From Celia Cruz to Daddy Yankee: How Latin music trailblazers paved the way to mainstream popularity

A new primetime special explores the roots and evolution of Latin music.

September 15, 2023, 6:12 AM

It's been over seven decades since Cuban-American actor Desi Arnaz brought "Babalú" into the living rooms of millions of Americans as the signature tune of Ricky Ricardo on "I Love Lucy."

Also around that time, Cuban bandleader Perez "The King of Mambo" Prado was topping the Billboard charts bringing the genre to the mainstream with hits like "Mambo No. 5." Cuban singer Celia Cruz would become known worldwide as "The Queen of Salsa" for her numerous contributions to the industry, with songs like "Quimbara" and "La Negra Tiene Tumbao."

These influential artists are just some of the many trailblazers pivotal to cementing the legacy of Latin music in mainstream pop culture and paving the way for future generations of Latin artists.

Their contributions are featured in the upcoming one-hour primetime special, "The Latin Music Revolution: A Soul of a Nation Presentation," airing Friday, Sept. 15 at 8 p.m. eastern on ABC and the next day on Hulu.

The special, coinciding with Hispanic and Latin American Heritage Month, will explore the roots and evolution of Latin pop music, the stars who are breaking barriers to achieve mainstream success, including the difficulties of breaking through in the early decades, and how artists like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias set the stage for the current moment.

Percussionist and singer Sheila E. discusses her life and career alongside the man who taught her everything she knows about music – her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo.

Percussionist and singer Sheila E. plays the drums alongside her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo.
ABC News

"One day, my dad's other percussion player got sick. And I said, 'Daddy, I know the songs. Can I just play?' And he's like, 'No, no, no, you're only 15. You don't know this stuff.' I was like, 'Daddy, I know the entire record.' So, I ended up playing and performing that night," Sheila E. told ABC News.

Two weeks later, she went on tour with him to Bogota, Colombia. Later she collaborated with Prince for the hit song, "The Glamourous Life" after meeting him backstage at a concert in 1977.

Other artists highlighted in the special are Tito Puente, Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Linda Ronstadt and Nicky Jam.

A landmark moment came in 1999 when Ricky Martin burst onto the scene with his memorable Grammy performance of "La Copa de la Vida."

The 2000s saw Latin artists like Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Mark Anthony, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias rise to mainstream popularity, singing songs in English in order to reach a new market.

But the opportunity to go mainstream was not afforded to all Latin artists.

"The acceptance was going to be very different for [white Latino artists] than it ever was going to be for a genre like Reggaeton that comes from the Afro diaspora," Reggaeton historian Katelina Eccleston says in the special.

In 2004, Puerto Rican artist Daddy Yankee released his international hit single "Gasolina," cementing Reggaeton's place in Latin music history.

"'Gasolina'...was desperately needed at that time to illustrate to the industry, this music moves people. This music is wanted," Eccleston said.

Year by year, songs by Reggaeton artists slowly started creeping up the Billboard charts and soon enough became mainstream pop.

Singer-songwriter Erika Ender, co-writer of the smash hit "Despacito," discusses her career in the studio.
ABC News

Panamanian-American singer-songwriter Erika Ender has paved the way for women in music with over 40 No. 1 songs and more than 200 albums that contain songs she has written.

"As a woman, it was very challenging. I have to say, even in the beginning of my career, I always tell people that I had to be super creative and go through the back door," Ender says in the special.

Ender is credited with co-writing the worldwide hit "Despacito," released in 2017, alongside Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee.

"I feel so happy that it was that last brick needed for the world to sing Spanish, for Spanish to become mainstream, for that crossover to actually not be needed to be sang in English," Ender said.

ABC News' Ricardo Cortez, Bridget Stevens, Priya Shah and Stephanie Mendez contributed to this report.