La Lupe: Life in the Margins

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by Jamie Hayes (originally appeared online for Stop Smiling magazine)

The price of celebrity is always dear, as the price is often the sacrifice of one’s true, complex and ever-changing identity. In place of that, the celebrity often becomes the embodiment of certain ideals and desires that are either unattainable or forbidden the average citizen — or often both. What is so compelling about Lupe Yoli (aka La Lupe, aka La Yiyiyi) is the way in which she used her body, consciously or not, to call attention to the art and artifice of the construction of Identity, the foundation (consciously or not) of all performative art.

We can all relate to the stress of being thrust into a role based on our age, nationality, gender, race or sexuality. Even when the role being played is given top billing — young, American, white, male, straight — the boundaries of the role are still too narrow to define anyone who has truly explored their interior self. How much more constricting were the roles La Lupe played throughout her life: Cuban; mulatta; female; controversial and vulgar performer; political exile; “Queen of Latin Soul”; practitioner of Santería; battered wife; drug addict; single mother; homeless woman; wheel-chair bound born-again Christian.

Born in Cuba in 1936 to a strict, conservative father and raised by a stepmother who despised her because of her darker skin, La Lupe was forced by her father to pursue a career as a school teacher rather than pursue her dream of becoming a singer because he believed that women from good families did not belong in night clubs. In her teens, La Lupe defied her father’s wishes. She skipped school and walked all the way from Santiago to Havana to enter a radio contest. She won the contest and a few years later relocated to Havana to begin her career.

From the start, La Lupe was extremely controversial. Here is a description of a typical La Lupe show in Havana, from writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante: “The woman would hit and scratch herself, and later bite herself, her hands, and her arms. Unhappy with this musical exorcism, she would throw herself against the background wall, hitting it with her fists and with one or two movements of her head, she would let loose, literally and metaphorically, her black hair. After hitting the props, she would attack the piano and the pianist with a new fury. All of this, miraculously, without stopping her singing and without losing the rhythms of that warm calypso that she transformed into a torrid, musical zone.”

Her act was extremely risqué, sexual and like nothing the Cuban public had ever seen. (Neither had the audiences in New York, where she performed after her exile by Castro in 1962.) Even now videos of her best performances still shock in their rawness, their excessive aggressive and transgressive sexuality. And while her performances are extremely sexual, full of orgasmic moans and groans while lifting her skirts and kneading her breasts, they are not exactly sexy — at least to my taste — perhaps because they are too raw, too violent and too honest to fully seduce. It’s painful and at times uncomfortable to watch her use and abuse her body — to prostitute herself, so to speak. And yet there is something extremely compelling and powerful in her raw, violent actions, her uncontrolled rage and sensuality. Her magic, then, is her ability to work both ends of the axis of attraction and repulsion. Perhaps that is why the word “magnetic” was so often used to describe her performances.la-lupe-a-mi-me-llaman-la-lupe

She achieved this magnetism exactly by calling attention to the semiotics of sexuality and gender construction. A key element to her show was a type of strip act: She began by taking off her shoes, then her copious amounts of jewelry — Santeria amulets and necklaces, earrings, belts, brooches — then her headscarf. If she had continued in this vein, she would have just been referencing a conventional strip act. But there was nothing conventional about La Lupe. Instead, she would next take off her wig and her false eyelashes, hike up her pants, and enter a state of trance, or better yet, possession. She gave her body up to sensation, yelling, screaming, completely losing it. She would rub herself, hit herself, wipe her mouth convulsively, rub her hands together. It was indeed a strip act, but what she is stripping away is not her clothing really but rather the trappings of identity itself — the wigs, the makeup, the jewelry — the signifiers that we use in order to signify our status, our place in the world. She strips down not to reveal a coy, feminine sensuality but rather a raw, unbridled life force that is as disturbing as it is compelling.

In the early Sixties, she had ample audience for work. Upon her arrival to New York, she joined Mongo Santamaría’s band, then after two albums, defected to Tito Puente’s band. She is credited with updating his sound from démodé Big Band and traditional Cuban rhythms to the brasher street sound popular with of the barrio Latino, eventually known as Salsa. Again, La Lupe’s magic was her ability to embody a paradox, this time the paradox of the exiled and disenfranchised immigrant. She was able to stay true to the traditional rhythms of Cuba while adding a new, distinctive, irreverent and transgressive element of the barrio, creating a distinct Nuyorican identity — an identity that could really only exist in the margins, and was, in fact, an active reappropriation of the marginal.

She was both loved and hated for this brash, vulgar and streetwise persona. Those who loved her found her to be the embodiment the desire to bust out, let loose, scream, curse and shout. She gave voice in a distinctive Nuyorican way to the trials of being Latino in New York in the Sixties, making her part of the larger movement of bad boy salseros, notably Willie Colon and Hector LaVoe, who also played with and reappropriated their marginalized identities with album titles like El Malo (“the Bad Guy”) and Cosa Nuestra (“Our Thing”, literally, but with the noun and adjective switched in order to reference “Cosa Nostra,” a term for the Italian Mafia.)

The difference with La Lupe, however, is gender. Being a bad girl carries a much higher price than being a bad boy, and was a much more radical act. However, La Lupe did nothing to shy away from that label. In fact, she embraced it fully, creating a highly sexualized identity by employing heavy makeup, dramatic wigs and headdresses, orgasmic screams and moans, hot dance moves emphasizing her hips, sequined outfits, furs, jewelry, etc. While many of her performances were highly subversive and aggressive, she had a sense of humor, too. Check out her performance in the late Seventies on the Dick Cavett show. Past her prime, well into her forties, she shows up in gold dress, turban, cape and a basket of cookies she baked covered in matching gold fabric. At the end of her over-the-top performance, she strips down to a skin-tight white stretch jumpsuit, turns around to reveal a healthy dose of ass cleavage, bows and joins Dick Cavett back on the couch to munch on some homemade cookies. It’s this kind of behavior that led to her inclusion in Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” as well as her immortalization in various drag performances throughout the years, most notably in the 1996 film version of The Birdcage and, most interestingly, in 1969 when she was replaced by one Hiram Velazquez (aka El Lupo, aka El Yiyiyo) in Tito Puente’s band, memorialized in the album Lupo El Fantástico on the Cotique label.

Not everyone was in on the joke, though. She was feared, hated and often censored, and was called a puta for her lack of respect for tradition, her sexual abandon and her outrageous costumes and comportment. Not only was she rejected in more traditional elements of society, but eventually she was blackballed by the world of Salsa as well.

After her champion and protector, Morris Levy, sold Tico records to Fania, La Lupe’s career was effectively over. Some say it was because her aggressive and unconventional behavior off stage became untenable to Fania’s owner, Jerry Masucci. Around this time she became more and more involved with the cult of Santería, canceling shows and recording dates if the caracoles (a method of divining the future in the religious tradition of Santería) deemed the commitments unwise. Many in the industry, among them her chief collaborator of the Sixties, Tito Puente, worried that her quite public embrace and expression of her Santería beliefs would jeopardize her career as well as anyone associated with her. Additionally her marriage fell apart as her husband became more and more addicted to drugs, became abusive towards her, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Between paying her husband’s hospital bills and her excessive contributions to the Santeros, La Lupe went broke. Finally, the audience for Latin music stopped going to cabarets to see solo performers singing the types of boleros in which she excelled and instead frequented Salsa clubs in order to dance. And apparently there was room for only one female voice at Fania, and that spot was given to the venerable and equally talented, Celia Cruz.

After this, the story gets more and more tragic and bizarre, something out of a telenovela: La Lupe has a nervous breakdown, ends up on the street with her young daughter, relocates to the projects, falls and breaks her back, becoming wheelchair bound, renounces Santería, finds God in the evangelical Christian church, miraculously regains the ability to walk after having hands laid on her, and spends the last few years of her life traveling the world preaching the gospel and recording spirituals.

While it’s true that La Lupe was clearly less reliable and more difficult to work with than the incredibly professional Celia Cruz, it’s hard not to wonder if La Lupe was shown less tolerance for these typical diva traits because they were coupled with a revolutionary and intimidating eroticized sexuality in what was entirely man’s world, Fania. Certainly songs like 1968’s Oriente, in which La Lupe screams, “Ay, ay, ay, Tito Puente me botó!” (“Tito Puente fired me!”), Como Acostumbro, a Spanglish reworking of Frank Sinatra’s My Way and La Dueña de La Salsa (“Owner of Salsa”) express her frustration against her treatment in both the music business as well as her opinion of repressive societal norms.

The songs are certainly read that way in the gay and feminist Latino/a communities, where the work of La Lupe has been revived in recent years, most notably in the Almodóvar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which ends with one of her best boleros, Puro Teatro. The song perfectly encapsulates the story of the film, which is the story of a woman who finally understands that her lover was just playing a role throughout their affair, and that in fact he doesn’t love her at all — he only loves himself and the role he plays. The final line is a brilliant coup de grace: “Y acuédate/ que ségun tu punto de vista/ yo soy la mala!” (“And remember / according to your point of view/ I’m the wicked one!”)

In the end, the true magic of La Lupe is that in a world that offered women one of two roles — Madonna or Whore — La Lupe gave her body and soul up to the role that gave her the most freedom, then dissected that role part by part, false eyelash by false eyelash, to reveal it for what it truly was: Puro Teatro.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “La Lupe: Life in the Margins

  1. rdigg

    Miss J. What’s interesting here to me is your description of La Lupe’s performance style. You write, “It’s painful and at times uncomfortable to watch her use and abuse her body — to prostitute herself, so to speak. And yet there is something extremely compelling and powerful in her raw, violent actions, her uncontrolled rage and sensuality.” I’m sure I’ve mentioned to you before my favorite criticism of a particular brand of modern dance performance –
    “it’s like she’s masturbating onstage,” they say. This brings up a lot to me about the act of performance. Very importantly, it’s about honesty. Simple honesty, or brutal honesty, and maybe honesty that makes the audience uncomfortable. In concert dance (dance onstage), I’d venture that you’ve gotta have some broader point – either it’s an act of generosity (often in dance the generosity is sharing the sensuality of the body, but key word is sharing) or it comes from a hope that there is something universal, something that can resonate with someone else. If neither of these is present, then the “masturbation onstage” is indeed selfish, self-indulgent. I’m not into it.

    Yet it can be one hundred percent compelling to watch someone onstage bare all psychologically. I’ve been wondering where the line is, what is the difference between the selfish and exhibitionist masturbation onstage and the utterly fascinating revelation of the soul.

  2. Barbara

    This one is my favorite of the articles so far. As discussed before over some thai, I agree with you that someone needs to make a movie covering La Lupe’s life and if this does happen I hope it runs in the direction of this article.

  3. Gloria

    Wow. Wonderful article. Thank you for such a thoughtful view of La Lupe’s expression of identity…it takes a lot to break out of one’s trappings and express oneself in a raw and untempered manner and in a few brief words you captured La Lupe’s breakthrough expression… “She strips down not to reveal a coy, feminine sensuality but rather a raw, unbridled life force that is as disturbing as it is compelling.” Thanks.

  4. Armando Garcia

    I must say that all these opinions are very interesting. The first time I saw La Lupe perform I was twelve years old and I myself could not understand why I was so mesmerized by her performances and continued to be throughout her career up until the very end. But also I could not understand why people were so adamant about her behavior on stage. I think that she represented us (Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Panamenos etc. , and sometimes Cuban themselves in a way that no one had at that time in history. During part of her performance their was an expression of Africanism (for lack of a better word) that expressed something that as a people of mixed race many needed to hear. And that was also very much misunderstood. In my case, and I believe in many other people, when La Lupe sang a Bembe I felt as If I was being transported to another time and place. With all respect to Celia Cruz (who could interpret a banging Bembe), though I didn’t get the same feeling of being transported as I did with La Lupe. In this sense I was very much dismayed when La Lupe became a pentecostal and shunned her involvement with Santeria throughout her life. Though I could understand her discouragement with aspects of the religion, I think for a few years she represented what had been lost to us as a people throughout European Colonialism.

  5. This woman was the kundun. She was the shit and to this day no one I mean no one has embodied the truth like her-selfish or not…she gave herself and not an act. She had fun, and took off her shoes because it didn’t mean anything to be cute but to be comfortable and real.

  6. Excellent piece on an icon!!

  7. Pingback: La Lupe | foremothers

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