Jennifer López
Credit: tony duran

So there I was dancing with Jennifer López.

More than a year ago, a very powerful man in the music industry invited me to go with him to Jennifer's ultra-private, small surprise party for her new husband, Marc Anthony, in their Long Island, NY home. It was a great party. Fat Joe performed. Victor Manuelle was genius. And then there was Jennifer, looking relaxed and happy. As I was dragged to the dance floor by one of Jennifer's great friends, I spun around and, for what seemed like an eternity, was actually dancing with the most famous Hispanic person on the planet. Oh, and you may have heard, Jennifer's a pretty good dancer.

Whatever one thinks–or, more accurately, whatever one thinks one thinks of Jennifer López–there's no denying the cultural significance this force of nature imparts on all Hispanics. Hate her movies? Fine. Don't get her music? Cool. But naysayers be damned: Jennifer López matters. A lot.

“I've never tried to hide the fact that I'm Latina,” Jennifer tells me after a very long day shooting the cover and subsequent photos accompanying this article as we sit upstairs in a private room in a cavernous photo studio in Hollywood. “I think that's why Hispanics are like ‘She's ours; she's out there, but she belongs to us' and that's true. With the Latino community, I am theirs. I do belong to them–that's who I am.”

And her next two film projects seem to lend credence to her Latin roots. First, there is her role as Lauren Fredericks in Gregory Nava's obsessive film, Bordertown, about the murders of women of Juárez. But even more personal to Jennifer is the completion of her dream project, El cantante, based on the life of the legendary Boricua Héctor Lavoe. “I started developing the movie in 2002. Héctor's wife, Puchi, was working on the script in conjunction with writer David Maldonado and they brought it to me. Puchi wanted me to play her and I read it. I called Marc [Anthony] four years ago; we weren't even seeing each other then at that time or even talking. I called his manager and said ‘Look, there's this part I know Marc is born to play and I'll be playing his wife, and four years later it all just happened. When we did the movie we were married, which is really crazy.”

When Jennifer talks about her husband, her upcoming projects she feels passionate about, her family, you sense an uncomplicated joy, an organic essence that just isn't there when the subject changes to more difficult or invasive topics. Not unlike Madonna or Elizabeth Taylor in her day, everyone needs to know everything about Jennifer López: what she's wearing, who she's in love with, what's with her hair, when's the baby coming. And on and on. I mean, it can't be that easy being La López all the time.

“I think a lot of people just don't understand what I'm about,” Jennifer says. “They see me laughing, having a good time and they may think ‘Oh, she's so ambitious and everything,' but the thing is that I'm just a creative person. If I could describe myself to somebody that's how I would do it; I'd say ‘I'm creative and that's what drives me.' I think people think I'm driven by the money things and all that stuff. They get it so mixed up that they forget that's not why I started doing it. I started doing it because I love to perform.”

Jennifer López was born in the Bronx, NY, on July 24 of 1969. Daughter of David, a computer technician, and Guadalupe, a pre-school teacher (both born in Puerto Rico), she is the second of three sisters. After graduating from high school, she focused all her efforts on being an artist and made dance classes a priority while waiting to be discovered. It was in 1990 that she became known as a dancer on the television program In Living Color. Although she made her film debut in 1987, in a small and now forgotten part in My Little Girl, ironically her real ticket to fame came in 1997, when she played the murdered Texan singer Selena, in a film of the same name. It was an interpretation so true to life that Jennifer was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress. After several films, such as U Turn (directed by Oliver Stone) and Out of Sight (with George Clooney), Jennifer caused a sensation in the music world with her first album, On the 6. Then in 2001, she became the first woman to have the number one movie (The Wedding Planner, with Matthew McConaughey) and album ( J.Lo) in popularity and sales in the same week.

Then came Ben Affleck.

If Jennifer López was an international superstar with hit movies, chart-topping albums, famous boyfriends, it all paled in comparison to what she went through as part of the media blitz simply known as “Bennifer.” Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton shocked the world with their relationship half a century ago has a celebrity couple so captivated the public and dominated the news. And like Taylor, Jennifer also had a list of marriages and stormy relationships to her credit. To prove the point, there's the impetuous wedding with the Cuban waiter Ojani Noa, the short marriage to dancer Cris Judd and also a long romance with the rapper and music mogul Sean Diddy Combs, for whom she even had to spend a few hours in jail.

Surviving the media glare–and the disastrous reaction to the film on which Jen and Ben first met, Gigli–made her even more interesting when she recoiled from the spotlight and quietly married Marc Anthony. “I honestly have to say that my own trials and tribulations were really hard, especially living in the public eye. That experience made me seek more peace, more truth, more honesty, more goodness in my life. It has made me want more. And if it wasn't for that experience, who knows what I would have done, who I would have been– hopefully still a nice person but maybe not in as good a place as I am now.”

So, what is she like?

That's what everyone I talk to who knows I've met her wants to know. I mean, even the most recognizable celebrities ask me. Even the famous aren't immune to Jennifer's spell. Jennifer López is shy. She's comfortable in her own (flawless) skin. She's aware of every detail around her. She has a sense of humor and an infectious, goofy laugh. Very professional. Overall, the package is quite appealing indeed. And, somehow, Marc Anthony seems to complement her perfectly. “Both of us being from New York, both being Puerto Rican, was obviously something that connected us from the beginning,” Jennifer tells me, smiling that smile of hers. “The thing with me and Marc from years ago–everybody will always see it–whenever the two of us got in a room together, neither one of us could stop laughing. He comes off as a very serious artist because he is; he's blessed and has a tremendous gift. But because he's so serious, people don't realize because he doesn't give a lot of interviews–he's one of the funniest people you'll ever meet.”

Jennifer has had a long day. Before our photo shoot she was up at dawn to begin rehearsals for her upcoming world tour to promote her latest album and after she leaves me, she has to go back and dance, dance, dance. “I think the world is fascinated with Latin culture because we have a certain passion that just doesn't exist in other cultures,” Jennifer says. “It has to do with the beat and the rhythm inside of us; it's just different than anywhere else in the world. When people hear our music, they hear the soundtrack of who we are and it just fills me in a way that no other music does.”

Asking Jennifer López to comment on the state of our planet gets her chatting a little bit more than I've ever heard her say before. “The world right now makes me very nervous,” she says nervously. “I don't like to talk much about politics because I always feel that when celebrities start talking about politics it gets very weird, but you know, just like anybody else, any other person who has a family that they love, you're like ‘Oh, my God, what's going on here?' I don't know when all of this is going to stop and when are things going to change and are we going to look back on this period in time and be like ‘God, we really messed up?' I just don't want that to happen, but it feels like it's happening right now.”

I then ask Jennifer the one question everyone keeps asking her: where's the baby? “Yeah, that would be nice,” she says wistfully. “That would be nice for sure. I feel that will happen naturally when it does.”

As I keep staring at her, genuinely intrigued by the otherworldly perfection that is her face, I again touch upon the notion that Jennifer López, the cultural and iconic figure, matters to Hispanics. I mean, if you live in Uganda or China, Jennifer may very well be the only Hispanic person you know. “It's harder for us [Hispanics],” Jennifer says. “It definitely is. I do realize that I do represent a whole culture. That's why I'm more happy now because I'm more conscious of the choices I make.”

As for being a role model to millions of young women, Jennifer is direct. “Don't expect anybody to hand you anything. We have to work for everything in this life,” she says emphatically. “It's one thing to sit back and say ‘There's not this and there's not that for us'. If I would've said that, I wouldn't have gotten to where I've gotten. Because it's true, a lot of those things are true. But be creative; do it yourself. Make it happen; write it, go to school. We need writers. My company, Nuyorican Productions, is all about that. We want to employ Latino actors, we want to employ Latino directors, we want to hire writers who know that world as a Latino writer; that's important to me and that's important to my husband, too.”

Now what?

“I read something in the Bible, because I read the Bible a lot, and it has to do with perseverance,” Jennifer says, surprising me for the first time. “I don't remember everything in the Bible but this quote said, ‘Be happy for your trials because with your trials your faith is tested and when your faith is tested you gain perseverance and when your perseverance is perfect you lack nothing.' And that is the thing: just keep going. That's what I would say to everybody, that's what it's about. You just keep going.”

Jennifer López leaves the room quietly. I can't make everyone like her–any star this big has plenty of detractors–but she matters, folks. And don't forget: she's ours.