On a morning in late spring 50 years ago, a crowd of 30,000 individuals came together outside the baroque church of San Francisco in central Lima. They shed tears, sang songs, and bid farewell to a young woman whose casket was lifted onto the shoulders of the crowd. For three hours, they carried her to El Ángel cemetery, a few kilometers away.
Lucha Reyes, the beloved singer of Peru, passed away from a heart attack caused by diabetes. She was aware that her time was coming to an end. In line with her emotional and raw music, the 37-year-old artist had even requested a final waltz to be written for her. Titled “Mi última canción” or “My Last Song,” it was composed in a funeral home.
On October 31, Reyes passed away – the same day that her country celebrates música criolla, a blend of waltzes, Afro-Peruvian, and Andean styles that she embodied through her songs. Even after 50 years, Peru still remembers her as the Morena de Oro, or Golden Black Woman, and her music can still be heard in malls, markets, and crowded buses in Lima’s busy streets. However, as the 50th anniversary of her death approaches, there are initiatives to introduce her music to a younger audience.
During the month of June, the culture ministry of Peru honored Reyes as a noteworthy cultural icon, acknowledging her artistic talent and her advocacy for her own rights which paved the way for other Afro-Peruvian women.
A record company in Madrid, located 6,000 miles away, has recently launched a vinyl and digital collection featuring songs from female Latin American singers. Jalo Núñez del Prado, a Peruvian music producer based in Madrid, remarks that he may be among the last group of people to truly appreciate her music. He is the creator of Ellas Rugen (Women Who Roar) label.
Lucha Reyes is a widely recognized artist, yet many are not familiar with the woman behind the songs. My desire is for more people to discover her and learn about her as a person.
The life story of Lucila Justina Sarcínes Reyes, who was born on July 19, 1936 in Lima, is not a pleasant one to read. She was one of possibly 15 siblings, although the exact number is unknown. Her father passed away when she was young, leaving her to sing on the streets and in bars at the tender age of five in order to help her mother financially. Her early years were characterized by poverty, a devastating fire that destroyed their home, a period of time spent in a convent, and at the age of 16, an attempted sexual assault by her stepfather.
Afterwards, she took on low-level jobs and got married to a police officer who would mistreat her both physically and emotionally. In 1959, she was hospitalized for a year due to being incorrectly diagnosed with tuberculosis, when in reality she was dealing with diabetes, swelling, and difficulty breathing. This misdiagnosis later led to the false belief that her unique voice was a result of damage to her vocal cords from TB.
According to Núñez del Prado, the term “lucha” can also mean a battle or conflict. He mentions that her name itself reflects the challenges she endured and became a representation of. Despite being a woman, black, and impoverished, her exceptional artistic abilities propelled her to fame despite facing hardships in life.
In 1960, Reyes’s fortune began to shift. After performing at social gatherings and on air, she was discovered as a vocalist by the Peña Ferrando, a traveling music group that frequently toured the country and was a prominent television program in Peru. She later became a member of the renowned Peña Karamanduka and quickly gained a fan base.
Her songs of love, loss and heartbreak, delivered with drama and a sincerity that was all-too-lived, grew in popularity as Peruvians embraced música criolla. In 1970, she recorded her first album, La morena de oro del Perú. It would be followed by three more in just three years: Una carta al cielo (A Letter to Heaven); Siempre criolla (Always Creole) and Mi última canción.
During the reign of General Juan Velasco Alvarado, who came into power through a coup, there was also a rise in popularity for música criolla. His reform-minded government saw this traditional music as a way to foster a unified national identity and push back against the corrupt and drug-influenced rock music coming from the United States.
Although Reyes endured a great deal of suffering and was often compared to Edith Piaf, her supporters maintain that her ultimate victory was being able to channel that pain and transform it into something exquisitely exquisite and easily identifiable.
According to writer and film-maker Javier Ponce Gambirazio, Lucha Reyes was a performer who dedicated everything – both positive and negative experiences – to her art. Ponce Gambirazio created a documentary about Reyes in 2009 titled “Carta al cielo” and describes her as a genuine alchemist, transforming her personal struggles into a masterpiece.
In every tone of her voice, he includes, you can detect the desgarro, a term that means both distress and a physical tear. “However, simultaneously, you can sense the pure happiness that singing brings her. It’s as if she’s in a state of trance that possibly makes her believe that enduring all that pain was worth it because of where she has ended up.”
Ebelin Ortiz, a performer, TV host, vocalist, and advocate of Afro-Peruvian descent, acknowledges Reyes’ impact in breaking barriers for solo black female artists in Peru. This includes iconic figures such as Susana Baca and Eva Ayllón, with Reyes continuing to serve as a source of inspiration for black women in Peru.
Ortiz reflects, “Despite enduring immense mistreatment, Lucha possessed a mesmerizing voice. From my perspective as a performer, I believe her emotional performances were a result of the mistreatment she faced.” He adds, “Lucha’s remarkable legacy is a testament to her unwavering determination to chase her dreams, despite facing aggression.”
She mentions that at that time, Reyes had to confront discrimination based on both race and gender. “Unfortunately, not much has improved.”
According to Ponce Gambirazio, Reyes is revered as a hero by the LGBTQ community in Peru. She not only came from a marginalized group, but also donned extravagant wigs and shared the stage in Lima with the renowned French transgender performer, Coccinelle.
Núñez del Prado is anticipating that the release of the new collection, “Lucha Reyes, Recollections: Volume One,” will finally bring the singer the worldwide recognition she has longed for.
According to the speaker, the main contrast between Edith Piaf and Lucha Reyes is that the French recognized the value of Piaf and successfully promoted her internationally. In contrast, Reyes lacked the same level of industry support and therefore did not receive the same level of recognition as artists like Billie Holiday.
Ponce Gambirazio is in agreement. He believes that the lasting impact of Reyes is evident in the fact that, aside from their love for Peruvian cuisine, all Peruvians can unanimously acknowledge the talent of a woman whose voice was silenced half a century ago.
No matter the differences in sports, religion, politics, society, and culture, people all agree on one thing. According to him, Lucha Reyes is the ultimate best. No one has surpassed her, regardless of gender, and there is no one else like her.