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As if on cue, the chef punctuates the break that follows by presenting a plate with more sushi. Everyone is silent, simultaneously chewing the fish and Benito’s words. After a while, Benito continues. “I remember one time – I don’t know who the hell it was, if it was Billboard, or if it was rolling stone – came out with a list of the best singers in history. To like, cabron, specify that this is the history of the United States. Because on this list I haven’t seen Juan Gabriel, I haven’t seen Vicente Fernández, I haven’t seen Tito Rodríguez. Gone is the shy introvert. He was replaced by a guy on a tear. “Don’t refer to these artists as the greatest when we have legends in our Latin American music. And that’s the plain truth. Why are they called a legend and I can’t compare them to this one? Because they are American? Because they sing in English?
The more famous he became, the more Benito learned to appreciate his language, his country, his culture, his family and his friends. “A lot of artists get famous, and they suddenly start changing their circle of people, and then people start filtering out,” he says. “Like, ‘Now I’m more friends with so-and-so. Now I’m best friends with this one because he has money too. I keep surrounding myself with the same people. I keep my same circle. I am always in contact with my family, even when I cannot see them.
“Benito is the most family-oriented person I know,” Olivares tells me. “He took his second brother on tour as soon as he could, and when the youngest finished school he took him too. He likes it. It creates a family bubble for him.
Wanting this bubble of protection makes sense for Benito. His rise was disorienting, and there was a time when he felt lost. “It’s like I’m in a coma,” he says. “As if, suddenly, two years of my life had passed in one week, because of this sudden boom.” He was doing things he had never done before and was hustling all the time. “I still work every day now, but during that time it was really weird. It was as if they had taken a jungle animal to the zoo. I spent two years at the zoo doing the same thing as in the jungle, except I wasn’t in the jungle.
Privacy is crucial now that his life is constantly on display. “I mean, I’ll post a picture with Gabriela,” he says, “but I’m not doing a romance. I’m posting pics because that’s the fucking thing you’re doing right now – posting pics. Sometimes, even if you’re anti-social media, it’s impossible. As much as you say, ‘I’ll stay out of it,’ you’ll suddenly say, ‘I’ll post a picture,’ you know?”
Still, he says, you won’t see him there creating controversy or giving details about his relationship with strangers. “People don’t know about my relationship,” he says. “They don’t know if I’m married, you know? Maybe we’re already married and people don’t know it. He smiles. “I’m just saying that. I’m not married.”
grow in the Almirante Sur barrio of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, the eldest son of a truck driver father and a schoolteacher mother, Benito was a shy but funny child with a rich imagination. “I loved being a clown,” he says. “But I was also, like, shy. I was always in love with my parents. I loved to draw. I really liked playing with my imagination. I was never, like, an athlete. He spent a lot time in his room but also outside – not riding his bike or playing football, but pretending to be a Norwegian Viking.” I have an image in my mind of a small rock on which I would stand, and damn it, I would feel like I was in a kingdom, and the lightning would fall,” he says. “I remember there was a neighbor who always told my parents that I was talking to myself. And it was just me doing the voice acting for the other characters because I was alone. She was like to my dad, ‘That boy is still talking to himself. You should get him checked out. And my father was like, ‘The boy is playing.’ ”