Becky G vividly remembers what she calls "my little mini midlife crisis." It happened seven years ago, when she was 9.
At the time, her family had been forced to move into her grandparents' Inglewood garage after losing its Riverside County home. Money was tight. Her dad was stressing out. And her mom was "really scared."
That's when Becky had an epiphany.
"I did have this moment of realization of, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do with my life?'" she says. "Just feeling like I had to get my act together, even though there was really nothing to put together yet."
Today, the biggest challenge facing the preternaturally ambitious Mexican American teen isn't getting her act together. It's deciding which part of it — rapping, songwriting, acting, modeling — to focus on as she strives to turn herself into a one-woman entertainment juggernaut.
With a major-label record contract, a new deal with CoverGirl and A-list musicians and producers clamoring to work with her, Becky is an avatar of a new L.A. urban sound: young, female, Latina, bilingual and fiercely aspirational.
Last spring, she itemized her career goals in her debut single, "Becky From the Block," a PG-rated hip-hop mash note-manifesto to her hometown (with shout-outs to Randy's Donuts and the Forum) and her family's migrant roots. Its video has been viewed more than 5 million times on YouTube.
"I won't stop till I get to the top/ Always had a little, but I want a lot," Becky rap-sings about balancing the demands of her new life (recording sessions, red carpets, sushi bars) with her fealty to her homies and her mom's home cooking.
Inglewood's celebrity homegirl personifies South L.A.'s demographic shift from African American to Latino, its cultural evolution from "Boyz n the Hood" to chicas next door.
Becky — born Rebbeca Marie Gomez — embraces this identity as if it were her destiny.
"I want to be open to the kids who only speak Spanish, the kids who speak only Spanglish, and the kids who don't even speak Spanish at all," says Becky, who practices her second language by chatting with her Jalisco-born grandparents.
In a sense, their immigrant journey was the inspiration for their granddaughter's career. "It all started," she sings on "Becky From the Block," "when my grandpa crossed over."
Wearing a black T-shirt, skin-tight white pants decorated with red roses and white sneakers, Becky takes a reporter on a "Becky From the Block" walking tour of the neighborhood where she grew up. Her retinue includes her mother, Alejandra, whom everyone calls Alex, and two members of her bicoastal management team.
First stop is Kelso Ranch Market, three blocks south of Manchester Boulevard and a block east of the San Diego Freeway. Becky points out the chiles and the ranchera para asar her grandmother buys, treats herself to a large bag of Funyuns and exchanges greetings with the owner, Ratna Thapa, a Nepali immigrant.
"I'm so glad she's doing very good," Thapa says, watching Becky and her mother leave. "Nice family."
Jets landing at LAX scream overhead as Becky steers her small posse toward Oak Street Elementary, a vaguely Mission-style white building with blue trim. It was here that she started taking Mexican folklórico dance lessons, an early foray in her career.
Suddenly, a passing truck screeches to a halt and its driver, a young woman named Teresa Lopez, calls out to request a photo with Becky.
"My sister is like a big fan," Lopez says as she and Becky pose.
"I'm just glad I'm making my hometown proud, I guess," Becky says as Lopez drives off.
Becky's puckish, street-wise persona plays well on YouTube. Two years ago, the video of her cheeky rap riposte to Jay Z and Kanye West's "Otis" landed her a contract with Kemosabe/RCA Records, the Sony Music Entertainment record label founded by hit maker producer-composer Dr. Luke. He worked with Becky on her first, five-track EP, "Play It Again," with guest contributions from Pitbull and will.i.am, released last month.
This summer, CoverGirl signed Becky to be its latest brand rep (and only under-20 Latina), joining a roster that includes Pink, Queen Latifah and Ellen DeGeneres. Esi Eggleston Bracey, a CoverGirl executive, calls Becky "a relatable and powerful role model who from a very young age has advocated individualism and paying respect to where you come from and where you want to go."
Becky, who started doing commercials, short films, modeling and voice-overs when she was 9, also has begun to rack up co-songwriting credits for other juvenile heartthrobs. "Wish You Were Here" became a hit for a fellow 16-year-old, Australian Cody Simpson. "Oath" did likewise for British rapper Cher Lloyd, who, though barely 20, seems like a grizzled veteran in today's youth-absorbed recording industry.
"She has the entire package," says Dr. Luke, a.k.a. Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald, who has worked with female pop stars such as Katy Perry, Pink, Kesha and Sabi. "She's incredibly driven. To her, this has been a really long time coming, and she's pretty impatient."
As with the "Becky From the Block" video, the tour winds up at the garage where her family lived for 21/2 years, after ballooning mortgage payments forced it to give up its two-story Moreno Valley dream house.
Becky says family members coped with their setback by treating it as an adventure. They would build forts out of bedsheets and devise other games to make the garage seem magical — or at least less dreary. Alex says her eldest daughter "did such a great job" in helping to shield her three siblings from the hardships.
"If she didn't look like she was upset, they didn't look like they were upset," says Alex, 35, who met her husband, Frank, 36, a manager at Mattel, when both attended Santa Monica High School. The family, back on its feet financially, now rents a home in Lawndale, a few miles south of Inglewood.
"You can see the origins of how she developed as a songwriter just by watching her interact with her family," says Michael Mani, who with Jordan Omley forms the JAM, a Grammy Award-winning L.A. production team that has been working with Becky since she was 13. "They entertain each other, they kind of make up skits and songs, and they're always doing something and having fun in their house."
Today, her parents regard the family's past financial struggles as a hidden blessing.
"We of course suffered, like many families did," Alex says. "But I feel like if we wouldn't have lost our home, we wouldn't be back in L.A., where Becky was able to find her dream, find her niche."
In addition to the garage and her grandparents' house, "Becky From the Block" depicts dozens of family members from Southern California and the Central Valley — playing dominoes, fixing vintage cars and whacking piñatas. Its closing frames feature a symbolic cameo by Jennifer Lopez, whose 2002 hit "Jenny From the Block" channeled a previous generation of young Latinas' dreams of global conquest.
"She's honestly one of my role models, one of my idols, like somebody that I've looked up to since I was very little, since I watched 'Selena,'" says Becky, who keeps a giant photo portrait of another idol, Audrey Hepburn, in her bedroom, along with a massive teddy bear that she cuddles at night.
A career is born
During her family's lean years, Becky made a pitch to her parents: Give me six months to break into the entertainment business, and let's see what happens.
Her mother helped her google child talent agencies. Before long, she was doing voice-overs and taking dance and music classes.
Not everyone cheered Becky's blossoming career, which she tried, unsuccessfully, to keep quiet from her schoolmates. "There was a lot of jealousy toward me and like just hate," she says. "I got beat up sometimes in the girls' bathroom."
By sixth grade, she was being home-schooled. She already has saved enough from her entertainment earnings to pay for her first year of college.
"I've definitely accepted the fact that I'm not normal," she says with a laugh. Nevertheless, she points out, "I still clean the bathroom, I still do dishes, I still clean my room, I still dust, I still do school, I still get my phone taken away, I still get grounded."
Yet, as she sings in "Becky From the Block," "my life is changing quickly right before my eyes."
Univision was shooting an interview in her grandmother's kitchen recently. Everything was going fine.
Then Becky and her grandparents kissed, and suddenly the entire TV crew started crying. They knew the 16-year-old's life was going to change.
"I asked a few people, 'Why are you so emotional?'" Alex says. "They're like, 'Do you know what's going to happen?' And I'm just like, 'What's going to happen? Why are you crying?'"
Really, her daughter insists, little about her family life has changed. Why shouldn't it stay that way?
"I'm just going to keep being myself," Becky says. "When I was doing all this acting stuff, all these kids like assumed, 'Oh, my God, you're on TV, and you probably have a lot of money.' And I was living in a garage."