La Lupe: The Forgotten Afro-Latina Powerhouse of Latin Music

a black and white photo of a woman singing out loud

This article is part of a series developed in partnership with Project Pulso.

In the realm of Cuban singers, the names of icons like Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan often resonate strongly. However, another star that shined just as brightly but has been obscured by time, La Lupe, has to be acknowledged. This Afro-Latina powerhouse had it all - until she didn’t.

Born December 23, 1936, in the barrio of San Pedrito in Santiago de Cuba, Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymond was a proud Afro-Latina, her roots profoundly shaping her music and performances. Inspired by her father, an employee at the Bacardí distillery, La Lupe's voice soon became her ticket out of obscurity. In 1954, she audaciously escaped school to win a radio competition, setting her destiny in motion.

The Yolí family moved to Havana, where the vibrant Afro-Cuban culture further influenced young La Lupe. She initially enrolled at the University of Havana, aspiring to be a teacher, but the siren call of music was impossible to resist.

The late 1950s saw La Lupe's star ascend in Havana's nightlife. Her Afro-Latin heritage, combined with her electric performances, captivated a diverse audience, including stars like Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, and Marlon Brando. Her television debut on Puerto Rican screens further fueled her fame but also showcased her unbridled, passionate performances, which, although revered by many, also shocked a conservative audience.


However, the political atmosphere in Cuba was changing rapidly, and by 1962, La Lupe found herself exiled to Mexico. It was here that she sought the guidance of the renowned Celia Cruz. With Cruz's recommendation, La Lupe soon found herself in the heart of New York City, a place that would become instrumental in shaping the next phase of her illustrious career.

The 1960s took La Lupe from Mexico's exile to New York's bustling music scene. Guided by Celia Cruz, La Lupe's meteoric rise in the Big Apple was nothing short of phenomenal. Her versatility, comprising diverse Caribbean genres, earned her rave reviews. But, it was her unapologetic Afro-Latina identity, combined with her unique vocal prowess, that made her a sensation.

But the music world is fickle. As the salsa movement exploded and stars like Celia Cruz dominated the scene, La Lupe's brilliant flame began to wane. By the late 1960s, her once-illustrious career had, for the most part, faded into the background.

Her subsequent years were marred by challenges. A spinal injury, financial woes, and personal tragedies seemed to conspire against her. Yet, ever resilient, La Lupe found solace and rebirth in evangelical Christianity, a dramatic departure from her Santería origins.

In 1991, in a bid to reclaim her legacy, she performed a poignant concert in New York, reminding the world of the forgotten Afro-Latina queen of Latin music.

La Lupe's final curtain call came unexpectedly in 1992. While she remains interred at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx, her legacy poses a haunting question: How did such a force of nature become a mere whisper in history, overshadowed by names like Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan?

La Lupe's story is a reminder of the importance of recognizing and celebrating the Afro-Latina voices that have shaped Latin music. In the end, the "Queen of Latin Soul" may have been forgotten by many, but for those who remember, her spirit and talent burn as brightly as ever.