'Despacito' Engineer Luis 'Salda' Saldarriaga Hopes Song's Clout Will Boost His Green Card Chances

Caroline Sleeper
Luis "Salda" Saldarriaga

This week, Luis Fonsi’s hit “Despacito,” featuring Daddy Yankee and later remixed with Justin Bieber, passes “Bailando” to become the longest-running No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs, another major milestone for the song, its artists and songwriters. But on a quieter scale, the record’s inception may have achieved an unnoticed goal for one person who worked on the project.

The track's engineer, Luis “Salda” Saldarriaga, hopes it helps his chance of obtaining permanent residence through an existing visa program which allows those with extraordinary talent to secure a green card.

Salda, a 27-year-old native of Bogota, Colombia, and graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music, already holds an O-1 Visa, reserved for “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement.” He says the song’s producers, Mauricio Rengifo and Andrés Torres, had already obtained residence in the U.S. through these existing programs.

“If it weren't for those programs, maybe the song wouldn't have been made,” Saldarriaga tells Billboard.

He credits the existing visa programs for the record’s development, and ultimate success. “EB-1 is not even just for music,” Saldarriaga says. “It's for artists, for athletes, it's for really qualified mathematicians. Thanks to that program, it's the reason that I'm able to be here.” 

Salda graduated from Berklee with a Bachelor's degree, majoring in Music Production & Engineering and Electronic Production & Design. He presented, with success, the materials he worked on after graduation to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with hopes of receiving the O-1 designation. 

“Basically when you get out of school, you get like a year or so,” he says. “You get like a year to be able to do some work in the U.S., and what I did was that I worked really hard to get a few of the credentials. I was working on my craft.”

Salda says he had to make a case containing his musical work so far to the review board at USCIS, who picked at every aspect of his career to deem him appropriate for the visa. Now, he’s working on an application through a similar qualification, known as an EB-1 visa. The difference between the visa he holds — which expires in October 2018 — and the EB-1 distinction is that the latter provides a permanent residence. O-1 visas expire after three years. 

Applicants must meet three criteria from a provided list. These include proof that their work was recognized for national or international awards, evidence of commercial success in the performing arts, and production of work that has been showcased at major exhibitions. For Salda, all those criteria get a big checkmark. 

Before he worked on “Despacito,” which to date has more than 4.7 billion YouTube views on its original version, Saldarriaga had worked with artists such as Colombian sensation Sebastián Yatra and remixed songs by artists including Robin Thicke and Maroon 5. After graduation from Berklee he achieved the O-1 visa status and helped artists record and remix songs. Engineering and remixing songs is what landed him Los Angeles, where he currently resides. 

In L.A., Saldarriaga was introduced to an even larger music industry, which is how he came in contact with the producers for “Despacito.” He had worked with them on a few other projects in the years prior to the song’s release. “We actually did a bunch of songs, one of which was ‘Despacito,’” Saldarriaga says of his work with Rengifo and Torres. “And basically it was just another song.”
Of course, it turned out to be not “just another song.” 

In addition to obtaining Grammy nominations for Record and Song of the year, the song won Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Urban Fusion/Performance and Best Short Form Music Video at the Latin Grammy Awards last year. Saldarriaga was named in the first category for his part in engineering the record. 

Saldarriaga believes his accolades so far will provide a good case for the permanent residency. However, he holds a positive outlook on the current system for exceptional applicants regardless.

“If you think about it from the perspective of these programs, America has a good amount of immigrants or people that are wanting to come here to do something really good,” he says. “They are actually pursuing what this country was built on, and they have worked really hard to be at a level where they can take advantage of those opportunities.”