She wears gold hoops, red lipstick and a Salvadoran flag around her neck. She’s La SalvadoReina, the latest Latina superheroine, and she’s saving the party with her cumbia jams.
It’s not an easy feat. Reyna Zavala, the Washington, D.C.-native and San Antonio, Texas-living singer behind La SalvadoReina, says most people link the genre to an old country, an elder relative or a former time — not exactly the music you blast to enliven a crowd of 20-somethings.
“‘That’s viejito shit,’ they say, but I love it,” Zavala, 25, tells FIERCE. “It’s a genre that’s still alive, and I want people to know that.”
Zavala is among a growing number of young artists breathing new life into cumbia, a classic Latino rhythm and dance originating from the Caribbean coast of Colombia that mixes African, Spanish and indigenous beats. Most recently, acts like Bomba Estéreo, Pernett and Frente Cumbiero are melding the traditional rhythms with electronic synths to create electro-tropical and electro cumbia, but U.S.-based artists prefer fusing the classic sounds with genres they grew up listening to in the States. For Zavala, that’s hip-hop.
“It was my sophomore year of college, 2013, when it officially started. My friend was my beat-maker, and I told him I wanted to do cumbia and rap.
At the time, I fell in love with Mala Rodriguez, who was combining flamenco with hip-hop, and that’s what did it for me,” she said.
One year later, Zavala, who began taking classes at the D.C. hip-hop nonprofit Words Beats & Life Inc., dropped “Cumbia Capital,” an ode to the massive Salvadoran population in the District.
The music video, which features Zavala bigging up Washingtonian Salvadorans while dancing in front of popular D.C. monuments and buildings as well as pupuserias and carnivals, received praise throughout the capital, enough to prompt the up-and-comer to take cumbia music seriously.
“People really, really loved it, and they wanted more,” she said.
It was a vocation no one saw coming — not even her.
“I never thought I was going to be a musician. If you told me that, I would have laughed. I was such a geek, and so obedient, always listening to my parents,” she said giggling.
Her parents wanted her to be a lawyer or a politician, so Zavala initially studied international affairs at American University, thinking she’d work at the Consulate De El Salvador, before transferring into public communications.
“But later I was like, I want to do this, music, and my family was shocked. I was such an introvert,” she added.
The career shift shouldn’t have been such a surprise to Zavala’s mom and dad, after all, she quips, they’re responsible for it. She grew up surrounded by cumbia, with its traditional two-step danced during weddings, baptisms, house parties and cleaning days.
Her father, Wilson Zavala, is even a cumbia promotor. She remembers him regularly putting together community events and selling pupusas in order to raise funds to fly bands from El Salvador to D.C.
“I’d wake up and an orquesta would be eating breakfast in the kitchen,” she said, fondly reminiscing about her youth.
He’d then organize big parties that were attended by Latinos throughout the District as well as Virginia and Maryland. But the shows did more than maintain culture and community. They were a part of her father’s nonprofit, ACOSAL-USA, which sent concert proceeds to his pueblo in El Salvador. Back in their motherland, the D.C. performances funded a soccer academy and rehab center, helped kids obtain school supplies and taught Zavala that music should always seek to empower.
As a musician, a title that still feels strange to her, she writes and performs songs that celebrate Latinos, especially Salvadorans, who she says have long been underrepresented in arts and entertainment.
“I want to speak to the little girls, the ones who, like me, are thinking, why are there no Salvadorans. It’s about representation and visibility,” she said. “But it’s also our voice. It’s the soundtrack of our movement and, sometimes, the escape from our reality.”
After taking a year off to hone her style, study singing and produce new material, Zavala is ready to pick up where she left off — and she is claiming 2018 as her year. The singer-rapper will soon release a single produced by Jean-Louis Colonne and hopes to drop her debut album in the months to come.
“My world is a cumbia world, and I’m just trying to be happy and make people feel good. I want them to dance cumbia, and I want them to support cumbia,” she said.