Originally published in EL CENTRAL in two parts, December 9 & 16, 2019
Angelo Figueroa, Irma “LaLila” Rivera and Humberto “Nengue” Hernandez grew
up in Southwest Detroit, were very close friends and often hung out together at Clark Park like the rest of us during the early 70’s. They often would talk about their dreams and how they were wanted to excel in music and tell the stories of those around them. They explored and began to craft their skills in our barrio early on in their lives. It became apparent relatively soon after they left the city they would embark on journeys that would have a national and lasting impact. And to their credit their accomplishments went beyond their original dreams and expectations.
Angelo Figueroa, Puerto Rican by heritage, would become the founding managing editor of People En Español and soon after play a critical role in establishing AOL Latino, the Spanish language operations for the email and Internet giant of its time. Cuban born Nengue Hernández would go on to become an eight-time Grammy winning percussionist and singer who performed on the Grammy winning recordings of Carlos Santana’s “Supernatural” and Linda Ronstandt’s “Canciones De Mi Padre”. Boricua (Puerto Rican) Lalila Rivera would move to the island at the age of 18 years and soon end up on the Iris Chacon daily TV variety show as a singer with the house band, Standing Ovation.
All three were active in community-based youth and arts organizations in Detroit
which definitely flavored their passion and service to others. They held on to that
strong attachment to their Latino heritage as they developed their careers. Their
pride in their Caribbean Latino heritage to this date has never waned.
Angelo in his early 20’s left Detroit at the beginning of the 80’s, after some years
working as a Detroit firefighter. He arrived in Los Angeles and soon acclimated
himself to the Latino community there. After a number of community-based jobs, including working with the city of Pasadena on their annual Parade of Roses, he embarked on a journalistic career that included stints in Miami and San Francisco. He traveling nationally and at times to Mexico to cover key events. His journalistic achievements were soon noticed by Time Warner and he was recruited to start People En Español as its managing editor. He did so for six and a half years and remained at Time as an Editor At Large for an additional two
and a half years. It was during this stint that Angelo was a regular fixture on TV
talk shows like the internationally syndicated “Christina” during the 80s and 90s.
He would go on to found and manage Tu Cuidad, a nationally syndicated Latino
affairs magazine from 2003-2005.
Nengue (Humberto) during the 70’s was the conguero at southwest Detroit’s
renowned El Sol Nightclub as part of his cousin Fito Foster’s salsa band. He would expand his repertoire by playing with a number of soul and R&B bands in Detroit. He and Fito made it a point to explore the intersection between Latin, R&B and jazz. In the early 80’s he left for Los Angeles and soon joined his cousin’s acclaimed Orquesta Versailles. Fito was credited with developing the Salsa Romántica style that became all the rage within the Salsa world. Their first big hit was a remake of the Lionel Richie song “Lady”, which was recorded in both English and Spanish. Another crossover hit that registered nationally was Rumors/Rumores. By 1998 Nengue was making guest appearances as a percussionist/side actor in a number of Hollywood movies such as “Salsa”, “Fires From Within”, “Assassination Tango” and the classic “Dance With Me” which became a major box office hit featuring Chayanne and Vanessa Williams. He also was much sought after to sing and drum with the likes of Latin Jazz great Mongo Santamaría, percussionist Bill Summers, salsa singer José Alberto “El Canario”, Jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, jazz vocalist Diane Reeves, percussionist Mickey Hart, the inventor of mambo Cachao, actor/musician Andy Garcia and as already mentioned Carlos Santana and Linda Ronstandt on their Grammy awarded albums.
Lila Rivera in addition to becoming a featured singer with Standing Ovation on
the daily Iris Chacon TV variety show, traveled internationally with the band
playing English language Funk and pop music throughout Europe, Canada, Latin
America and the U.S. After the band disbanded a number of them, including Lila
moved to Florida. She soon became disillusioned with the political environment in
Florida and moved along with another band member, pianist Armando Morales,
to Los Angeles in the early 80’s and has lived there since. Armando and LaLila
formed a top 40’s/funk band the East-West Connection “playing” on the fact the
band combined musicians from the “West and the East coasts”. She was a regular studio session singer and did back-up vocals for groups such as the funk group Brothers Johnson and the Latin/Caribbean funk band Mandrill. Early in her career while in Puerto Rico she did background vocals for the well-known singer and cultural activist Danny Rivera, as well as salsa great Cheo Feliciano among others.
Interestingly enough as evidenced above, all three reconnected in Los Angeles.
They continued their friendship influencing and supporting each other’s career.
They supported other former Detroiters who settled in the City of Angels. Their influence on this circle of friends and relatives was significant. Irma’s pianist Armando Morales would go on to perform with Coke Escovedo (Sheila E’s uncle)
and was the sound man for War, the famous 70’s Latin tinged funk troupe, for close to 15 years while Lila’s son Piri Bagby traveled nationally and internationally with the 90’s rap group PharCyde.
Angelo, now retired and an independent media consultant and musician,
influenced a number of aspiring journalists and was a well-known entity in the
National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Nengue suffered a stroke while on
stage in New York a few years back and is now in the latter stages of his physical
As I reflect on their lives what I remember most was their lust for life and strong
belief in their dreams. So many talented individuals and leaders have their roots
in southwest Detroit. We need to appreciate their impact on our society and let
our young people know that if these three had their dreams and were able to go
beyond it, our young people today can also do it.