Sure, we know about “The Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz, and that Mariah Carey is Afro-Venezuelan, but there are so many other incredible Afro-Latina singers that made their mark and aren’t celebrated enough in today’s popular culture. They deserve to be recognized. In an effort to highlight the long-neglected history and culture of Afro-Latinas, here are 15 badass, old-school singers who have graced us with their melodic voices and Latina spirit.
Havana’s Xiomara Alfaro is a coloratura soprano, known as both “El Ruiseñor de la Canción (The Nightingale of Music)” and “La Alondra de la Cancion (The Lark of Music).” She was big in Cuban music during the 1950s, singing mostly boleros.
Leonor Gonzalez Mina
Known as “La Grande Negra de Colombia”, Jamundí-born Leonor Gonzalez Mina is a composer, singer, dancer, and actress. She is especially known for her cumbia music, in addition to bolero, bambuco, and pasillo. In 1998, Gonzalez Mina was elected as Bogota’s cameral representative.
Lola Falana was born in Camden, New Jersey, to an American mother and Cuban father. She danced with Sammy Davis Jr., recorded under Frank Sinatra’s record label, was a star of Italian movies, was nominated for a Golden Globe and Tony, and was the highest paid female performer in Las Vegas in the late ‘70s, referred to as “The Queen of Las Vegas.”
Cuban powerhouse La Lupe is known as “The Queen of Latin Soul,” “ La Reina de la Canción Latina,” and “La Yi Yi Yi.” She was born in San Pedrito, and moved to New York, where she was the top Latin singer in the 1960s, singing alongside Tito Puente. In addition to singing boleros, merengue, boogaloo, son montuno, bomba and plena, La Lupe sang Spanish and English covers of popular songs, and later, religious music. She is known most for her explosive performances, full of raw emotion. La Lupe was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
Moça Bonita-born, Brazilian samba singer Elza Soares has won a Latin Grammy, was chosen by the BBC Radio as the Brazilian singer of the millennium, and performed at the opening ceremony for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Luz Esther Benitez
Luz Esther Benitez a.k.a. Lucecita is known as “La Voz Nacional de Puerto Rico.” The Bayamón-born chanteuse ditched the wigs and European look that she was forced to maintain, and instead wore her natural hair in an afro and celebrated her Afro-Puerto Rican roots. She also dared to wear men’s suits and use male adjectives in her songs, in the 1970s.
Toña La Negra
Maria Antonia del Carmen Peregrino Alvarez, known professionally as Toña La Negra was a singer and actress from the La Huaca barrio in Veracruz, Mexico. She became famous, in the 1930s, singing the songs of Mexican composer Agustin Lara, and later sang with La Sonora Matancera. She appeared in several movies, was honored with a Mexican stamp that was part of a series celebrating popular idols of the radio, and was posthumously inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
Carmen Delia Dipini
Naguabo, Puerto Rico-born Carmen Delia Dipini was a singer of boleros. She moved to New York in the 1940s, where she recorded music and performed. She eventually returned to Puerto Rico, after also having lived in Mexico, for seven years. She recorded music in both Mexico and Puerto Rico. Dipini also sang with La Sonora Matancera, and was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.
Born Sheila Escovedo in Oakland, California, Mexican-American Sheila E is known as “The Queen of Percussion.” In addition to being a phenomenal percussionist, she is also a singer, producer, actress, and author. Sheila already had her own career before meeting Prince in the ‘70s, however their collaborations skyrocketed her career. She’s been nominated for Grammys, American Music Awards, a Primetime Emmy, won for Best Video at the MTV VMAs, and served as Prince’s drummer and musical director at one point.
Milly Quezada, the “Queen of Merengue,” was born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. She has won several awards, including multiple Latin Grammy Awards, and a Billboard Award for Best Tropical Album. Milly was also inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2002, and recently performed at the 2017 Afro-Latino Festival in New York.
Susana Baca, from Chorillos, in Peru’s Lima Province, has been instrumental in the revival of Afro-Peruvian music. The singer-songwriter, folklorist, and ethnomusicologist has won two Latin Grammys, and in 2011 was both the Minister of Culture in Peru, and the President of the Commission of Culture of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Known as “La Reina del Cantar Venezolano,” Magdalena Sanchez was born in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, and was a singer and composer. The genres she sang in include tango, bolero, and jaropo.
Toto La Momposina
Toto La Momposina, born Sonia Bazanta Vides in Talaigua Nuevo, Colombia, is a singer and songwriter whose music reflects her Afro-Colombian and Indigenous roots, and Colombia as a whole’s makeup of African, Indigenous, and Spanish ancestry.
Afro-Uruguayan Lagrima Rios was known as “La Perla Negra Del Tango” and “La Dama Del Candombe.” Born in Durazno, she was known for her strong voice, and for being the only black singer of Rioplatense tango. Lagrima was also an actress, and was president of the Uruguayan organization Mundo Afro.
Irene Cara was born in The Bronx, to a Cuban-American mother and an Afro-Puerto Rican father. She is a singer, songwriter, and actress, who won an Academy Award for Best Song in 1983 for “Flashdance…What a Feeling” (which she co-wrote). Two songs that she sang for the movie Fame were nominated for the Best Song Oscar in 1980, with the title track taking the award. Cara also has won a Golden Globe (Best Original Song), and two Grammy Awards.