Sammy Davis, Jr.: Being ‘Baby Sanchez’s son’

Catherine A. Jones
 | February 19, 2024

He was a member of Hollywood’s iconic Rat Pack. A true Renaissance man who could sing, dance, and act.  Yet, behind the spotlight, Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925 – 1990) had a secret – his ethnicity. 

The 1950’s Afro-Latino star captivated audiences and rose to fame during an era marred by segregation. Yet, meanwhile, unbeknownst to many, Davis kept his secret his whole life. He just didn’t want anyone to know the truth about his mother. 

“The boy became a tap-dance prodigy by the age of 10, trained and brought up by his father after his parents separated,” the New York Times writes. “‘But he was ”Baby Sanchez’s son,’ said the dance historian Delilah Jackson … ”

Davis hid, even lied about being “Baby Sanchez’s son.” But why? 

The Enigma of “Baby Sanchez’s Son”

Davis’ journey in the entertainment business began as a child prodigy, captivating audiences with his tap-dancing by age three. Then, as part of the legendary Rat Pack, alongside Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Davis became an icon of cool sophistication. He sang hits like “Mr. Bojangles” and “The Candy Man.” 

But behind the glitz and glamor, Davis occasionally obscured his own lineage, sometimes claiming his grandmother, not Elvera “Baby” Sanchez, was his mother. When he did acknowledge his mother, he purposely lied and said she was Puerto Rican.

“For much of his life he disguised his ethnicity,” Project Pulso reports.

In fact, the Biography channel’s short documentary about his life, on its YouTube channel, incorrectly repeats his lie, stating: “Sammy Davis, Jr., was born on December 8, 1925 in New York City to a black vaudeville star and a Puerto Rican dancer.”

His mother’s roots, however, were from a place Davis did not want to be associated with: Cuba.

Sammy Davis Jr.’s Secret Cuban Heritage

According to Davis, his mother and father separated when he was a kid, and he went to live with his father, and his sister, Ramona, went to live with his mother. During an interview, he told TV host Tom Cottle: “I didn’t meet my mother until I was something like 12 years old … My mother is Puerto Rican. Her maiden name is Elvira Sanchez. My great grandmother on my mother’s side is still alive.” 

The interview has over 679,000 views on YouTube, with comments like: “That interviewer Tom Cottle was excellent. He asked strong questions, and Davis didn’t shy away from any of them.”

But Davis lied to Cottle, one of many people he lied to about his ethnicity. His mother was not Puerto Rican at all. She was the daughter of Cuban immigrants.

Davis even lied in his autobiography, stating again that his mother was Puerto Rican.

Why Did He Hide His Cuban Roots?

Author Wil Haygood introduced Davis fans to his mother’s real identity in his biography of the star “In Black and White –– The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.”

“The book claims that Sanchez was in fact born in, Harlem, New York, the daughter of Cuban Americans Marco Sanchez, a cigar salesman, and Luisa Aguiar (who died in 1996, at the age of 112), information which was obtained from the daughter and granddaughter of Sanchez’s sister Julia and from contemporary documentation,” The Weekly Challenger newspaper writes.

Despite attempts to obscure his true heritage, both historic records and the personal accounts now shed light on Davis’ motivation for hiding Afro-Cuban roots.

“Sammy Davis, Jr. originally used to say that his mother was Puerto Rican and that she was

born in San Juan but actually she was born in New York City of Afro Cuban descent,” Author and YouTuber Seren Sensei explains. “She was a black latina and Sammy Davis jr. basically claimed that she was a non-black person of color of Puerto Rican because he feared that anti Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales.”

The Real Elvera “Baby” Sanchez

Even though they were not close, Sanchez spoke about her famous son in some televised interviews later in life. “I remember going to the Copa when Sammy had just married … and they were picketing in front of the Copa,” Sanchez recalled in a 1997 interview.

“Known as Baby Sanchez, Ms. Davis began performing at 16 in the chorus line at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem and continued her career into the early 1940’s, dancing for six years in the chorus line at the Apollo,” the New York Times writes. “In 1923, performing in a touring show called ‘’Holiday in Dixie,’’’ Ms. Davis met and married Sammy Davis Sr., also a dancer in the show.”

Sanchez starred in films including Carl Micheaux’s 1936 movie ”Swing.” But she left show business and became a barmaid at Grace’s Little Belmont.

Swing (1938) movie poster

“Ms. Davis continued to be involved with New York tap dance until her death, serving from 1989 as an adviser to the New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day,” the New York Times explains.

She passed away in 2000, at the age of 95, 10 years after her famous son passed away from cancer.

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