Many Latin artists emerged from the first throes of the pandemic taking bolder risks than ever before in their work — whether fashioning genres anew or confronting injustice at home and abroad.
Here are memorable Latin music moments for 2021.
- Selena Gomez recorded her first Spanish-language album
It’s never been a secret that the Texas-born actor and pop star Selena Gomez was Mexican American — but after many years of performing strictly in English, the 28-year-old embarked on a side quest this year by recording her first Spanish-language EP, “Revelación.” Her decision to make a Latin pop record, she told The Times, came after years of experiencing a quiet shame over her diminishing fluency in Spanish. “Maybe embracing that part of me can be a source of healing for somebody else,” she said, “and now I think I actually sound better in Spanish than I do in English.” The EP earned Gomez her first Grammy nomination, for best Latin pop album.
- Bad Bunny became a wrestling champ
The Puerto Rican trap-reggaeton star has had no shortage of noteworthy moments: This year alone, he debuted on “Saturday Night Live,” won his first Grammy for Latin pop or urban album and played his first TV role in the latest season of “Narcos: Mexico.” But when Bad Bunny enlisted famed wrestler Booker T to star in the video for his 2020 rap single “Booker T,” fans came to find that it wasn’t just a song; it was a taunt to the musician’s would-be contenders on WWE’s “Raw,” followed by its annual WrestleMania.
For El Conejo Malo, a lifelong wrestling aficionado, competing in the WWE was a childhood dream come true. With the help of his wingman, Puerto Rican wrestler Damian Priest, Bad Bunny flew off the top rope to win the WWE 24/7 Championship belt, which he held (and defended) for a whole month.
- “Patria y Vida” inspired resistance in Cuba and beyond
Before the Cuban protest anthem “Patria y Vida” was named song of the year at the 2021 Latin Grammys, its lyrics were ideological contraband. Written and recorded in secret between Cuban exiles in Miami (Descemer Bueno, Gente De Zona and Yotuel) and Cubans on the island (El Funky and Maykel Osorbo), the song, released in February, was born of discontent with food and medicine shortages, power outages and curtailed civil liberties. “Patria y vida,” or “homeland and life,” is a sobering retort to “homeland or death,” the official slogan of Cuba’s Communist Party.
“My people ask for freedom, no more doctrines,” raps Gente De Zona’s Alexander Delgado. “Let us no longer shout homeland or death, but homeland and life.”
In Cuba, the song was banned almost as soon as it dropped; yet across the island, people chanted the words “patria y vida” in the streets, giving way to the country’s first mass demonstrations since the 1990s. Cuban police arrested Maykel Osorbo and placed him in a maximum-security prison, where he has been held since May.
- “Selena the Series” prompted a cultural reappraisal of “Selenidad”
Let’s face it: Any portrayal of the late Selena Quintanilla-Pérez is destined to polarize her fans. And the Netflix series — which centered the Quintanilla family, at times to the neglect of the Tejano pop star, played by Christian Serratos — left her most loyal devotees cranky and divided.
Not long after the second season aired in May of 2021 , the show’s writers spoke out against their pay rates and labor practices under Netflix. Then a number of Selena impersonators, as well as Selena’s widower, Chris Pérez, complained of legal actions taken against them by her father, Abraham Quintanilla, who retains the rights to his daughter’s name and estate. This year, the Quintanilla family and Netflix were brought to court by “Selena” (1997) producer Moctesuma Esparza, who alleged that they violated a contract when they licensed the singer’s life rights to Netflix. The business of Selena has been lucrative for many over the years, but as Times critic Lorraine Ali stated in a review of the series, it will forever be haunted by the absence of her voice.
- “In the Heights” led a Latin musical movie wave
After decades of marginalizing Latinos — short of casting the occasional maid or drug lord — this year Hollywood finally tackled its Latino problem with an unusual approach: movie musicals.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda led the charge by adapting a silver screen rendition of his first Broadway musical, “In the Heights,” a bubbly exaltation of New York’s Caribbean enclave, Washington Heights. The reception was mixed; viewers took umbrage with the colorist casting and the glaring dearth of bachata in the musical numbers. Miranda went on to feature in two animated children’s musicals: Netflix’s “Vivo,” in which Miranda stars opposite Buena Vista Social Club bandleader Juan de Marcos González, and as the songwriter behind Disney’s “Encanto.” (Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” however? We don’t know her.)
- Millions mourned the loss of ranchera king Vicente Fernández
On Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one pink star is obscured by flowers, candles and many weeping devotees: It is that of the great Mexican balladeer Vicente Fernández, who died on Dec. 12 at age 81.
Chente, as his fans called him, was born and raised on a cattle farm in rural Jalisco. He practiced singing mariachi covers in local cabarets before going on to record over 50 albums, which earned him three Grammys and nine Latin Grammys. He expanded his reach by starring in dozens of films dating back to the ‘70s and, thanks to his distinct mustachioed look and gallant disposition, became a global ambassador of regional Mexican culture.
- Gloria Estefan revealed past sexual abuse on “Red Table Talk”
Fans of the Pinkett-Smith family may know the “Red Table Talk” series for its generous unpacking of celebrities’ trauma. But by the fall of 2020, Cuban American superstar Gloria Estefan was granted her own offshoot, “Red Table Talk: The Estefans,” costarring her musician daughter Emily and her niece Lili, who co-hosts Univision’s gossip program “El Gordo y la Flaca.” Aired on Facebook Watch, the women share a sobremesa, or a post-meal chitchat, about a heavy topic of their choice: In the September season premiere, the seven-time Grammy-winner revealed that her former music teacher sexually abused her when she was 9 years old.
“He told me, ‘Your father is (serving) in Vietnam, your mother is alone, and I’m going to kill her if you tell,” recalled Gloria — noting that her mother reported him to police, but they talked her out of pressing charges. “When I had my first big hit, ‘Conga,’ (the predator) wrote a letter to the newspaper criticizing my music,” she said, adding that she waited 55 years to speak out.