Biography of Rubén Blades, the "Intellectual" of Salsa Music

Singer, songwriter, actor, activist, and politician

Ruben Blades
Actor and singer Ruben Blades arrives at The Paley Center For Media's 33rd Annual PaleyFest.

Amanda Edwards / Getty Images

Rubén Blades Bellido de Luna (born July 16, 1948) is a Panamanian singer/songwriter, actor, activist, and politician. He was a key figure in popularizing New York-based salsa music in the 1970s, with socially conscious lyrics that commented on poverty and violence in Latino communities and U.S. imperialism in Latin America. However, unlike most musicians, Blades has been able to toggle between multiple careers in his life, including serving as Minister of Tourism in Panama.

Fast Facts: Rubén Blades

  • Known For: Salsa singer/songwriter, actor, Panamanian politician
  • Born: July 16, 1948 in Panama City, Panama
  • Parents: Rubén Darío Blades, Sr., Anoland Díaz (original surname Bellido de Luna)
  • Spouse: Luba Mason
  • Children: Joseph Verne
  • Education: Master's Degree in International Law, Harvard Graduate Law School (1985); Bachelor's Degree in Law and Political Science, University of Panama (1974)
  • Awards and Honors: 17 Grammys (9 U.S. Grammys, 8 Latin Grammys); Honorary Doctorate degrees from University of California, Berkeley; Lehman College; and the Berklee College of Music

Early Life and Education

Rubén Blades was born in Panama City to a Cuban mother, musician Anoland Díaz (original surname Bellido de Luna), and a Colombian father, Rubén Darío Blades, Sr., an athlete and percussionist. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Panama in law and political science in 1974.

In 1973 Blades' parents had moved to Miami because Rubén, Sr. had been accused by General Manuel Noriega, then chief of military intelligence under President Omar Torrijos, of working for the CIA. The following year, after graduating from the University of Panama, Rubén, Jr. followed his family to the U.S., but headed not to Miami, but to New York to try and break into the salsa scene. He began working in the mailroom at Fania Records, where he would eventually become one of the label's major recording artists. He took a break from his musical career in the early 1980s to pursue a Master's Degree in International Law from Harvard University, which he earned in 1985.

Ruben Blades
Rubén Blades and Willie Colon in the 1970s. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Cultural Impact

Blades has had a significant impact on Latino music and culture writ large, particularly with regards to his recordings with Fania Records and other leading salsa musicians of the 1970s, like Willie Colón. Their joint album "Siembra" is the best-selling salsa album in history, with over 25 million copies sold. He is widely known as the "intellectual" of salsa music, with lyrics that reference Latin American literature and issue bold social critiques on a range of issues affecting Latinos. Regarding his desire to make more explicitly political music during his time with Fania, he recently stated, “It didn’t make me popular in the industry, where you aren’t supposed to antagonize people, you are supposed to smile and be nice in order to sell records. But I never bought into that.”

Rubén Blades
Ruben Blades with their Grammy Awards for Latin Pop at the 2000 Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles, CA.  Scott Gries / Getty Images

As an actor, Blades has also had a long and fruitful career, which began in 1983 with the film "The Last Fight" and most recently included a role on the TV show "Fear the Walking Dead." He has often turned down roles that reinforced stereotypes about Latinos. When offered a role as a drug dealer in the hit 1980s show "Miami Vice," he rejected the offer, stating: “When are we going to stop playing the drug addict, the pimp and the whore?...I could never do that stuff. I’d rather kill myself first”. He continued, regarding the scripts he continued to receive: “In half, they want me to play a Colombian coke dealer. In the other half, they want me to play a Cuban coke dealer. Doesn’t anyone want me to play a lawyer?”

Politics and Activism

Blades is well-known for his left-leaning political orientation, particularly his critiques of U.S. imperialism and intervention into Latin America, which have often made their way into his music. His 1980 recording "Tiburón," for example, was an allegorical critique of American imperialism, and "Ollie's Doo-Wop" (1988) addressed the Iran-Contra scandal that funded the U.S.-backed war against the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. However, he has also been critical of leftist authoritarian governments or "Marxist Leninist dictatorships", as he referred to the governments in Cuba and Venezuela.

Rubén Blades at the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards Show
Musicians Residente (R) of Calle 13 and Ruben Blades perform onstage at the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards held at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on November 5, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Michael Caulfield / Getty Images

Blades' political activism stems from his experience as a young Panamanian in the 1960s who saw Americans living in the Canal Zone disrespecting Panama's sovereignty and treating the country as an extension of the U.S. He began to learn about racial segregation in the U.S. and its historic treatment of Native Americans, which contributed to his emerging political consciousness. U.S. foreign policy in Central America in the 1970s and 80s—particularly its role in the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala—was also an issue that affected Blades deeply.

The U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 to depose Manuel Noriega was a major reason Blades returned to Panama in 1993 to run for president. He founded a political party, Papa Egoró (meaning "Mother Earth" in the Embera language of Panama's indigenous population), and ran for president in 1994, coming in third place out of seven candidates, with 18% of the vote.

He was later asked to join the government of Martín Torrijos, and served as the Minister of Tourism from 2004 to 2009, an important post since tourism is the country's main economic driver. He has spoken about not wanting to sacrifice Panama's natural environment in exchange for foreign investment, and the fact that he stressed the development of small-scale eco-tourism and cultural tourism over large-scale tourist amenities.

There has been speculation for years about whether Blades will run for president again in Panama, but thus far he has not made an announcement to that effect.

Writing

Blades publishes a fair amount of opinion writing on his website, mostly related to the political situations in various Latin American countries, with a focus on Panama and Venezuela.

Sources

  • Rubenblades.com. http://rubenblades.com/, accessed June 1, 2019.
  • Shaw, Lauren. "Interview with Rubén Blades. In Song and Social Change in Latin America, edited by Lauren Shaw. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.