The deep thump of the bongos, the scraping of the guiro, and the loud chirp of the trumpet -- the pulse of salsa would get anyone on their feet to dance. Its quick beat requires light footwork and lots of rhythm, and for many Caribbean Latinos, the sounds of salsa transport them back to their childhood.
Salsa is a relic of the Caribbean diaspora, birthed by migrants and immigrants in New York City in the 1960s. It cultivated the sounds of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and African cultures and has become a staple of the Caribe identity.
But some first- and second-generation Latinos fear that salsa could become a dying art among younger Latinos, who make up almost 60% of the U.S. Latino population. Now, some are fighting to ensure that the traditional music and dance stylings are here to stay, as not to forget their roots.
Brandon Espinosa, the creator of The Salsa Project, has dedicated his free time to protecting and preserving salsa for young Latinos. The Salsa Project is an educational organization that creates documentaries, hosts events, and works within the NYC community to teach people about the art form.
On many nights, you can find The Salsa Project's boisterous events bringing the community together to dance and sing in the Bronx, the birthplace of salsa where his parents fell in love.
His Cuban father, a musician, and his Puerto Rican mother, a dancer, so he was always around the music as a child. Now, he has a daughter of his own and is determined to teach her about her roots.
Espinosa says that assimilation, the pressure against immigrants to rid themselves of their cultural identity, must become a thing of the past. Fear of assimilation is what pushed him to develop The Salsa Project, he said.
"I think of the immigrant story and the story of all underrepresented groups in America -- it's a story of assimilation and trying to hide that piece of your identity and trying to become more American," Espinosa told ABC News. "It feels like a responsibility -- via The Salsa Project, and raising a child -- all of the sacrifices that were made before me and before us are shared. And we take pride in how far we've come."
Moving salsa forward
When Jennifer Fortaney immigrated from Mexico, she was looking for a way to stay in touch with her background. Salsa doesn't originate from Mexico, but when she moved to New York, she found a community of Latinos from all backgrounds and she knew she'd fit right in.
She's a dancer at the Nieves Latin Dance Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Now, the six-step dance has become almost like second nature for her.
In an interview, she reminisces on past events, not unlike The Salsa Project's, where strangers of all backgrounds, dance levels and languages bonded over the common knowledge of salsa. It's a social dance, Fortaney says.
"It's not just about learning the footwork," said Fortaney. "You have to have a connection with your partner when you're dancing."
Fortaney misses being pulled onto the dance floor with a newfound friend at a party, a common practice before COVID-19. Salsa, she says, brings people together -- and much like Espinosa, Rodriguez, and Madera, she hopes it's here to stay.
Solidifying salsa history
However, it's not enough to know the music and the dance, according to Willy Rodriguez, who is co-founder of the non-profit working to build the International Salsa Museum and non-profit board member Jose Madera. Knowing the history and where it comes from is just as important.
That's why they're hoping to raise enough money to make the museum a reality and build the museum in the Bronx, where the genre started.
"I feel like a lot of our legends are passing away and leaving us, going to the other side, and there's nothing to really teach people about the history," Rodriguez told ABC News. "Yes, it's [going to be] a museum, but it's also going to be an educational institute."
The museum hopes to give nuance to the sounds heard in salsa today, and pay respects to those who've made it what it is: Celia Cruz, Machito, Tito Puente, La Lupe, Marc Anthony, and more. Salsa was influenced by jazz, guaracha, rumba, bomba, tumbao -- a mix of Indigenous and African beats and instruments.
From this, Rodriguez hopes to inspire the salsa of the future and offer learning opportunities for potential musicians and artists in the community who may be just as innovative as their ancestors.
The team running the museum feels a sense of responsibility to their culture to maintain this history, not wanting to lose a part of themselves and their past.
"Without literature, without music, without art, which is being taken out of the schools … this would be a boring place without all of that," said Madera. "It's important for that to be put out there and for kids to take an interest in."
Salsa can be about heartbreak, about love, about perseverance -- it's a celebration of life. And thankfully, Rodriguez says, the rhythm of celebration is what has made the dance stylings of salsa go international.
People from all over the world dance for fun, for competition, and to fit in.
"I think salsa is a great example of how to communicate with other people without even having to know their language," Fortaney said. "The U.S. is a country of immigrants and I think you should never be afraid of showing that to other people."