As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back on those who took a stand and made a statement, forging their legacies in sectors across entertainment, music, politics and the arts. VIBE Viva is shedding light on select Latinos who soared above and beyond in their respective fields. Some are new to the game. Some are seasoned vets. And some exist outside mainstream America. All broke barriers.
Amara La Negra
The Miami born, Dominican singer is a far cry from your average 24-year-old woman today. Her love for performing and giving the people something to remember her by is the air she breathes, the kind of stuff that feeds her soul and keeps her ample backside, afro’d self moving in the world.
“One of the reasons I’m so rebellious and I wear my hair from my head attached to my body, is because for many years I was told this bullsh*t lie that in order to be beautiful, I had to have straight hair,” Amara explains. “Hello, I’m black!”
For La Negra to become increasingly popular in a Caribbean nation riddled with racism (see Dominican Republic-Haiti relations), says a whole lot. Plus, her in-your-face attitude and self-love is utterly swoon-worthy and warrants all the flame emojis.
He’s an award-winning actor, composer, and playwright. What’s more, he’s an equally adept MC with a wicked knack for kicking rhymes.
We first fell in love with the Nuyorican when he brought the Dominican-American experience to a mainstream theater. In the Heights wound up earning Miranda four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. His new hip-hop based play Hamilton continues to speak to experiences estranged from the dominant culture. Ironic, yet brilliant considering the musical is centered around one of America’s Founding Fathers. Who said originality was dead?
Hamilton is a prime example of how this Latino continues to change the world with his art; he’s managed to have a voice in the ever so politically charged world we live in without coming off as overbearing or seemingly controversial.
Ok, so in this case, it’s two for one.
Singer Liliana Saumet and multi-instrumentalist Simon Mejía, the Colombian duo who began to play their off-kilter music in the Bogotá club scene a decade ago, are now veterans of a universal dance floor.
Although the band’s new album Amanecer was snubbed for Album of the Year and Record of the Year at the 2015 Latin Grammys, Li and Simon still shine with their signature style of electro hip-hop meets tropical vibes and gripping lyrical content.
Fervent disciples of bass and champeta, Bomba Estéreo continue to dominate the festival circuit, winning the hearts of fans from around the world with their party anthems and spiritually-driven ballads.
Díaz is a Dominican-American writer, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and overall toast of the literary world. Not to mention, a “ghetto nerd supreme” whose stories continue to give voice to first generation Latinos and immigrant children with offbeat curiosities.
Yet, his activism moves away from the page. Díaz is an active member of several community organizations, including Pro-Libertad and Dominican Workers Party. He is also the honorary chairman of the DREAM Project, a non-profit education involvement program in the Dominican Republic.
Despite being stripped of the Order of Merit he was honored with back in 2009 for being “anti-Dominican,” Díaz, alongside fellow author Edwidge Danticat, continue to speak out against the illegal deportation of Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans by the Dominican government.
Jane the Virgin starlet and award-winning actress Gina Rodriguez was a force to be reckoned with back when she spit a few bars in 2012’s Sundance hit Filly Brown. Today, this Boricua continues to defy industry standards by loving the skin she’s in and refusing to play characters who won’t serve as role models for young Latinos. Helping change the television landscape one script at a time? Damn right.
“Acting is like boxing,” she says. “You have to believe you can win. And then never stop fighting.”
Earlier this year, Rodriguez was announced as a new member of the Board of Directors of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), the biggest non-profit organization in the U.S. supporting Latinos’ higher education.
Gina’s presence in Hollywood heralds an important step for women actors who don’t fit the traditional mold, Latinas especially. Not too shabby for an around-the-way girl from Chicago.
The OG actor is a multi-faceted performer and Emmy Award winner, whose illustrious career and thespian talents continue to challenge categorization and break genres. Leguizamo’s work in theatre, television, film and literature covers the gamut of genres while simultaneously creating some of its own.
The longtime funny man and “ghetto klown” is readying a new comedy project titled, Latin History for Dummies. The endeavor seeks to school America on the marginalization of Latinos throughout U.S. history.
“We’re not taught anything that we contributed to this country,” Leguizamo says, “and we’ve been around for 500 years.”
Zahira is a visual artist, sociocultural critic and advice columnist at TheNewInquiry.com. Raised between Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic and the Bronx, Zahira speaks from a Latinegra mujerista perspective and uses social media to help dismantle white supremacy, capitalism and heteropatriarchy.
“Living as an Afro-Latina is an inherently alienating experience, whether we are in Latin America or abroad. Growing up never seeing myself in any media, I used to internalize it and assume people like us just didn’t ever make the cut,” Zahira says. “Learning about my own identity and womanhood, I started blogging to record my invisiblized narrative, to ask questions about feminism, the whys of Latin American and global hierarchy and all of oppressions intersections in accessible terms.
“To critique and challenge the world around me that places us in subhuman categories. To map out the effects of colonialism and how it ties into and is the engine of Abuse Culture. To help myself and others to distinguish abusive colonial cycles in their life. Eventually, my advice column at the New Inquiry came to be and I answer every query from an anti-colonial perspective. My art also serves as social commentary and making myself visible in a society that has excluded me from history, art and beauty.”
For over 20 years, Angie Martinez has been at the helm of hip-hop, its culture and surrounding politics, having interviewed legends such as Tupac, Biggie, Jay Z and more. After making a historic leap from Hot 97 to Power 105.1, The Voice of New York continues on a rapid upward trajectory, pushing the envelope during her interviews while venturing into other sectors of entertainment.
With her Puerto Rican heritage in mind, Angie developed a cookbook dedicated to teaching America’s multitude of Latinos that Latin food can be healthy.
And just last month, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio announced November 19 as Angie Martinez Day. What a way to honor the radio host for all she’s done and continues to do for the culture!
Juan Felipe Herrera
Imagine the joy Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera felt when he was announced as the new Poet Laureate of the United States back in June. He is the first-ever Latino to be fêted with such an honor.
Herrera came up in the ’60s when Mexican-American pride spilled into his native California. The 66-year-old writer’s work largely deals with the immigrant experience and Mexican-American themes, yet his prose and poetry appeal to the masses.
Considering his predecessors are almost all Anglo, the accomplishment is a testament to the Latino influence in the arts and culture of this country.
Maria “TooFly” Castillo
TooFly has long carried the torch for female graffiti artists, but with well over 20 years in a male-dominated enterprise, her legacy means so much more. Tagging walls since the ’90s, the NYC veteran is one of a handful of women who helped turn the urban art landscape on its head.
Today, she continues to cultivate the movement with YOUNITY, a collective of female artists and practitioners from around the globe. Her organization serves as a networking forum and vehicle for the exchange of ideas, where female prospects get to spotlight their developing styles in a professional manner.
Her latest feat? Taking the movement to her native Ecuador, where she and her all-female cohort mounted the country’s tallest street art mural on the science building of Universidad Central.
How dope is that?