Lots of young women dream of being pop princesses. Cindy Zavala didn’t. Instead, she went straight for the throne.
As a new royal in D.C.’s Latin dance scene, Zavala — who goes by La SalvadoReina, a portmanteau of “Salvadoreña,” meaning Salvadoran, and “reina,” the Spanish word for “queen” — is facing both a thrill and a challenge as she settles into her reign.
Zavala’s first acts as monarch? Release her debut EP or album, hopefully this year, and continue the long-term project she’s already begun: energizing D.C.’s cumbia community. That’s where the “salvado” part, meaning “savior,” comes in.
“The idea is I’m like a little superhero, saving the party, one cumbia at a time,” says Zavala, 23.
It could be the role she was destined to play. A native of Alexandria, Virginia, Zavala grew up in a Salvadoran household steeped in music. Her carpenter father, Wilson Zavala, came to the U.S. in 1989 with the goal of sending money back to his family and community at home. He did that by starting ACOSAL-USA, a nonprofit that organizes cumbia concerts in the D.C. region. The shows’ proceeds have helped buy school supplies for kids in El Salvador and open a soccer academy and a rehab center there, Zavala says.
Her dad’s concerts left a deep impression on her.
“Every now and then I would wake up and there would be a cumbia band having breakfast with my parents,” Zavala says. “I grew up backstage and I just loved cumbia because I was around it.”
But while cumbia was always a part of Zavala’s life, it wasn’t until recently that her life became cumbia.
Finding La SalvadoReina
Zavala graduated from American University in 2014. When she started college, she thought she’d study to become an ambassador or diplomat. In many ways, she has done that. She just took a different path than she expected.
Well into her college career, Zavala started meeting musicians around campus. She joined Son Cosita Seria (“a serious little thing”): a collective of Mexican artists who were playing son jarocho — protest music — and teaching jarana, a stringed instrument akin to a Mexican ukulele.
“I started going because a friend was involved, and I fell in love with it,” Zavala says. “Then I realized, ‘OK, well, I’m glad that I’m tapped into this through the Mexican music, but I’m Salvadoran. I really want to do cumbia.’”
“I started thinking about it, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to start a project where I’m so Salvadoran and in your face that you’ll have to know that I’m Salvadoran.’”
Cumbia is a genre that began in Colombia, a musical amalgam of indigenous Colombian, African and Spanish influences. It’s immediately identifiable by its jumping bass line, built for a loose two-step, but it’s taken dozens of forms as the music has fanned out across Latin America. The latest cumbia wave is digital cumbia, or cumbiatronica, which vocalists and producers often marry with hip-hop.
Zavala had been around more traditional cumbia her whole life, but during college she started exploring its hip-hop side. She began classes at Words Beats & Life Inc., a D.C. nonprofit founded by rappers and hip-hop artists, many of whom grew up with go-go. Her mentors encouraged her to mix cumbia and rap music. The result became Zavala’s trademark sound. In 2014, she broke out with a song that started as a Words Beats & Life assignment: “Cumbia Capital.”
But Zavala thought her culture was underrepresented in the D.C. arts scene, despite Salvadorans being the largest Latino community in the region.
“You go to Mt. Pleasant, you go to Columbia Heights, you go to Georgia Avenue — it’s predominantly Salvadoran,” Zavala says. “They’re playing their music and they’re sharing their culture, but nobody has someone to look up to when it comes to culture in our area.”
There is no Salvadoran Marc Anthony or J-Lo, Zavala says.
“I started thinking about it, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to start a project where I’m so Salvadoran and in your face that you’ll have to know that I’m Salvadoran.”
She does that by proudly waving the Salvadoran flag and borrowing from classic cumbia, like on her song “De Mi Tierra,” which samples Salvadoran ensemble Sangre Morena. Combined with hip-hop — with help from D.C. rapper FenomeDon — Zavala’s music appeals across generations, too.
“Grandparents recognize the cumbia, and kids hear the hip-hop, and that was the idea behind it,” Zavala says.
But for Zavala, who still lives in Alexandria, crafting her own spin on cumbia isn’t only about the beat.
“It is about party and fun,” she says, but “the one thing that I could possibly give as an artist and with the music that I’m doing is cultural empowerment and a voice.”
“I literally just started”
Over the past year and a half, La SalvadoReina has taken her sound across the country. She has gained a lot of exposure — and in some ways, it’s happened too quickly, she admits.
“All of a sudden I was hanging out with Grammy Award-winning people and opening for Calle 13,” Zavala says. (She warmed up D.C.’s Echostage before the Puerto Rican duo played there last September.) “I started doing a lot all at once and didn’t really know how to handle it, so right now I’m kind of in pause mode.”
Zavala may be an open and gifted communicator with a passion for her work — but she’s also green, and not yet clear on the “it” she’s doing.
“I have a vision for what I want to happen, but I’m nowhere near it. I literally just started,” the artist says. She says she still wants to sound more Salvadoran, both by collaborating with Salvadoran artists and working more music from her family’s country into what she does.
“I’m figuring it out on the way, and I have a lot of good support with the amazing network that I have made,” she says.
One thing Zavala does know for certain: She’s staying in D.C. for the foreseeable future.
“What I’m doing is about D.C. It’s about the voice here. I want it to be for here and to come to here,” she says. “That’s what makes it special.”
WAMU 88.5 is licensed to American University.