How A New Exhibition Honors the Memory of Salsa Titans La Lupe and Tito Puente

tito-puente-la-lupe.jpg La Lupe And Tito Portrait session - Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
tito-puente-la-lupe.jpg La Lupe And Tito Portrait session - Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

La Lupe was electric onstage. The Cuban singer, known for her belting power and undeniable charisma, began showing off her skills at a young age, winning local radio competitions and dazzling audiences at clubs on the island. When she moved to New York City after the Cuban Revolution, she kept winning people over with her masterful presence — even catching the eye of salsa legend Tito Puente, who was a collaborator and lifelong fan until her death in 1992.

Now, the two artists will be reunited in a first-of-its-kind exhibition presented by the International Salsa Museum and held at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square from Sept. 1 to Sept. 3. Through archival footage and personal artifacts belonging to La Lupe and Puente, the museum will celebrate their individual carers and their contributions to salsa. It’s a chance to shed light on the genre right in its home of New York City, while also paying tribute to the two icons, whose creative partnership resulted in classics such as “El Rey y Yo” and “Qué Te Pedí.”

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“There was always a union between Mr. Puete and La Lupe,” La Lupe’s daughter Rainbow “La Yolí” Garcial tells Rolling Stone in an exclusive interview. “Even though they went different ways, they always kept a close relationship.”

The exhibition fits into the museum’s multi-prong approach to honor the history of salsa and also give back to the communities where it was shaped. They’ve also been working on programs to encourage a new generation of salsa artists. “Our mission is pretty simple: It’s to preserve the past, educate the present and influence the future,” Willy Rodriguez, co-founder and executive director of ISM, says. “The way we’re going to do that is not only to showcase exhibitions, but we’re going to educate the public on what salsa is: Where did it come from? How did Africa have an impact on the music now? How did the Caribbean have an impact? How did all these things come together to create history?”

Last year, ISM found major success when it partnered with the New York International Salsa Congress, an annual dance conference, for a private event highlighting Puerto Rican salsa musician Victor Manuelle. It was such a success that ISM wanted to open things up to the public, and they knew 2023 would be a big year, given that it’s the centennial of Tito Puente’s birth (Puente’s son, Tito Puente Jr., has been involved in the planning.)

But they also wanted to turn the spotlight on another artist who impacted the salsa world in her own indelible way. That took them to La Lupe’s formidable, complex career. Though she had been a force, she experienced hardships as an artist, especially when she faced the tides of a fickle industry. She’d recorded some of her biggest hits on Tico Records, but when her label was sold, the rest of the industry seemed to move on and forget her contributions to the genre.

“Her story is under-told,” Rodriguez says. “I feel like we really needed to let the people know who La Lupe really was and what she stood for. Even though she went to some adversities in her life, her legacy never died.”

It also never diminished what a powerhouse she was. “She was always a rock star,” La Yolí says. “She never gave up. She always did something new. You never knew what to expect. She was between a hurricane and a tsunami.” La Yolí is now an artist in her own right, and being a part of the exhibition has meant a lot to her. “La Lupe was La Lupe, La Yolí is La Yolí,. When I am onstage, we connect. We have similarities, but no one, not even myself as her daughter, could ever hit those notes!” she says with a laugh. “I have my own style, but we do have a connection.”

Janice Torres-Perez, curator and publicist who is closely supporting the development of ISM with The Brand Phoenix, also shares that the museum received outside support from other organizations who were excited to support the effort. Images of La Lupe are often hard to find, so Getty Images donated photos of the duo together. Other members of the art world, including Americans for the Arts, jumped in to help as well.

The exhibition will also include images that chronicles the life of Tito Puente while showcasing photographers and artists who captured salsa musicians throughout their carers. The U.S. Navy will also be paying a visit to the exhibition out of respect for Puente, who was drafted into the Navy and served for three years during WWII. “I think it’s very important for this history to be remembered and never forgotten in this generation,” Rodriguez, who himself is a musician and directed the Tito Puente Junior Orchestra.

To Yoli, the exhibition has added weight, given the relationship and mutual respect both artists had for each other. She remembers that Puente attended her mother’s funeral, where he said goodbye to his longtime friend. “That man cried and he hugged her, and it just showed that no matter how they parted, they always united,” La Yoli says. “And I believe that in heaven, they are united and they’re holding hands and they will be smiling upon us when they see what we’re doing in their name.”

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