Help! Even the Voices in My Head are Male

August 24, 2012

A friend once joked that he was revoking my “black card.” He was simultaneously being playful and a little judgmental in saying that I wasn’t black enough because I hadn’t seen The Wiz – Motown’s answer to the Wizard of Oz.

On a more serious note, I’m hoping that my sisters in the struggle for women’s rights won’t pull my “feminist card” because of this next admission. Until recently, I was completely oblivious to the painfully obvious gender gap in Salsa music.

Now, I’m doing something about it — after all, that’s what we do here at AAUW. On Saturday, I’ll be at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum for a talk about the glass ceiling that women face in the male-dominated world of Salsa.

Photo provided by Jim Byers, host/producer of Metro Mambo Series

A young Celia Cruz, the queen of Salsa

It is easy to name the mambo kings. For starters, there’s Tito Puente, el rey de los timbales (king of timbales); Oscar D’León, faraón de la Salsa (the pharaoh of Salsa); and El Maestro Johnny Pacheco. It’s a small group, but it’s a fraternity nonetheless. And yet speaking in plurals is barely possible when it comes to women in Salsa. There is only the Queen — La Reina — of Salsa, Celia Cruz.

While my Latin music collection includes La India, La Lupe, and La Reina, truthfully all of my favorite songs are performed by men — D’León’s “Llorarás,” Joe Arroyo’s “Rebelion,” Willie Colón’s “El Gran Varón,” and El Groupo Niche’s “Etnia.”

To expand that playlist, I reached out to experts to learn more about the interaction of feminism and Salsa. Carlos Quintana from’s Latin Music Guide offered up a track by Son de Azucar, the female Salsa band from Cali, Colombia, called “No Soy un Juego,” which challenges the idea of the classic male “player” as in a man who plays with women’s hearts.

Frances Aparicio, author of the award-winning book Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto Rican Cultures and director of Northwestern University’s Latina and Latino Studies program, mentioned Cruz’s “Usted Abusó ,” a tune that could be seen as addressing domestic violence.

Aparicio told me she was motivated to study Salsa because she felt these contradictions as a feminist listening to patriarchal and misogynist lyrics while having a strong need to remain connected to her heritage.

I’m not Puerto Rican, but I understand the draw to Salsa and the need to listen responsibly. So a big thanks to the Smithsonian for opening my eyes. And a shout-out to Baratunde Thurston, author of How to be Black, which was described by one critic as a hilarious blend of razor-sharp satire and a memoir —he has the “black card” application on his website. Gracias, bro. I may reapply.

Lisa Goodnight By:   |   August 24, 2012


  1. Avatar femmevitale says:

    A delightful post! I, too, am a lover of salsa music and avid salsa dancer who’s greatly concerned about issues of equality for women. Like you, I had never really stopped to listen closely to or analyze the lyrics – which is a shame! I’ve been pondering lately about the “politics” of dance and debating with others about whether or not the dance itself is empowering, but I had neglected to address the music itself! I’m very interested and will definitely add Aparicio’s book to my “to read” list.

    • lisagoodnight lisagoodnight says:

      Thanks so much for posting your comment. You raise an interesting point that’s definitely worth exploring – the “politics” of dance. In fact, there’s that great line that goes – Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.

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