How a 95-Year-Old Grandmother Nabbed a Latin Grammy Best New Artist Nomination

What began as a grandson’s personal mission to preserve his Nana’s unpublished musical legacy turned into a passion project that led to an album, a documentary, a role in a Hollywood movie, and ultimately, a Latin Grammy nomination for best new artist.

At 95, Angela Alvarez is fulfilling a lifelong dream that began in her native Cuba, where she learned to sing and play the piano early on, and later took on the guitar and started writing her own songs.

“I loved music very much,” Alvarez tells Billboard Español in a video-call from her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — where the work of her husband, a mechanical engineer in the sugar industry, took her decades ago. “When I was a child, I had two aunts that played the piano and taught me how to sing. Whenever there was a family gathering, I was the artist; they made dresses for me and I always liked to perform.”

It’s something that kept growing with her. So when she was about to graduate high school and her father asked her what she wanted to do next, she didn’t hesitate: “I want to be a singer.” Not finding that kind of life suitable for his only daughter, he said, “No. You sing for the family, but not for the world.”

“I loved him very much and I obeyed him — I did not insist,” Alvarez says with a sweet, infectious smile, not a hint of resentment in her voice. She decided to put her dreams on the back burner, eventually finding happiness in marriage and a family of her own. (Alvarez had four children and today is the grandmother of nine and the great-grandmother of about 15, she says beaming with pride.)

But music was always there for her, as it helped her cope with the ups and downs of life: from love and motherhood, to a months-long separation from her children after the Cuban Revolution triumph, when she was supposed to travel to the U.S. with them but was not allowed to board the plane; to her relentless efforts to reunite her family and the eventual loss of her beloved husband and, years later, of her only daughter — both to cancer.

“I think that music is the language of the soul,” says Alvarez, who estimates that she has written around 50 songs, including “Romper el Yugo” (Break the Chains,) “Añoranzas” (Yearnings,) “Mi Gran Amor” (My Great Love”) and “Camino Sin Rumbo” (I Wonder Aimlessly,) all included in her 15-track, self-titled debut album, independently released (via Nana Album LLC) in June, 2021.

“If I could break the chains that imprison you with such great might / How happy I would be, I would sing a hymn of peace,” she sings to Cuba, in Spanish, in the 1969 Afro Cuban tune “Romper el Yugo”.

“I wonder aimlessly, how sad it makes me / I wonder aimlessly finding nothing / I look for solace, I look for peace”, she cries in “Camino Sin Rumbo,” a Cuban Bolero-Son she wrote in 1978 after her husband’s passing.

Angela Alvarez, Carlos Jose Alvarez
Angela Alvarez & Carlos José Alvarez

Listening to many of these songs while growing up was especially impactful on her grandson Carlos José Alvarez, a professional musician based in Los Angeles who attributes his love of music largely to his Nana, as her grandchildren call her. As Angela was getting on in years without ever recording any of her work, he had an “epiphany” that made him fly quickly to Louisiana to document each and every one of her songs, for “the legacy of our family.”

“I didn’t know there were so many, I had no idea,” Carlos recalls on the same video call, laughing as he recounts the conversation he had with his grandmother about finally recording those songs. “When I got back to L.A., that’s when it clicked. I called her up and I said, ‘Nana, do you want to do this?’ First she said, ‘¡Yo no voy para Los Ángeles! ¿Pa’ qué?’ (‘I’m not going to Los Angeles! For what?’) And I say, ‘To record your album!’ And she’s like, ‘OK, I’m there!'”

But a few more years went by as he kept “waiting for the perfect moment” to undertake the project, while juggling family and work. Then, during a trip to Spain, a fire was lit under him by his close friend, producer Misha’al Al-Omar, who looked him in the eye and bluntly asked him: “Are you waiting for her to die? […] Whatever you need, let’s go do it.”

“I owe that man the credit for waking me up,” Carlos says of Al-Omar, also a producer on the album. “I got back from Spain, I called her, and I said ‘Nana, I’m already doing your arrangements. You’re coming to L.A. We’re doing this.'”

With his grandmother on board, he started calling musicians he knew to help bring the project to life. “These are friends of mine and people that I admire, the best of the best,” Carlos says of the professionals he recruited. “I play them her music and they just can’t believe it. They’re like, ‘We’re in!’ They were blown away. They were like, ‘These are her songs? These sound like classics, but I’ve never heard them before!'”

Angela Alvarez
Angela Alvarez

He also contacted Cuban-American actor and musician Andy Garcia, who was very impressed, and immediately on board. So much so, in fact, that he not only served as executive producer and narrator of a documentary on Alvarez, Miss Angela, but also invited her to appear in his Father of the Bride remake as Tía Pili (Aunt Pili), and to sing “Quiéreme Mucho” (Love Me a Lot) as part of the soundtrack.

“Her story just blew me away — she represents a generation, perhaps our greatest generation of Cubans,” Garcia says of Alvarez in Miss Angela. The quote comes as Garcia is introducing Alvarez before her concert at the historic Avalon in L.A — her first ever concert, on the day of her 91st birthday — where the actor also played the bongós with the band.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in finally making a teenage girl’s dream come true and welcome the star of tonight’s show singing her own songs, the extraordinarily talented and sublimely beautiful, Mrs. Angela Alvarez,” Garcia continues.

In a written statement, Al-Omar tells Billboard Español that working with Angela and Carlos was always a “labour of love” for everyone involved. “It was never about money, or recognition, dimensions that can really get in the way of doing things for ‘the right reason’. And the simplicity of that purpose made it a lot easier to stay focused on what’s important,” he noted.

As for how Angela Alvarez ended up with a nomination to the Latin Grammys in one of the most coveted categories, her grandson explains that it was Al-Omar’s idea. “He said, ‘You know how fitting and incredible it would be if she was nominated for best new artist at her age? You know the message that that would send to the world?'” Carlos recalls. “And we laughed about it! We sent it, and two days ago I was checking on my neighbor’s cat, and I’m standing there and I get text messages: ‘Congratulations!’ And I’m like, ‘For what!?’ And it hit me, based on the person who was writing, and I said ‘No way!’ […] It’s unimaginable”.

Angela couldn’t believe it either. “It was a very big but very beautiful surprise, and I thought afterwards that all my dreams came true. At 95, but that doesn’t matter,” she says, laughing.

Now both grandmother and grandson plan to attend the Latin Grammy celebrations in Las Vegas the third week of November — where Alvarez is scheduled to perform at the Best New Artists showcase on the 15th, and attend the awards ceremony on the 17th.

“I hope this entire project inspires young people to sit down and talk to their elders. Ask them questions. Ask them about the dreams they had once upon a time. They will be surprised at what they will find,” Carlos concludes. “If we don’t ask them, they won’t tell us, and their wisdom and dreams will leave with them.”

Angela Alvarez


Sigal Ratner-Arias