doorway of hanging straw. But once you're inside, the Mexican food is authentic and excellent. Over shrimp tacos and albondigas, a traditional meatball soup, Olivia Armas and her husband, Rod Hernandez, begin an affectionate round of teasing. Olivia, 29, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants; Rod's family came to Los Angeles from Mexico two generations ago. From the time they met as undergraduates at UCLA, she has ribbed him about his shaky command of Spanish. "I didn't know what to make of him," she says. "I thought, 'Oh my God, he's a wanna-be Chicano who can't speak Spanish'." Now, as Rod, 31, gropes for the Spanish word for haircut, Olivia rolls her eyes. He returns the dig. Olivia's family's idea of cuisine, he says with a laugh, includes cow innards, organs--"parts of the animal that I had never seen before. I have to beg her to not make me eat that stuff. I say, 'Honey, can we please have pasta tonight?' "

In their gentle jousting, Olivia and Rod are performing a cultural balancing act that has become daily life for millions of young Latinos: the fine art of living in two worlds at once without losing anything in the translation. Largely bilingual--often more fluent in English than Spanish--they belong to a growing generation of truly bicultural Latinos, coming into their 20s and 30s with demographic clout, educational skills and cultural juice their parents never imagined. Where previous Hispanic generations crossed geographic borders, they cross cultural ones, sometimes three or four times in one sentence. Raised on rock and Ricky Martin, the Brady Bunch and "Que Pasa U.S.A?," they navigate an extraordinarily complex web of relationships: with their elders, with Anglos and with each other, inventing identity in the interstices. "For our parents, being Latino was a negative in this country," says Nely Galan, 35, president of entertainment at the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo. "For us it's a plus. We get to be 100 percent American when we want to be, but we can switch and say, 'I'm not even American today; I'm totally Latin. I'm going to a Latin club, I'm listening to Latin music, I'm speaking in Spanish'."

Unlike their Anglo peers, they do not live in the shadow of a more populous baby boom. The Latino population is young and getting younger. "This generation is going to permanently change things," says Rudy Acuna, founding chair of Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge. "Past generations have always assimilated. This time around, there are enough of them to say, 'We aren't going to make it your society. We want to make it on our own terms'."

Bill Teck, 31, set out to name this new power generation. Growing up in Miami, the son of Cuban and American parents, he felt left out of the Generation X rubric, especially the slacker part. "If you're the first generation born and educated in the U.S., you really can't have a slacker mentality." Nothing if not entrepreneurial, he coined the term Generation N--it's pronounced EN-yay, the extra flavor unit in the Spanish alphabet--and copyrighted it in 1995 as a full-service brand. The following year, in the first issue of Generation N magazine, he published a letter that was part come-on, part manifesto. "If you know all the words to [the merengue hit] 'Abusadora' and 'Stairway to Heaven','' it ran, "If you grew up on cafe, black beans and 'Three's Company'... If you're thinking of borrowing one of your father's guayaberas... You're Generation N." As peers in California toyed with their own rubric, Generation Mex, a cohort--or at least a marketing target--was born.

Better versed in American pop culture than their parents, N's can also be more assertively Latin. In a special NEWSWEEK Poll, Latinos over 35 were most likely to identify themselves as American; those under 35 were more likely to identify as Hispanic or Latino. Often generations removed from the immigrant experience, many N's are now rediscovering--and flaunting--their roots. The son of migrant farm workers, Jaime Cortez, 33, has an Ivy League education--and a San Francisco apartment full of traditional guayabera shirts. "We get them pressed when we go out," he says. "More and more, you see literary, educated guys doing things that immigrants wanted to get away from." By his lights, such reclaiming is vintage Latin. "America has this weird optimism that dictates that we have to leave the past behind. My generation of Latinos doesn't feel that way at all. We know we come from a rich history and culture, and we want to celebrate that. I think that's our defining trait."

The cultural mix, though, is not all salutary. Like other immigrant groups, Latinos in the second and third generations begin to absorb the worst of America: poorer health and diet, higher delinquency and dropout rates, more divorce and domestic abuse. Latino girls recently passed blacks with the highest rates of teen pregnancy, more than double that for whites. "The longer [families] have been in the United States, the better the kids speak English and the higher their self-esteem," says Michigan State sociologist Ruben Rumbaut. "But they also do less homework, have lower GPAs and lower aspirations." The reasons for this pattern are complicated and little-studied, says Rumbaut. Children's superior English skills may upset the family order. Also, second- and third-generation Latinos, who grow up with higher expectations than their immigrant parents, may be less resilient when they encounter discrimination.

In a monasterial Spanish mansion above Los Angeles, though, life is large. The salsa star Marc Anthony is talking to Jennifer Lopez about boats. "I'm getting an 83-foot yacht," he says, his slender arms carving the air to suggest nautical heft. "With four bedrooms." Both raised in New York City, the children of Puerto Rican parents, Lopez and Anthony have come to this hilltop manse to shoot the video to "No Me Ames," a Spanish-language duet from her hit album, "On the 6." The video calls for Anthony to die from an unnamed illness, then for his spirit to watch over the grieving Lopez. "It works in Spanish," says an assistant, sheepishly. "In English it's too corny." Lopez, for her part, sees it more "like a foreign movie, like 'Life Is Beautiful'." But for now, during a break, she is worried about that boat. "That's expensive upkeep," she says. Anthony shrugs. "You only live once."

At its best, the new wave of Latin-based music now riding the charts reflects the generation's bicultural lives. Though Latin audiences are in large part regionally divided--tropical grooves in the East, Mexican sounds in the South and West--young stars like Ricky Martin and the Colombian rocker Shakira break down the divisions by mixing a variety of pop styles, Latin and Anglo. "We are made of fusion," says Shakira, 22. "It's what determines our identity: the way in one mouthful we take rice, platanos, meat." Her own music combines Alanis Morissette, reggae and Mexican mariachi sounds. As Bill Teck says, she's what you put on your CD changer between Sarah McLachlan and El Gran Combo. The musicians' breakthrough, for many Latinos, has become a measure of collective success in North America. "When I was growing up, it really wasn't cool to be Hispanic," says Adan Quinones, 22, a real-estate broker in La Puente, a suburb of L.A. "There was pressure to act white. Now, everyone wants to be Latino. If Ricky Martin has helped bring that about, then I certainly admire him."

The attention from Anglo audiences is not always gratifying. Anthony, 30, bristles over a recent magazine article that featured jalapeno peppers beside his picture. "Jalapenos are Mexican. I've never eaten one in my life." The singer, who starred in Paul Simon's ill-fated musical "The Capeman," can work up a head of steam. "This whole 'crossover wave' thing really displaces me," he says. "Like I'm coming in and invading America with my music. I was born and raised in New York, man."

At the Third Spanish Baptist Church in the Bronx last month, Elizabeth Malave, 30, and Adalberto Santiago, 31, said "I do" in front of 100 of their closest friends and family. Except they didn't say, "I do," they said, "Si, acepto." Elizabeth is a community health counselor, one of the growing numbers of Latina professionals; Adalberto delivers produce for a local distributor. In their menu of fried sweet plantains and roast pork, the couple bowed to the traditions of their Puerto Rican elders. But they also began a break. "My parents have a very good relationship," says Elizabeth, "yet we all know who the head of the household is. My dad makes the decisions, and that's how it works." In her own marriage, she says, "Berto and I are partners."

Many young Latinas are rejecting the traditional roles that their mothers embraced. "The main difference between our generations is that women are less tolerant," says Ana Escribano, 30, a student at Florida International University who works part-time at Generation N. "Less tolerant of the machismo. Less tolerant of the cheating and doing everything for men.'' The result is often a culture clash between mother and daughter. The poet and writer Michele Serros, 33, a fourth-generation Mexican-American, calls herself a "Chicana Falsa" because she felt she didn't live up to ethnic expectations. The women in her family, she says, lived at home until they were married, and wouldn't dream of being on their own. "I grew up on TV, idolized Mary Tyler Moore and 'That Girl'." Her mother and aunts especially "would have never considered dating outside the race." Though her family accepts her Anglo husband, they don't understand why she kept her maiden name. "They think it is disrespectful [toward] my husband."

Such trailblazing can sometimes call for a new wardrobe. "A lot of Latin women like to dress in a feminine way: cinched waists, clothes that celebrate our bodies," says Yvonne Neira-Perez, 25, program coordinator for the nonprofit Hispanic Heritage Awards. On a June afternoon in Washington, D.C., she is dressed in a preppy blue shirt and khaki pants. "In school here, and now in work, I realized that people don't take you seriously when you look that way. I've had to change my look."

Many N's are also wrestling with an even more deeply entrenched tradition: religion. Like their parents, young Hispanics are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. But their faith is more fluid. In their home in San Francisco, Rod Hernandez and Olivia Armas have a traditional big red felt Virgin of Guadalupe over the bed, and they were married in the church. Their future children, they say, will be baptized. Yet they call themselves "cultural" Catholics. "We respect and honor Catholic traditions, but don't practice it," says Olivia. Enrique Aguilar, 25, says most of his friends feel the same ambivalence. Born in El Salvador, Aguilar came to the United States in 1981, during the revolution, and now manages and co-owns a wireless-accessories company in San Antonio. Although he is a practicing Catholic, he feels less devout than his parents. "In El Salvador there is so much hardship that you have to lean on religion or you will go crazy," he says. "But here we have so much opportunity. We believe in the religion, but we also question it much more."

As some take advantage of these opportunities, though, many are left behind. To get to her classes at Michigan State University, Rosa Salas, 21, drives first past the Mexican-American community in North Lansing, where children walk to a school that is falling apart. A few minutes later, she passes the brand-new high school in neighboring Okemos, where white Anglo kids surf the Internet. "I've got my sociology books in the car so I can discuss race and ethnicity with all the other white kids in my class who never had to deal with race," she says. The trip is a daily reminder that Latinos still trail the rest of the country economically and still have to deal with Anglo prejudice. "I'm tired of people thinking that I just came over the border," says Salas. "I'm tired of people asking me if I got my green card or if I eat tacos every night."

Many face prejudice from other Hispanics as well. With their jumble of races and national origins, Latinos can be as color-conscious as anyone else, says the Dominican-born author Junot Diaz. "Dominicans are anti-Haitian because of anti-African feelings; Puerto Ricans treat Dominicans like Americans treat Puerto Ricans." At the very hip Miami nightclub La Covacha recently, the crowd is energetic, well dressed and universally fair-skinned. Though Miami has a growing Central American community, it is not represented here, either in the clientele or staff. This is no accident, admits promoter Aurelio Rodriguez, a former Armani model. "I'm catering to an upscale South American crowd," he says. "There's big discrimination against Nicaraguans. [They're] considered lower-class."

In Generation N this tension is showing signs of easing. Among other reasons, the threat of recent movements to end affirmative action and restrict immigrants' access to some social benefits has fostered a broader solidarity. At a June press conference by the boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad to promote their Sept. 18 title fight, most fans hold the national line. Puerto Ricans scream for Trinidad, Mexicans for De La Hoya. But a number switch camps. Amid the cheering, Omar Ortiz, 36, explains, "I'm Puerto Rican, but I'm for De La Hoya. He's proud of his culture, and that gives all Latinos pride."

These are the borders that Generation N is crossing. Their elders may not always understand the new territory, but they are welcome there. In a quiet moment, Rod Hernandez's mother, Maria, takes stock of her son's generation. Maria Hernandez, 53, is a supervisor at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Riverside, Calif. Rod, she says, is better educated than she or her husband, and has also taught them things about Mexican history and art. For all Olivia's teasing, his Spanish is better than his parents'. And if his life is more chaotically American than theirs, it is in some ways even more respectful of its Latin roots. "My husband and I have always been comfortable with our heritage," Maria says. "But we were never as demonstrative about it as Rod and Olivia. They've taken it to a higher plane." In these and other ways, Generation N is creating a new Latino America.