Beyond Celia: 10 Underrated Afro-Latinas in Music You Should Know

Lead Photo: Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla
Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla
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In the face of invisibility and racism, nuanced images that represent complex identities with dignity are necessary. For Afro-Latinas, iconic singers like Celia Cruz and La Lupe do just that. Their charisma and powerful voices launched them onto the international stage, and they continue to win the hearts of fans in the past, present, and surely for generations to come, whether it’s through La Lupe’s fearless sexuality or Celia Cruz’s celebratory lyrics. While household names like Celia Cruz and La Lupe are worthy of constant celebration, these are two of only about a handful of women from Latin America and the Caribbean who are recognized in American pop culture. As part of Día de la Mujer Afrodescendiente, we have decided to list 10 other black women whose voices represent resistance in the face of oppression, yet still are often overlooked in U.S. pop culture.

On July 25, 1992, black women from over 30 countries gathered in the Dominican Republic to discuss strategies to fight racism from a woman’s perspective, permanently marking the occasion by establishing July 25 as the International Day of Afro-Latinas, Afro-Caribbean Women, and Women of the Diaspora. Their pillars included fighting for political, social, and cultural rights. Indeed, afrodescendant women from Latin America and the Caribbean have waged a powerful fight for dignity.

The list below features women whose talent is not only undeniable, but defiant in a society that seeks to erase blackness. Some of the women had their sexuality, femininity, or powerful political statements used as weapons against them, and yet they have broken barriers and become pioneers in their own way, some beyond the realm of music. Ruth Fernández and Toto Bissainthe’s voices are hauntingly beautiful; Elza Soares and Xiomara Fortuna collide genres together to create compelling new musical formations, while others like Susana Baca, Petita Palma Piñeiros, and Inés Granja have become educators or political activists. Ultimately, black women continue to represent the essence of so much of the cultural markers of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the fight for human rights and visibility. The women on this list are icons who play an important role in the deliberate elevation of blackness while captivating us with their extensive catalogs.


Elza Soares (Brazil)

Elza Soares is Brazil’s Queen of Samba. “Se Acaso Você Chegasse” was one of her first hits, released in the 1950s when she introduced jazz to samba. While her life has been riddled with pain and suffering, she has overcome strife through her music, which has enchanted audiences for decades. In an interview with The Observer about her 2017 Latin Grammy-winning album A Mulher do Fim do Mundo, she said, “I speak of racial prejudice, of homophobia, and violence against women…I will always defend the black, the gay, and the women, these are my flags!” Soares was born in 1937 in Moça Bonita, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most poverty-stricken favelas. Her father forced her to marry at the age of 12, and her music was discovered shortly after when she auditioned for a talent show out of financial need. At 21, she became a widow, having to provide on her own for five children. She was ostracized by the public when she married famous soccer player Garrincha, and was labeled a “gold digger.” Still, she has survived the critiques and has continued to make music for over six decades.


Susana Baca (Peru)

Susana Baca is the face of Afro-Peruvian music. She has dedicated her life to uplifting Afro-Peruvian culture and increasing black visibility through music, education, and literature. Born Susana Esther Baca de la Colina in 1944, Baca has been making music for decades but only became internationally recognized for her rendition of the standard “María Landó” in a compilation album by David Byrne titled Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru. Since then, she has released six of her own albums, and won a Latin Grammy in 2002 for Lamento Negro, which was originally recorded in 1986. She was named Peru’s Minister of Culture in 2011. Baca’s powerhouse voice sets her music apart, always accompanied with a cajón, quijada, among other creole elements. In an interview for Sounds and Colours, she was asked what it was about Afro-Peruvian music that attracted her. “It’s the music that I grew up with since my first years, and I go back to my childhood with the music…to discover the Afro-Peruvian music I realized that it was marginalized by society, and my history lay within this music.”


Ruth Fernández (Puerto Rico)

To her fans, Ruth Fernández was “El alma de Puerto Rico hecha canción.” Hailing from Ponce, Puerto Rico, Fernández was a versatile artist whose music set out to elevate black narratives, especially in laments like “Mi Ochún.” Throughout her career, she broke barriers that held black women back; she was the first woman to perform in a Puerto Rican orchestra. In the early days of her career, when she was performing with a band called Los Whoopee Kids, she was asked to enter the Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan via the kitchen because she was black, even though she was scheduled to perform. Fernández refused and entered through the front door. She was a pioneer in other ways too, becoming the first Puerto Rican woman to sing in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. She served in the Senate from 1973-1981. When she passed away in 2012, at the age of 92, the Puerto Rican government declared three days of mourning.


Xiomara Fortuna (Dominican Republic)

Xiomara Fortuna is an Afro-Dominican singer and songwriter who has continuously challenged conceptions of local identity on the island. She performs in the genre of música raíz, which fuses rock, jazz and Afro-Dominican rhythms like mangulina, priprí, salve, congos and gagá. Earlier this year during the International Day of Women, the president of the Dominican Republic granted her a prestigious award in the arts. The ceremony was controversial because she chose to accept the award barefoot, perhaps as a protest or a testament to her free spirit.

Fortuna was introduced to music by her mother, and began writing trova as part of a generation that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, when political struggles and student-led protests defined much of the music and identity in Latin America. Fortuna is also an activist; in 2008, UNESCO awarded her the Gandhi Medal for her work for peace. She also headlined a concert in Santo Domingo’s Parque Independencia as part of the movement Marcha Verde, which seeks an end to impunity in the Dominican Republic.


Toto Bissainthe (Haiti)

Toto Bissainthe was a singer and actress born in Cap Haïtien in 1934. As a Haitian diaspora singer, she has been recognized as a champion for Haitian music abroad. She studied acting in France, where she co-founded The Griots, the first black theatre company in France. Born Marie Clothilde “Toto” Bissainthe, she left Haiti during the military regime of Francois Duvalier. Her music is rich with spiritual references, blending traditional Vodou rhythms and poetry with jazz. This is perhaps best exemplified in her song “Igo Obun,” a track she performed with Marie-Claude Benoît and Mariann Mathéus on her album Toto Bissainthe chante Haïti. In an interview for the French news outlet La Vie Ouvriére, she states that she sings the story of black people “simply because we must. What I speak of is unity. With colonization and all of the cultural alienation that we were subjected to, we became very separated…Me, I want to speak above all about that which makes us brothers.” Bissainthe died in 1994.


Irene Cara (Puerto Rico, Cuba, US)

Irene Cara is an American singer and songwriter hailing from the Bronx. She was born to an Afro-Puerto Rican father and a Cuban mother. Cara is best known for being the singer and co-writer of “Flashdance…What a Feeling!” from Flashdance. She won a Grammy Award, an Academy Award, and two Golden Globes for the track, and had previously starred in Fame. She has toured Europe numerous times, including in 2001, where a remake of “Flashdance” reached the no. 1 spot on the charts. Though her professional career started in Spanish-language television, she was also in the well-known mini series Roots: The Next Generation.


Celeste Mendoza (Cuba)

Celeste Mendoza was an Afro-Cuban singer known as La Reina del Guaguancó. Mendoza started off dancing in cabarets, in predominantly black neighborhoods across the island, such as Marianao. According to Florida State University professor Delia Poey, “her start as a professional dancer, specifically one well-versed in grassroots Afro-Cuban dance traditions, would continue to influence the way she used her body onstage.” She was known for her deep voice and playful performance of femininity. This was revolutionary in a genre that was almost exclusively male. Mendoza kicked off her singing career in the 1950s, when she won several radio contests. Some of her hits include “Que Me Castigue Dios” and the original version of ”Bemba Colora” which Celia Cruz later remade. She died in 1998 at the age of 68.


Petita Palma Piñeiros (Ecuador)

Petita Palma Piñeiros is one of the most well-known interpreters of marimba esmeraldeña, a traditional percussion instrument from the region of Esmeraldas in Ecuador. In an interview for Ecuadorian newspaper El Diario she explains how the local environment of Esmeraldas informed her musical upbringing. “I was born amidst nature; I grew up amidst nature, the murmur of water and the fecundity of the countryside, filling my childhood and youth with the stories of my grandparents, faithful custodians of my African heritage.” In 1969, she founded a school to educate future generations on marimba’s musical heritage, and in 1972 she started the group Tierra Caliente, with which she traveled to the United States. The National Assembly of the Republic of Ecuador acknowledged her contributions with the Doctora Matilde Hidalgo de Prócel award in 2011. Previously known as “la negra marimbera,” over the course of her career, she has emphasized the need to preserve the region’s identity and culture.


Eva Ayllón (Peru)

Eva Ayllón is an Afro-Peruvian composer and singer. Though she’s known for having a versatile repertoire, she’s most loyal to her Afro-Peruvian roots. Ayllón has one of the longest musical careers in Peru, the recipient of the most Grammy nominations without any awards (six in total). In 2010, she celebrated her 40-year career with the release of a compilation titled 40 Years Singing to Perú. In 2009, local newspaper El Comercio asked if she was going to change her style to appeal to wider audiences. The answer? Never. “Maybe I won’t see it with my own eyes, but I can assure you: Black Peruvian music will get very far.” She was born María Angélica Ayllón Urbina in 1956, Lima, Perú. To help her family, Ayllón became a domestic worker at the age of 10, and at the age of 13 she began to sing. By the time she was 15, she had already become a professional singer.


Inés Granja (Colombia)

Inés Granja is considered one of the most important marimba performers of the Pacific region of Colombia. Her music emerged out of a commitment to preserve a legacy passed down to her via her family. She dedicated herself to writing songs about the stories that she grew up hearing through her African ancestry; many of her songs are actually considered hymns given their traditional storytelling style. In the song “Marimba e,” she speaks specifically to the importance of this instrument in the musical heritage of the African diaspora. She told local Colombian newspaper El Mundo that “people say that marimba has a sound that enchants you; people feel the son and start to feel attracted to it.” In 2012, she released her first solo album La Voz de la Marimba. Granja has managed to make marimba and music from the afrodescendant region of Pacific Colombia visible.