When Erika Ender, the Panama-born singer and songwriter behind the smash hit "Despacito," first began pitching songs to male recording artists 25 years ago, she was told a few times that they were too feminine.
So she tested a theory. She shortened her credit to "E. Ender" and had men sing the vocals. Suddenly, Ender says, male musicians wanted her songs.
But she quickly abandoned the practice of hiding her name and identity.
"I opted to be invisible for a second when I started sending my songs," she tells Mashable, "...but I'm a woman with pantalones. I would put my face out there."
Now, most musicians can only dream of the success Ender has experienced in 2017. First came "Despacito," which Ender co-wrote with Puerto Rican musician Luis Fonsi. Reggaeton star Daddy Yankee also lent his vocals to the ballad/hip-hop track. In July, the remix featuring Justin Bieber became the most streamed song in the world with more than 4.6 billion plays.
Since "Despacito" crushed the charts, it tied Ender with Mariah Carey as the female songwriter with the longest-running No. 1 hit of all time. She's now also the first female songwriter to have a Spanish-language song top Billboard's "Hot 100" chart. In October, Ender will be inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame. And all of these milestones happen to mark the 25th anniversary of Ender's professional career.
Ender hopes that women in the music business, or young women who aspire to work in the profession, draw inspiration from the success of "Despacito."
"It's an amazing moment to empower women — and empower Latin women," she says.
Latina women are already showing their "capabilities, strong nature, and will," and Ender believes shifting cultural and political norms are increasingly making it easier for them to simultaneously express multiple identities — professional, spouse, mother, and human being. She hopes those trends will empower even more Latina women.
Much of Ender's formal advocacy work, though, focuses on reaching young people, which she talked about Sunday at the 2017 Social Good Summit in New York City.
She founded the organization Fundación Puertas Abiertas in 2009, which uses music and education to positively influence children and teenagers. The foundation began by working with children who'd escaped child labor. Through a partnership with another organization, Ender's foundation offered musical workshops and opened a classroom where music and dance was taught to children living in shelters.
Ender also devotes herself to Festival TalenPro, a contest for youth that she describes as her "baby." The months-long competition is broadcast in Panama as a television show featuring teens whose talents include music, performance, dance, and filmmaking.
Once the finalists are chosen, they must "activate" their classmates to do "social labor" in helping to rebuild a low-income school in their community. That might mean working to outfit a school with new lunch facilities, for example. They earn points based on their efforts, as well as their talent.
"I cry every day when I see what these kids are doing," Ender says. "They solve problems in a short amount of time that could be solved by the government maybe in [the] long term. But for these teens, it's a chance to be able to see how life is, understand the story of others, and get others to understand that idea as well."
The grand prize in each category is a scholarship that covers the cost of the winner's college education. But she hopes the students who participate as contestants and in the community service projects also embrace the same values she learned as a child: to be a kind, good human being who believes in love and respect.
So while the backstory of "Despacito" might first appear to hinge on the star power of Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber, it also comes down to a woman who refused to trade her principles for fame.
"I believe in integrity, in being faithful to yourself," she says. "I believe in doing things the right way, with ethics, respect, honesty. You gotta shine in your home before you go out and shine."
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Special Thanks to
Mashable and Rebecca Ruiz