There is a huge problem where Latina – especially Afro-Latina – stories get buried in history, effectively denied to us. After all, we can’t be proud of achievements and accomplishments that we know nothing about. We can’t look up to accomplished women when we have no idea they existed (or that they were Latina). It is time to learn the names, share the narratives, and celebrate these women who did big things. That is why I’m spotlighting the iconic, legendary, Queen of Las Vegas, Afro-Cubana Lola Falana.
Lola Falana is big in African-American communities of a certain age, but many people of all generations aren’t aware that she is also Latina! The daughter of a Cuban immigrant, she was discovered by fellow Afro-Cuban icon Sammy Davis Jr. (there’s a good chance you didn’t know he is Latino too!) dancing in a chorus line in Atlantic City. He asked her to appear in his 1964 Broadway production, Golden Boy. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lola Falana did what many other women did not. She became a superstar in the 1960s and ‘70s. Lola was signed to Frank Sinatra’s record label and became Sammy Davis Jr.’s protégé. She released her single “My Baby” in 1965 and continued to record music in English and Italian, becoming a star in both the US and Italy.
Lola Falana was crowned the First Lady/Queen of Las Vegas, getting paid a whopping $100,000 a week for her shows there during the 1970s, making her the highest-paid woman (some sources say highest-paid entertainer) in Vegas at the time. She starred in several films and television shows, including her very own, The Lola Falana Show. And she did so glittering in epic style with a stage presence that commanded that you be mesmerized by her.
Lola Falana’s work earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer – Female, for her role in the 1970 film The Liberation of L.B. Jones, as well as a Tony nomination in 1975 for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for Doctor Jazz.
Falana also won a CLIO award in ‘75 for her work in the Faberge Tigress perfume ads. Not only did Lola Falana get a lucrative contract for modeling for Fabergé, but she also became the first Black “spokeswoman for a major perfume,” and the first Black woman to model for “a line of cosmetics that was not marketed solely to Blacks.”
Lola Falana was a superstar of the 1970s. She sang at the Academy Awards and posed in Playboy. She had her own variety show and dazzled audiences of millions. You saw her in film, on TV, in magazines and on their covers. She was the IT girl of the ‘70s. And she is Afro-Cubana. May we learn more about, and celebrate, the Black Latina woman who are true inspirations.