What You Don't Know About... La Lupe


Written by Isabel Palmer
29 Monday 29th September 2008

Considered the Judy Garland of the Spanish-language world due her torrid love affairs, heavy drug use, poor financial management and bipolar-ism, she is one of the greatest musical divas the world has ever known and many drag performers still imitate her today. Born in Cuba to a poor family, she began her life as a schoolteacher in Havana at her father's request. He worked at the local Bacardi distillery. However, music was in her blood, and she entered a singing competition on the radio wining first place.

In 1958 La Lupe married Eulogio "Yoyo" Reyes. They had a child together and formed a musical trio with another female singer called Los Tropicuba. They made many successful club debuts throughout Havana. Her performances, which included Rock'n'Roll and pop songs in Spanish combined with heavy onstage antics made her a smash in the Cuban music scene. Yoyo was also her manager but the group broke up with the marriage in 1960 after Yoyo beat her and cheated with the other girl in the band.

She began to perform her own act at a small nightclub in Havana, La Red, and acquired a devoted following. She released her first album, Con el Diablo en el Cuerpo (With the Devil Inside) on Discuba in 1961. Her expressive performances with their violent sexuality attracted criticism that she was a poor example to the revolutionary state; this led to professional difficulties which together with personal problems made it difficult to stay in Cuba.

With her raspy voice and an uninhibited stage presence La Lupe gained a transgressive cult following. Her fans were mainly existentialists, queers and people from the edges of society. She was a follower of Santeria, a traditional African-Caribbean religion, but her beliefs were seen as unsavoury and voodoo-like. "She would wear certain types of symbols, like a scarf around her neck to mean something. Or sometimes she would pray during performances," says Sara Wajid social historian and editor of Untold London.

"Her act was sexual and transgressive, she wore strong make-up and clothes like a prostitute. Castro was a puritanical communist. It was ok when she was performing in La Red and had a cult following, but he didn't want her on TV." In revolutionary Cuba women were still not supposed to be sexually overt and expressive on TV and she was too leftfield. This wasn't how Castro wanted to portray Cuba. "But don't be fooled into thinking she was stupid just because she looks wacked out on stage, and you can't be lulled into thinking she was crazy either," says Wajid.

La Lupe felt that she could no longer live in a country that did not accept her performances, which were classified as anti-revolutionary. She left Cuba for Mexico in 1962, where she sought acceptance, but it never happened. So later she moved to New York and met fellow Cuban musician Mongo Santamaría. They teamed up to make the album Mongo Introduces La Lupe in 1963. That album made her a star and later she joined up with the legendary bandleader Tito Puente to make four successful albums, which established her as one of the most popular performers in Latin music. She fell out with Tito Puente in 1968 because he sometimes asked Latin drag queens to perform with his band in her place.

Before La Lupe, Tito Puente's band were very traditional and she gave them an edge. She became recognised as a pioneer of Salsa fusion and old-school Latin. Voted the best singer by the Latin press in 1965 and 1966, La Lupe went on to become one of the top two divas of salsa music (the other was Celia Cruz). It was during these years that she produced some of her greatest songs, especially those written by Puerto Rican composer C. Curet Alonso, such as La Gran Tirana and Puro Teatro.

In her musical career La Lupe's passionate performances covered a range of music including son montuno, bolero, Guantanamera, venturing into other Caribbean styles like Dominican merengue, boogaloo, and Venezuelan Golpe Tocuyano, Puerto Rican bomba and plena, busamba, and of course salsa. In the sixties she was the most acclaimed Latin singer in New York City due to her partnership with Tito Puente. She was the first Latin singer to sell out a concert at Madison Square Garden and she also did a wide variety of cover versions in either Spanish or accented English, including YesterdayDominique by The Singing Nun, Twist and ShoutUnchained MelodyFeverMy Way and America from West Side Story.

In the 1970's La Lupe's career began to decline. First she was banned from Puerto Rican TV after she tore her clothes off during an awards ceremony on national television. Next, her record label, Tico Records, was purchased by Fania Records (the Motown of Latin music), and company executives decided to focus their energies on the less controversial Celia Cruz. Although she had several hits during that decade, she faded into obscurity. A devout follower of Santeria she continued to practice her religion regardless of the influence, fortune, and fame she had acquired throughout the height of her career. However, due to the decision by her record label to end her contract in the late 1970s, she saw herself destitute by the early 1980s.

In the 1980's La Lupe retired from the industry and saw herself destitute. Her schizophrenic HIV-positive husband William Garcia with whom she had one daughter Rainbow, had expensive medical bills. This coupled with her large donations to the Santeria religion, and her personal problems left her and her family homeless. The 1980s also saw her become paralyzed and in a wheelchair following a domestic accident. Later she would be ‘cured' by an evangelical preacher with divine intervention. After being miraculously healed at the evangelical Christian Crusade she abandoned Santeria and became a born-again Christian and recorded Christian orientated material in the late 1980s. She continued her devotion to evangelism until her death in 1992. This is the stage where Cuban director Ela Troyano met her in 1987 at a formal church gathering in New York selling old tapes of her renditions of pop songs from the 1960s.

The Troyano film shows famous clips of La Lupe on the Dick Cavett Show in 1973 and on David Frost's talk show in the 1960s among other memorable performances. The film rights have not been released from PBS in the U.S. and have only been screened once before in the UK at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

La Lupe never saw the surge in her popularity after her death. In the 1990s, interest in her music was re-sparked after Spanish director Pedro Almodovar chose her song, Puro Teatro to be the closing song of his hit film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988. Fania re-released her records on their Tico labels during that decade, and many of her records went platinum throughout Spain and Latin America. She died in the Bronx of a cardiac arrest in 1992 at 53 years old and was survived by her husband William Garcia, their daughter Rainbow, and her son Rene Camaro. She is buried in Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.

For more info on UK film screenings of Ela Troyano's documentary film La Lupe Queen of Latin Soul please go to The Woman's Library or Untold London.

All pictures courtesy of Norma Yoli / ITVS unless otherwise stated.

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