Earlier last week, “Despacito,” the massive hit song of the summer, crossed the 4 billion (yes, with a "b") mark on total views on YouTube. That milestone comes at a good time for Erika Ender, who co-wrote the song with its performer, Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Luis Fonsi (who sings it with help from fellow Boricua Daddy Yankee and, on the anglicized remix, Justin Bieber). This week, she’ll become the youngest person ever inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame. It's the perfect way to cap off her breakthrough year, which also marks her 25th anniversary as a professional songwriter.
Ender's career covers over 160 albums featuring songs she's written for others and herself, including her fifth solo album, Tatuajes, released this past summer. “It’s so funny because my first big hit was ‘Despacito’ when I’ve done so much before that,” says Ender via phone from her hometown of Panama City. “But it’s OK because there’s always a song that opens the world for you. I’ve had several amazing moments throughout my career that have been really cool and big, but within the Latin market and without the global market.”
As cliché as it sounds, Ender always knew she was destined for the limelight. She was singing and performing, she says, “since age zero” and began writing her own original songs at age nine. She’d take vacations to Brazil, her mother’s home country, and sing about her vacations to her friends when she returned.
Her youthful obsession with Gloria and Emilio Estefan influenced her decision to leave Panama for Miami, Florida in 1998, when she was just 22 years old. "It’s the capital of the Latin music market, so it was perfect for me to develop what I was doing as a singer and a writer as well," she says. “Nowadays, I see Miami as a very important platform for the Latin industry, but ‘Despacito’ has helped me cross over to do more things on the Anglo side and also working a lot on the Brazilian side as well.”
"Despacito" ruled the top spot on Billboard’s Top Latin Songs for 35 weeks, or more than eight months. The remix with Justin Bieber topped Billboard’s Hot 100 for 16 weeks, tying a record for the longest streak at No. 1, which it now shares with “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. The song has also inspired a seemingly infinite number of covers and parodies worldwide. Even football (aka soccer) fanatics have taken to reworking the song, with fans of Argentina’s San Lorenzo de Almagro using the song as the basis for a cantico sung to support their team.
“This thing is like a fever,” she says with a laugh. But it's not her first experience with having one of her songs become a pop culture reference, particularly in Latin America. "I had a big hit called ‘Cinco Minutos’ ['Five Minutes'] that Gloria Trevi sang. Every time people would say ‘cinco minutos,’ they would think about the song.”
Ender is currently focused on promoting her latest album, Tatuajes, which features nine songs that she describes as her most personal work to date. Perhaps the most striking example of this was written because, in her 30s, she had to have her uterus removed for medical reasons: “Como Hubiera Sido?”, a song she dedicated to the child she'll never have.
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Ender is the founder of Fundacion Puertas Abiertas, a foundation that seeks to eradicate child labor. She also currently works with TalenPro Panama, a foundation that assists the youth in Panama via a talent competition — which is why she's back in Panama City at the time of our interview. There’s a twist to the competition in that the students must also take part in some type of socially conscious work that benefits their school.
“Doing what I do with my foundation is a way of being a mom not only for one person but for a lot of kids,” she explains. “You always have to put your energy in a productive thing and try to learn from your experiences and not be a victim ... trying to be your own hero and trying to be your best always. It goes straight to the soul.
“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, she thinks she’s an example.’ I’m an ordinary person who, every day, wakes up and tries to do the best she can. That’s something we all can do and that’s what I’m trying to share with people.”