As the culture reckons with the ills of the ’80s and ’90s, much of the focus has been on how both the public and the media treated white American female stars like Britney Spears. That’s a necessary conversation, but there’s a parallel discussion we haven’t really had ― about the ways in which we participated in, rubber-stamped and effectively overlooked the exploitative nature of boy bands, particularly those whose members didn’t primarily speak English.
That makes watching HBO Max’s “Menudo: Forever Young” a sobering experience. The docuseries compels you to understand how one of the most beloved boy bands ever, made up of preteen and teenage boys from Puerto Rico, was commodified for our consumption and enjoyment. It does this unapologetically and, especially in the beginning, largely in Spanish.
“Not like we cared,” co-director Krístofer Ríos told HuffPost ― though he admitted he had some anxiety about how audiences would receive the series, partly because it’s in both Spanish and English. “I mean, we first and foremost made this for Puerto Ricans. But you want a wider audience to see this.”
It’s actually imperative that we do. As you process each segment ― there are four parts to the series, each one about an hour ― you begin to realize the parallels to our relationships with all boy bands across history and language, from the Jackson 5 and ’N Sync to BTS.
Ríos believes that the obsession with the business of male youth and talent began with Menudo. “It is the first time in which the industry realizes this is a way for us to maximize profit from five boys,” he said. “Menudo is the first to show the world [that] this is how you make a lot of money off of five young men. We’re really analyzing the way in which the industry exploits boys for profit.”
That means telling the full story of Menudo, as few have ever bothered to do. Most of the band’s superfans could probably recite the press-release version of their story by heart: Edgardo Díaz created the band in the ’70s in Puerto Rico. They earned international adoration with hits like “Los Fantasmas” in the early ’80s, which helped solidify their status as teen idols in both their native island and the United States throughout the early 2000s.
Even if you didn’t have “Menuditis” ― a word that stans came up with to describe their love for five of the most recognizable boys in the world ― Menudo was impossible to ignore completely.
Ríos was born in New York and moved to Puerto Rico when he was 4. He lived there until he was 14. He knew Menudo’s songs, and who they were. “I remember when I was a kid, you go to birthday parties and they give you the little Menudo vanity mirror and fanny pack and the Menudo notebook and that kind of stuff,” he recalled. “I think I might have even had a Menudo T-shirt.”
That’s the narrative that everyone knew, even if they were only marginally aware of Menudo — and if you were a fan of any boy band, you could certainly relate to the fascination with merch. To Ríos and co-director Angel Manuel Soto’s credit, they tell a nuanced story that delves into why the group was, and still is, so cherished. In doing so, they knew they had to talk about the cost of the fame and respect that these boys helped bring back to Puerto Rico.
Featuring clips and interviews with about 12 members of the band as well as other experts, “Menudo: Forever Young” also details the parts of their story that haven’t been appropriately accounted for, even all these years later.
For example: how Díaz replaced each boy once they hit puberty to maintain the youthfulness of the group, giving the outgoing member little if any notice. How the boys allegedly weren’t adequately paid for the round-the-clock work they did. How they were robbed of an education due to aggressive touring and rehearsal schedules. How their parents had to sign over a substantial portion of their parental rights to Díaz, so he could manage them as he saw fit. And how they had very little actual supervision, making the minors vulnerable to the drugs that were everywhere.
But arguably the most devastating part of the story is the band members’ allegations that Díaz groomed and sexually abused them.
That caught even Ríos off guard. The filmmaker came to the project with an extensive journalism background and did plenty of research on the band. “I didn’t know that there were abuse allegations,” he said. “The things you see in the documentary — I didn’t know. My first time engaging with those parts of the story was when I started working on the project.”
As “Menudo: Forever Young” shows, though, it’s not like these claims weren’t made public, even at the height of the band’s success. Journalists like Carmen Jovet and Juan González rang alarms about this story years ago, largely to no avail.
Similarly, band member Ralphy Rodríguez publicly accused Díaz of abuse in 1991. That was on the wildly popular Puerto Rican talk show “El show de Cristina,” whose host, Cristina Saralegui, also invited the much more powerful Díaz on the episode to counter Rodríguez’s claims.
So the allegations were there. But, like we’ve seen so many times when it comes to pop stars and other celebrities, there were overwhelming incentives for the media and the entertainment industry to distort or gloss over these details and keep the boy-band machine running. (Díaz has not commented on the docuseries, but has denied previous allegations against him.)
Fans often ignore this kind of information because they want to preserve the purity of their love for the band, or they feel too uncomfortable to confront it, or they simply don’t care either way — or a combination of all these things. That’s not even disrupted by the obvious fact that their favorite members were regularly rotated out of the group like baseball cards.
Ríos admits he was a bit nervous as he approached this minefield of complex storytelling, but he knew it was necessary. “There’s that layer of us challenging the culture of pop-stardom boy bands,” he said. “But we’re [also] challenging the culture in our community and amongst Puerto Ricans that allowed these boys over many decades to go through this machine and be abused.”
It’s tricky, and it means having to consider multiple truths at once. On one hand, the number of barriers the band broke for Puerto Ricans, as detailed in “Menudo: Forever Young,” cannot be overstated. This could have greatly overshadowed everything else.
Ríos also notes how ignoring the members’ humanity when considering them or their success is a direct result of the boy band business model, an echo of how Motown — home of the Jackson 5, the Temptations and Boyz II Men — was itself a byproduct of the Detroit assembly line. That’s compounded by Puerto Rico’s complicated relationship with the U.S.
“There’s a layer of the colonial status of Puerto Rico,” Ríos said. “It’s like if the assembly line at Ford removes the humanity of the worker, then what does a model like Menudo ― that’s pulling from the United States examples of how to do business ― then do?”
He thought about that some more, before adding: “You’re not just removing their humanity. Also, there’s the layers of exploitation and injustice that I think that when you live in an economy, you replicate in your business models.”
That’s working in tandem with the fact that in 1991, for instance, we did not have the language or the support to talk about things like sexual abuse and exploitation. Especially when systems like capitalism dominated the way we viewed the world, and particularly how we viewed fame.
Ríos points to previous documentaries like “Leaving Neverland” and “Framing Britney Spears” ― which came out while he and Soto were working on their own series ― that show a shift in the way the public talks about celebrity allegations of abuse. “I think now in 2022, we have a wider understanding,” he said.
“Walking away from [‘Framing Britney Spears’], I felt like I was guilty of not taking the story seriously because she’s Britney Spears and she’s a pop star,” Ríos said. “The same kind of misconceptions and prejudices, really, that people apply to the Menudo story.”
But as compelling as “Menudo: Forever Young” is, there will still be people who question its veracity, despite all of the filmmakers’ research and effort and all the interviews they conducted during the making of the project. That might be exacerbated by the absence of Ricky Martin, one of the band’s most popular members.
It doesn’t seem like Martin has really said anything in the past, or even since the release of this series, about his peers’ claims. Ríos didn’t get into a whole lot of details when he was asked about it, but he did say that Martin’s team was definitely contacted about him being a part of the project.
“I will say that we tried very, very hard to have him participate in the project, and there was a serious consideration,” Ríos said.
“There’s a few different factors — I mean, on the production side, we didn’t have enough time to accommodate,” he continued. “He’s a megastar, he’s on tour, he’s doing things. So we didn’t have unlimited time to make things work out on his schedule.”
Fair enough. Still, when celebrities come forward with allegations of abuse, intense public skepticism is always a possibility ― as we saw just this month with Amber Heard’s trial and the vicious, insidious response to it. “I mean, we’re seeing these things happen over and over and over again,” Ríos said. “And we move forward a little bit. Then we take a couple steps back.”
That seems to be where we remain as a culture. Many fans these days are grappling with complicated feelings, trying to sort through their love for certain pop culture entities as their narratives become more complex than they were ever marketed as. So where do we go from “Menudo: Forever Young”?
For the answer, Ríos reflects fondly on everything Menudo gave to Puerto Ricans, who felt devalued before the band reached the highest heights. Menudo reminded them of who they are.
“We finally felt like, ‘Hey, we belong here,’” Ríos said. “We can claim our space. We can be who we are. We can sing in Spanish. We can celebrate these guys and be ourselves, and that’s priceless. Feeling like you belong — it’s a huge gift that these guys gave to us.”
And he wants viewers, particularly Menudo fans, to remember that as they watch this series.
“I can’t thank these band members enough for enduring that stuff,” Ríos said. “But still doing it for us, for the culture. I don’t want fans to walk away from this and be like, ‘Oh, this was hard and maybe I shouldn’t have been a fan.’ No, absolutely you should have been a fan.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.