A report by Jon Pareles for the New York Times.
Awards shows are made for promotion, self-congratulation, flashy fashion and industrywide solidarity. The 18th Latin Grammy Awards, broadcast on Thursday night by Univision from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, had all of those. But as politicians have exploited anti-immigrant sentiments and as hurricanes and earthquakes have torn through Latin America, the Latin Grammys have also taken on a second role: as a showcase for pride, achievement and solidarity.
The devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria and across Latin America in recent months was very much in mind on Thursday. The show began with a moment of silence to mark “tragic events.” Then came the Puerto Rican rapper Residente performing “Hijos del Cañaveral,” a song about his island’s strength and determination, with a throng of Puerto Rican musicians in front of a raised fist. The end of the show was more celebratory: a performance of the international blockbuster “Despacito” by the Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and guests.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the outspoken playwright and actor who will return to performing in his musical “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico, received the President’s Merit Award. Gabriel Abaroa, the Latin Recording Academy’s president, pointedly praised him for “telling the story of America through the eyes of the immigrants who built it.” In a speech that switched between English and “half gringo-accented” Spanish, Mr. Miranda urged the White House and Congress to recognize that “Puerto Ricans are humans, too.” Lila Downs, a Mexican singer, revived “En Mi Viejo San Juan” (“In My Old San Juan”), a Puerto Rican song from the 1940s that became a nostalgic migrants’ standard and also spread across Latin America. Backed by the brass band Banda El Recodo De Cruz Lizárraga, founded in 1938, she paired it with a Mexican independence anthem, “¡Viva México!”
The Spanish songwriter Alejandro Sanz was named person of the year by the Latin Recording Academy, which gives the awards. In his speech, he urged support for undocumented immigrants’ children, known as Dreamers, who are affected by the uncertain future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. He performed his “No Es lo Mismo”surrounded by 40 enthusiastic Dreamers.
Instead, the Latin Grammys sought to bring out — or fabricate — connections between its younger, more internationalized, more computerized acts and the generations before them. Some performers have been looking back on their own — notably the Mexican songwriter Natalia Lafourcade, whose most recent album explores Latin American folk songs in acoustic arrangements. She was backed by the traditionalist group Los Macorinos and by Flor de Toloache, a rare all-female mariachi group that won this year’s Latin Grammy for best ranchero/mariachi album. Ms. Lafourcade descended from the stage to get the Latin pop stars in the front row on their feet and dancing.
Performances by the singers Maluma and Nicky Jam each started with them crooning backed by live musicians before the more familiar mechanized beat of their hits came in. (For Maluma, initially accompanied by a nightclub orchestra on an Art Deco set, the backdated tone was punctured by loud bleeps where his lyrics include expletives; he was singing “Felices los 4,” which simply shrugs off infidelity.)
Juanes was awkwardly grouped with the American rapper Logic and the singer Alessia Cara to recreate a bilingual remix of Logic’s anti-suicide song, “1-800-273-8255.” And four nominees for best new artist were corralled into a non sequitur medley, yet Sofia Reyes, from Mexico, and Danay Suárez, from Cuba, each seized her moment.
But the luckier performers were those who had the stage to themselves. Alejandro Fernández offered his own bi-generational medley: his pop hit “Quiero Que Vuelvas” and then “Mexico Lindo y Querido” from the repertory of his father, the ranchera titan Vicente Fernández. Mon Laferte, from Chile, belted her winning best alternative song, the cumbia-tinged “Amárrame,” in an electric-blue adaptation of a traditional ruffled dress that showed off her tattoos.
“Despacito,” a tidal wave of a Latin-pop crossover, was the show’s inevitable finale. It, too, was pushed into multiple molds. First, Mr. Fonsi emoted it as a ballad; then it took on its original beat while the Colombian electropop duo Bomba Estéreo joined him. Then it turned into salsa with guest vocals by the Puerto Rican singer Victor Manuelle. (Justin Bieber, who helped the song become a United States hit in a remix, was not present; the award was for the version of the song performed by Mr. Fonsi and the reggaeton rapper Daddy Yankee.) Improvising between verses, Mr. Manuelle reminded the audience: “The No. 1 song came from Puerto Rico!”