We’re at a time in popular culture when Latin music is more popular than ever. And with over 437 million native Spanish-speakers worldwide, it’s no wonder Latin music has finally claimed its place in the sun. But the “Latin Music Boom” didn’t happen over night. Latin musicians have been working hard to make their mark on the music industry for a long time. Musicians like Celia Cruz and Chavela Vargas ran the game in their own time, paving the way for today’s cross-over stars like Shakira and Daddy Yankee. There are so many Latino musicians that changed the world with their music and transcended the confines of “genre” or language. Here are 20 iconic Latinos who changed the world with their music.
1. Celia Cruz
Lovingly called “The Queen of Salsa” by the media, this Cuban singer was the most popular Latin artist of the 20th century. Cruz churned out hits that embodied the inimitable soul of Afro-Cuban music, especially to exiled Cubanos scattered across the globe after the advent of the Cuban Revolution in 1953. Cruz is remembered for introducing the world to the lively and infectious sound of Cuban music and lighting up every stage she stepped foot on with her colorful wigs, sequenced dresses, and glittering jewelry. Her impact was so great that she was awarded America’s National Medal of Arts in 1994. She died in 2003 at the age of 77 due to brain cancer, but her legacy lives on forever.
No introduction is necessary for Selena, the “Queen of Tejano Music” who is arguably the most influential Latin artist of all time. Her meteoric rise and subsequent shocking death catapulted Latin music into the mainstream conversation. Born in Texas to Mexican-American parents, Selena took the Latin music scene by storm in the early 90s with the release of her groundbreaking album Entre a Mi Mundo and her high energy performances. Unfortunately, her ascendant career was tragically cut short in 1995 when she was murdered by the president of her fan club. Still, her brief life made a timeless impact on music, the Latinx community, and the world.
3. Ricky Martin
Puerto-Rican singer Ricky Martin introduced mainstream America, and then the world, to the joys of easily-digestible, Latin music. Regarded as the “King of Latin Pop”, Martin achieved crossover success in 1999 with his mega-hit, “Livin’ La Vida Loca”. Born in Puerto Rico, Ricky was a child star in the popular boy-band Menudo, but it was the release of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” that catapulted him into international super-stardom. Not only is he a Latinx icon but a queer icon also. In 2010, he further changed the world for the better when he confirmed he was a “fortunate homosexual man”, cementing himself as an icon for both the queer and Latinx communities.
4. Mariah Carey
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Afro-Venezuelan singer Mariah Carey is one of the most successful singers of all time. She makes this list not necessarily because of her contribution to Latin music, but to her contribution to music in general. The “Songbird Supreme” was born to an Irish mother and an Afro-Venezuelan father. After she released her hit song “Vision of Love”, Mariah continued to dominate the charts with a record 14 No. 1 singles. Carey has made a mark on pop and R&B music that is practically impossible to imitate. In addition, she’s been candid about her struggle with her biracial identity as a child of an Afro-Latino father and a white mother.
5. Gloria Estefan
Gloria Estefan was born in Havana, Cuba, but fled with her family to Miami in 1959 during the Cuban Revolution. AFter joining the Latin band “Miami Sound Machine” as their lead singer, she found international success with the release of the single “Conga” in 1985. After that crossover hit, Estefan released an endless stream of international chart-topping hits. In addition to being a genius singer and songwriter, Estefan has changed her world through telling her personal refugee story and supporting immigrant and Latino rights. She is a vocal supporter of the US being more welcoming to refugees.
6. Jennifer Lopez
Often credited with giving women in Latin music greater visibility, American-born Puerto-Rican singer, dancer, and actress Jennifer Lopez took over the world when she decided to expand her horizons from acting into singing. Although Jennifer Lopez was vocally proud of her Puerto-Rican heritage, she also didn’t let it limit her in terms of the projects she pursued, releasing albums in both English and Spanish. She’s arguably the most famous person of Puerto-Rican descent on the planet and after selling 80 million records worldwide, still releases music today in both Spanish and English.
7. Rita Moreno
The Prima Donna of Latin Old Hollywood, Rita Moreno is one of the few stars in show business history (of any ethnicity) to obtain an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award). Born in Puerto Rico in 1931, Moreno catapulted to fame after her Oscar-winning turn as Anita in “West Side Story”. Unlike many other additions on this list, the way Moreno changed the world wasn’t necessarily through album sales, but through musical performances in film and theater. She continues to work today and you may have seen Moreno as Liliana De La Vega in “Jane the Virgin” or Lydia Riera in “One Day at a Time”. It was recently announced that she will have a role in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story”.
8. Enrique Iglesias
Ironically enough, although Enrique Iglesias is called by many “The King of Latin Pop” (an title shared with Ricky Martin), Iglesias is actually of Spanish and Filipinio descent. However, he still makes this list because of strong roots in the Miami music scene and his impact on Latin culture. Iglesias garnered international recognition with his self-titled debut album in 1995, which managed to sell over a million copies within the first week of its release. Since then, he has produced 27 number-one Spanish-language singles on the Billboard Latin Hot 100. His infectious dance-pop-Latin albums have made an undeniable footprint on the world music scene.
9. Chavela Vargas
Chavela Vargas was a Costa Rican-born Mexican singer renowned for her soulful renditions of Mexican rancheras, a genre of music traditionally reserved for men. Closely associated with Mexican folk mariachi groups, she released more than 80 albums in her lifetime. In addition, Vargas was also an unabashed lesbian who conducted affairs with prominent personalities such as Frida Kahlo. Vargas was groundbreaking in that she was relatively open about her sexual preferences in a time when it wasn’t as acceptable. She also cemented herself as a queer and lesbian icon when she formally came out as gay in her 2002 autobiography, “And if you want to know about my past”.
10. Lin Manuel Miranda
Puerto-Rican musical genius Lin Manuel Miranda has made his mark in the world by creating and starring in Broadway musicals that touch on themes such as immigration, Latinx identity, and assimilation into American culture. His first musical “In the Heights” was set in Washington Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood of New York City. Addionlly, he created the blockbuster Tony Awarding-winning musical “Hamilton”, which he’s currently touring in Puerto Rico. An avid philanthropist, Miranda spends much of his time and money on the Post-Maria rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico. A critical darling, Miranda has won a Pulitzer Prize, three Grammy Awards, an Emmy, and three Tonys.
Although Thalía never achieved quite the same success in America as she did in the rest of Latinidad, we would be crazy to leave her off the list. Thalía is a Latinx icon that didn’t need the acceptance of the English-speaking world to make her mark. Known for being both the “Queen of Telenovelas” and one of the most iconic women in Latin pop music, Thalía is a triple threat to rival Jlo. In fact, many in the industry consider her one of the most powerful women in Latin music. She is especially adored by fans in her native country of Mexico. She continues to work as an actress, singer, and entrepreneur today.
12. Cardi B
Cardi B makes this list not only for releasing an endless stream of bops, but also because of the awareness she’s brought to the nuances of Afro-Latina identity. Born to a Dominican father and Trinidadian mother, Cardi B is unapologetic about her heritage or where she comes from. On the heels of the unprecedented success of her 2017 single, “Bodak Yellow”, Cardi B released a blockbuster album “Invasion of Privacy” in 2018 that was both a critical and commercial hit. Speaking for so many Afro-Latinas who have been criticized for their heritage, Cardi B said: “A lot of people be attacking me because they feel like I don’t be saying that I’m black. Some people want to decide if you’re black or not, depending on your skin complexion, because they don’t understand Caribbean people or our culture. I don’t got to tell you that I’m black. I expect you to know it”.
Colombian artist Shakira is truly a global phenomenon. Although she began her career as almost exuslively an artisit geared towards the Latin market, her single “Whenever, Wherever” in 2002 became an international sensation, solidfying her as a cross-over hit. She further made waves with her blockbuster single “Hips Don’t Lie” which became one of the best selling singles of the 2000s. Her presence on the world stage continued when she created the 2010 FIFA Offical Song “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)”, which garnered 10 million downloads. By sheer power of numbers, Shakira has changed the world with her music based on her number of fans, all from diverse backgrounds.
15. Marc Anthony
With over 12 million albums sold worldwide, Puerto-Rican singer Marc Anthony is the top selling tropical salsa artist of all time. He began his career opening for his idol, Tito Puente, but didn’t reach mainstream success until the release of his English-language album “Marc Anthony”, which went triple platinum in the US. In addition to his impressive album sale statistics, he’s won 29 Premio Lo Nuestro Latin Music awards–more than any other male artist. His contribution to making salsa music mainstream definitely proves that he’s changed the world through his music.
16. Carlos Santana
Considered one of the most technically skilled guitarists of modern times, Mexican-American artist Carlos Santana is an important Latino artist for the contributions he’s made to rock music. Before he came onto the scene, the idea of “rock fusion”–the combination of different musical styles with traditional hard rock–was a foreign concept. Santana entered the international scene through his performance at 1969’s Woodstock Festival, which thrust him into the international consciousness. He has won 10 Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards and continues to make his mark on both the Rock and Latin music scene today.
Cuban-American musician Pitbull, born Armando Christian Pére, calls himself “Mr. Worldwide” because of his mass global appeal. He has spoken before about how he would rather be the “soccer” of music (popular globally) than the “football” of music (only popular in America). His music is so successful that it’s sold more than 70 million singles and had No. 1 hits in more than 15 countries. So, his nickname for himself isn’t hyperbole–his music has definitely changed the world.P. Diddy said it best when he described Pitbull’s importance to the international music scene: “He’s an ambassador, connecting the hip-hop and the Latin communities and encouraging that important crossover appeal”.
18. Daddy Yankee
Although a relatively new player compared to some of the stalwarts on this list, Puerto-Rican singer and “King of Reggaetón” Daddy Yankee takes this slot because of the unparalleled success of his 2017 blockbuster hit “Despacito”. “Despacito”, created along with fellow Puerto-Rican singer Luis Fonzi, smashed records when it became the longest running No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 ever. It ushered in a new era of Latin Music popularity and is also credited with the popularization of “reggaeton”–a style of music that blends hip-hop and Latin music.
19. Christina Aguilera
Ecuadorian-American Christina Aguilera became instantly famous with the release of her smash single “Genie in a Bottle” in 1999. She went on to become a pop-princess with powerhouse vocals with a myriad of other hits like “Come on Over” and “Beautiful”. She even released a Spanish language album in 2000 titled Mi Reflejo. She gave a voice to Latinas everywhere who feel like theyre not “Latina enough” when she addressed that criticism head on: “All I know is no one can tell me I’m not a proud Latina woman”.
20. Tito Puente
New York-born, Puerto-Rican musician Tito Puente is a pop culture legend who received mainstream stardom before newcomers Cardi B and Daddy Yankee were even a twinkle in their fathers’ eyes. Often called “The Musical Pope” of Mambo and Latin Jazz, Puente’s career spanned more than 50 years and influenced countless Latin artists–many of whom are on this list. His most famous song is “Oye Como Va” is a classic example of the famous Latin “cha-cha-cha” tempo and has been the basis for countless covers and remakes by Latin artists paying homage. Puente died in 2000 at the age of 77 but his influence on Latin music and the world will never stop.
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