The Latin Recording Academy celebrates the enduring legacy of Latin music and is preparing for the 20th anniversary of the Latin GRAMMY
It’s 1999, the cusp of a new millennium: The ostensible doomsday of Y2K, chat room trolling and the dot-com bubble are at a pop-culture peak—and so is the arrival of a newly-minted Latin-pop wave. Jennifer Lopez of Selena fame is gearing up to drop On The 6, her breakout solo record; salsa revivalist Marc Anthony is set to go mainstream with his eponymous, first all-English album; and Ricky Martin, a former child star from boy band Menudo, is about to become one of the hottest Latin pop crossover acts of the new millennium.
Equipped with Ken-doll looks and a gigantic smile dazzling enough to send hordes of teenagers into a frenzy, the Puerto Rican heartthrob was among the scheduled performers at the 41st GRAMMY Awards ceremony on Feb. 24, 1999.
Donning sexy leather pants on swiveling hips, Martin burst onstage and belted out a riveting, bilingual performance of “La Copa De La Vida (The Cup Of Life).” His show-stopping, high-energy delivery was welcomed with a roaring ovation, which quickly sparked worldwide media coverage.
The impressive performances and smash hits by a new crop of Latin pop artists were proving the point that the time was right for the launch of The Latin Recording Academy® and the Latin GRAMMY Awards ®, which will celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Biggest Night in Latin Music in November.
“It was now or never,” says Gabriel Abaroa Jr., Latin Recording Academy President/CEO “The Recording Academy™, which had been planning a Latin spin-off, launched the first Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony in 2000, immediately after the Ricky Martin success.”
"After the success with Ricky Martin, everybody opened their eyes and realized how important it was to bring diversity and multiethnic elements into [mainstream American] music," adds Latin GRAMMY- and GRAMMY-winning musician/producer Emilio Estefan, who helped develop the careers of several Latin artists, including Martin.
The press covered Martin’s breakthrough as an unprecedented feat and credited the relatively unknown new star for kicking off the so-called Latin pop explosion. A CNN headline declared “Ricky Martin Leading The Latin (Music) Revolution.” Three months after his performance at the GRAMMYs, Martin had the No. 1 album and single on the Billboard charts and was on the cover of Time illustrating their story “Latin Music Goes Pop!”
But Latin music had been making its mark on the industry for decades.
“The cultural wave Martin is riding—Latin pop—we must admit, is also not an entirely new phenomenon,” wrote Christopher John Farley in “Latin Music Goes Pop!” “Salsa, rumba, mambo, and other Latin musical forms have made a dent in global pop music—Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades, Gloria Estefan, Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Machito, Willie Colón, Tito Puente, and many, many others have, for decades now, scored hits, excited crowds and pioneered new sounds. Time’s discovering Latin pop would be a bit like Columbus discovering Puerto Rico.”
“Latin music has always had a presence, not only in the U.S. market but in worldwide markets,” echoes Abaroa. “What happens is that sometimes there’s a beautiful firecracker here and another firecracker there that create greater attention."
New York-based Mexican and Puerto Rican trio Los Panchos began composing the folkloric sounds of their heritage in the ’40s. They raised baladas and boleros to global grandeur.
“They were unknowns in their countries of origin, so when they returned to their native homelands, their compatriots were like, ‘Oh, Los Panchos have been triumphing in New York and they’ve come back!’ Abaroa explains. “Los Panchos had already done their homework and became a very important trio who opened the door for many other groups to start touring the world.”
Other trailblazing crossover stars of recent memory include Chicano rockabilly pioneer Ritchie Valens who resurrected the music of Veracruz in 1958 with his hit son jarocho cover “La Bamba”; Mexican-American guitar shredder Carlos Santana played a central role in the evolution of Latin rock beginning with his legendary performance at Woodstock in 1969; Puerto Rican singer/songwriter José Feliciano gave classic rock a bolero twist when he landed at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968 with his cover of the Door’s hit “Light My Fire”; Sérgio Mendes, from Brazil, globalized bossa nova with his timeless 1966 tune “Mas Que Nada”; Cuban vocalist of Fania Records fame Celia Cruz solidified her rep as the Queen of Salsa; and rhythm master Tito Puente internationalized Afro-Cuban jazz in the late ’60s.
“Then you have Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine [making waves in the late ’70s],” adds Abaroa. “Suddenly, [people] start to discover Latin pop and say, ‘Oh, here come the Latinos with their music.’ No! We have been here. The problem was that they never noticed it. No one was connecting the dots that music was already being made with a lot of influence from Latinos.”
If GRAMMY winners such as Estefan, Feliciano, Puente, and Santana helped crack the door to global success for Latin artists, others such as Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Selena kicked the door wide open in the ’90s as their music soared on the charts and they gained more mainstream visibility.
The Recording Academy first recognized Latin music in 1975, awarding jazz artist Eddie Palmieri the inaugural Best Latin Recording GRAMMY for The Sun Of Latin Music. Over the years, additional categories were added to the Latin Field, including Best Tropical Latin Performance, Best Salsa Performance, and Best Latin Rock/Alternative Performance, but the Academy was unable to recognize the full breadth of Latin music, which includes hundreds of artists, dozens of musical styles and countries—from South America, Spain, and Portugal, to the United States and any other territory where Spanish- and Portuguese-language music is made.
"We've been very pleased and satisfied to see how the GRAMMY Awards have given recognition to Latin music, yet there was a need to create a space where all Latin music had the opportunity to be awarded," says Alfonso "Poncho" Lizárraga, singer/composer for the multi-Latin GRAMMY-winning ensemble Banda El Recodo from Sinaloa, Mexico.
“Even though the Recording Academy credibly recognized Latin music, it really was ultimately difficult to cover all the bases,” says Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow, who is a member of The Latin Academy’s Board of Trustees and Executive Committee. “The spectrum of Latin music required more detail and diversity than can be addressed within a Field in the GRAMMY Awards.”
Although the market was ripe for the Latin GRAMMY Awards, the Recording Academy's first international venture had a rocky start.
A group of Recording Academy executives—who in the early days handled the daily operations of The Latin Recording Academy—reached out to Univision to broadcast the inaugural Latin GRAMMYs in 2000. But “when you have two 800-pound gorillas—the GRAMMYs and Univision,” as Abaroa explains, “they didn’t get along very well because of their [respected statures] and cultural misunderstandings.”
CBS—which has been airing the GRAMMYs since 1973—then came on board to air the Latin GRAMMYs inauguration, and hosted the show for four years. “This was programming for an English-speaking demographic that featured Latin music in Spanish and Portuguese,” says Abaroa.
“Although everyone had beautiful intentions, the correct steps were not being followed,” he adds. “Part of it was not being wholly familiar with [the bi-cultural sensibilities of] the market, and the other was the Sept. 11 atrocity.”
The 2nd Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards was scheduled to take place on Sept. 11, 2001, but was canceled in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The presentation was rescheduled for Oct. 30 of that year and was scaled back considerably—awards were distributed at a press conference at the Conga Room in Los Angeles.
To get the show back on track, The Latin Recording Academy recruited its first independent Board of Trustees: 12 Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking music professionals. Together, they drafted bylaws, clear rules of integration between the Recording Academy and The Latin Recording Academy, and recruited international members to balance the U.S.-based membership.
“I’ve seen [The Latin Academy] grow from practically nothing, from having very few members and employees, to being a global force today,” says Latin GRAMMY winner Erika Ender, who co-wrote 2017’s smash hit “Despacito” and has been involved with The Latin Academy since 2002. “I’ve closely watched the transparency of Gabriel’s leadership. He’s on top of everything and is always looking for excellence. … He’s always looking for quality and does things with purpose, thus raising the bar for Latin [music].”
In 2003, The Latin Academy moved the Latin GRAMMY Awards from Los Angeles to Miami and then made stops in New York and Houston before settling in Las Vegas (which has a population that's more than 30 percent Hispanic), where the telecast has aired for the past 10 years. In 2005, The Latin Academy made a deal to make Univision its domestic television home, forming a partnership that was expanded last year when the two organizations inked a deal to keep the telecast on the Spanish-language network through 2028. The Latin GRAMMYs are now also broadcast to more than 80 countries.
These key moves have been crucial to The Latin Academy’s success. Exceptional performances on the telecast haven’t hurt either.
Shakira graced the inaugural Latin GRAMMY Awards in 2000 with a sizzling performance of “Ojos Así” and her enthralling belly dancing. In 2002, salsa queen Celia Cruz closed the show with a divine “La Negra Tiene Tumbao”; ranchero master Vicente Fernández along with his son Alejandro Fernandez paired for an unforgettable duet that same year. Juan Luis Guerra and Maná joined forces in 2006 for a heartrending delivery of “Bendita Tu Luz.” In 2009, the late, great Latin pop icon Juan Gabriel ran through the highlights of his multidecade career with a medley of legendary proportions. Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez built maddening tension as they oozed chemistry during their Pimpinela-inspired performance of "Olvidame Y Pega La Vuelta," which was followed by a much-talked-about kiss onstage in 2016. The following year, Residente opened the Latin GRAMMYs with a spine-chilling tribute to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that empowered Latinos worldwide.
Then there was “Despacito,” the 2017 record-breaking megahit by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. In addition to garnering four Latin GRAMMYs and three GRAMMY nominations, including Record and Song Of The Year, “Despacito” was the first predominately Spanish song to top the Billboard Hot 100 since “Macarena” in 1996.
Forbes wrote, “[‘Despacito’] solidified Latino influence in popular music and culture in the U.S. and around the world across all musical genres—from reggaeton to pop and more.”
There is one fundamental difference, however, between the Latin pop boom of the ’90s and today, according to “Despacito” co-writer Ender. “Previously, to cross over, one had to write in English. We never thought that ‘Despacito’ was going to take these wings, or that it was going to make it in Spanish. I believe that everything from the past paved the way. The song came with a force that none of us expected.”
From the beginning, the Latin GRAMMY Awards has served as a vehicle to showcase the power of Latin music. Truly The Biggest Night in Latin Music, the telecast’s ratings continually position Univision in the top three broadcast networks during the night of its airing and maintain a strong attraction to Hispanic viewers in the demographic groups of total viewers 2+, and adults 18–34.
Today, the Latin GRAMMYs award statues in categories showcasing the diversity of The Latin Academy’s membership as well as the diversity of Latin music. Genres recognized span salsa, cumbia, mariachi, and samba, to alternative, children's music, urban, classical, Christian, and everything in between. And today, there are more than 3,500 Latin Academy members representing 36 countries.
“Our voters are flamenco experts in Andalucía, tango experts in Buenos Aires, mariachi experts in Guadalajara—people who feel the love and have passion for those genres. We are a much more authentic composition of experts in every Field,” explains Abaroa.
"[The Latin GRAMMY] Awards are given by members who have knowledge of what Latin music means; who understand the process of an album—from the recording, the mixing, the nuances, the arrangements, the design––all types of details," says Lizárraga.
Through its Best New Artist award, The Latin Academy has helped catapult brilliant newcomers toward crossover stardom.
“If every year we can help at least one single act break through, then this organization has fulfilled a big part of its mission,” says Abaroa. “We were able to give great artists like Rosalía, Mon Laferte, Natalia Lafourcade, Jesse & Joy, David Bisbal, Calle 13, and others that recognition,” whether as winners or nominees.
Besides spotlighting prodigious upstarts, The Latin Recording Academy annually distinguishes Latin legends who’ve embodied great philanthropy and creative excellence through its Person of the Year honor. Recent honorees include Marc Anthony, Miguel Bosé, Roberto Carlos, Gloria Estefan, Maná, Alejandro Sanz, Joan Manuel Serrat, Shakira, and Caetano Veloso, among others. The Latin Academy also awards Lifetime Achievement and Trustees Awards to notable Latin artists who have created Latin music's legacy.
In addition, The Latin Academy has also built its Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation into a viable organization aimed at promoting the awareness and appreciation of the significant contributions of Latin music as well as preserving its legacy and heritage. To date, the Cultural Foundation has awarded more than 200 scholarships, totaling $4.3 million, to students from diverse backgrounds who have a passion for Latin music.
"The generosity of our donors, supporting artists, and sponsors has been so substantial that we have been able to make hundreds of dreams a reality every year. Dreams that may have simply stayed as dreams and nothing more, if not for the ever-growing work of our team and of those who want to enhance Latin music," says Manolo Díaz, Senior Vice President of the Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation®. "I am proud and moved by the large strides made by our young Foundation which, in such a brief period, has profoundly impacted so many lives. I am in awe of how significantly we are affecting the lives of future Latin music makers."
On the eve of the 20th Annual GRAMMY Awards, the future of The Latin Recording Academy is brighter than ever.
"I couldn't be more proud of what The Latin Academy has accomplished, especially while my colleague Gabriel has been at the helm. At Board meetings, educational events, and of course the telecast, I'm always so impressed by the talent, dedication, and energy of everyone involved," Portnow says.
"We've become a pillar of the Latin music world. We're respected by artists, fans, and the media, with an extraordinary and dedicated membership—frankly, because we've earned it," Abaroa proudly reflects. "In the beginning, everything was against us. However, we never doubted ourselves because we have three beautiful things. Number one: passion. Number two: a strong worth ethic; many of us come from Latin countries to live in the states, and we either succeed or go back—there is no other way. And number three: our amazingly beautiful music. We're fortunate that we reflect and honor an art form that so proudly represents our culture."
Isabela Raygoza is a New York-based Chicana journalist and musician from the borderlands of San Diego and Tijuana. She specializes in rock and Latin music with bylines at Rolling Stone, Noisey, The Village Voice, and more.