Puerto Rico's Clean Teens, Menudo, May Become the Hottest Latin Import Since Jalapeños

updated 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Like the beer lover in the commercial whose command of German begins and ends with one word—"Beck's!"—teenyboppers from Maine to California may soon acquire their first word of Spanish—"Menudo!" A five-boy scream machine from Puerto Rico driven by a 31-year-old mentor, Menudo is a South-(and East-) of-the-border phenomenon—the Beatles, some say, or at least the Monkees, of the Latin world. Says a Puerto Rican reporter who has watched them blossom, "Menudo has given Spanish-speaking kids something to aspire to. They sing only of very positive, wholesome things, and they have a beat you can dance to."

They also produce enough dinero to buy a small country. In Mexico City, they sold out a 105,000-seat soccer stadium. The story is the same from El Salvador to Argentina. Their next goal is to crack the lucrative U.S. market, and this week they'll make a significant dent with four sold-out concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden, with scalpers' tickets going for up to $100. New York, a city with a Latin population of 1.4 million, also boasts several shops that sell nothing but Menudo merchandise like T-shirts, jeans, posters, records and key chains.

The five current Menudos are Ray Reyes, 13, the newest member; Ricky Meléndez, 15, the clown; Johnny Lozada Correa, 15, el símbolo sexual; Miguel Cancel, nearly 15, whose shows in New York will be his last with the group; and Charlie Rivera Massó, 14, "a quiet child who thinks a lot," according to his mother. Once a member reaches 16, or his voice changes, he is contractually bound to leave the group.

The man who laid down that law is Edgardo Díaz Meléndez, 31, Menudo's creator, manager and father superior. It was in 1976 that Edgardo, a canny promoter, had the inspiration of a lifetime—the creation of an act that would never grow old, aimed squarely at the huge Latin population of pre-teens and teens. Eleven young men, including the present quintet, have now moved through Menudo's pubescent ranks.

"Menudo is a formula and we take care not to break it," says Diaz frankly. "Each member is selected very carefully, because it is a hard life, with rehearsals, shows, recording sessions and so much traveling. I choose people who are like me," he adds. "I never leave the boys. I don't go to discos; I prefer to stay clean, above it." This monkish concentration on business surrounds Díaz with an aura of mystery. Says one San Juan music executive, "Everybody loves Edgardo, but nobody knows Edgardo."

Someone who does know him is ex-Menudo Oscar "Nefty" Sallaberry, now 19 and a junior at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Sallaberry says that when he was with the group, from 1977 to 1979, there were no contracts, and each member received only $75 to $100 per performance. "But Menudo then was not the huge phenomenon it is today," he observes. Far from being bitter, Sallaberry says, "Thanks to Edgardo and Menudo, I came to believe that I can do anything I want."

Edgardo couldn't agree more. "From our example, the kids see that if you work hard, you can get what you desire," he says. "We show the good side of Latin culture."

Ironically, Díaz knows that in order to really break into the U.S. market, Menudo—whose name translates roughly as "small change"—will have to start singing more songs in English, which is just what they plan to do on their upcoming tour and their next album. Should English too prove a loving tongue for Menudo, small change could mean very big bucks.

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