Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rumba in Artemisa. The cradle: Pueblo Nuevo, a poor neighborhood. Chronicle of an Epoch. By Berta Martínez Páez

[Note: El Goyo recently put us in touch with the author of this piece, historian Berta Martínez Páez. A remarkable study of an important historical rumba scene, we are publishing it here for the first time with her permission, along with our own translation. Enjoy. —Barry]

Celedonio Capote González, "Bacardí"
Rumbero from Pueblo Nuevo

Pueblo Nuevo is a poor neighborhood in the town of Artemisa [located about 40 miles southwest of Havana], populated since its beginnings mostly by blacks and poor whites.

Around the last decade of the 19th century, due to the promiscuity which existed as a result of the precarious social, labor, and housing conditions in the area, the morals and ethics of the "poor but honest" Cuban began to erode, and (among other vices) humanity's oldest profession appeared: prostitution.

Later, the perpetuators of those initial pioneers in the profession, who offered their favors to the passers-by and others in the first bars which appeared soon after the founding of this town (in the decades following 1804 or 1805) as an agricultural resettlement precipitated by the fire in the Havana neighborhoods of Jesus María and Calzada de Guadalupe on April 25, 1802, began to settle within a certain area of two or three block.

[The fire left nearly 9,000 homeless in an already overcrowded Havana, and so the victims were] offered plots of land in the demolished Corral de San Marcos. These people became the first colonists of which later became one of the most prosperous regions for the cultivation of coffee, sugar cane and also smaller crops. The town was then known as Villa Roja [due to the fertile red soil found in the area].

Almost a hundred years passed. The land was worked, many coffee plantations and some sugar mills proliferated, and the town grew.

There was also pain and death, as Artemisa suffered greatly under the various wars for Cuban independence from Spain.

In the 20th century, the first decades of the republic were hard years, and the town suffered shortages and oppressions as a result of political problems and the disastrous economy with which the new Cuban republic began.

In Artemisa, as in other places of the island, quarrels among the neighborhood leaders were common, yet already Pueblo Nuevo had grown since the end of the 19th century, with the construction of shacks of palm boards and thatched roofs. We suppose that this neighborhood grew thanks to Padre Arocha, parish priest of the town since 1893, who in early 1897 built some barracks and shacks for the refugees of the war of 1895-98, which cost Artemisa more than 5,000 lives.

Soon the bars and houses dedicated to the "sale of caresses" began proliferating, perhaps as a consequence of the recently ended war and of Weyler's Reconcentration camps, so ill-fated for this town, as the inhabitants, less cultured and excluded from society, sought to escape from so much poverty, damage and suffering.

Thus began a marginalization, created by the men and women of the rest of the population, based essentially in racial and social discrimination, which would criticize by day, but many used for their own pleasure by night.

The investigator and musicologist Helio Orovio tells us so eloquently:

"The poor — blacks, mixed, and whites without a penny — crowded into the solares of the cities, in bunkhouses and outbuildings, and in the middle of that subhuman world, to mitigate – perhaps to fight – the misery, they lifted their voices and music. Rumba was the music of hunger. Song sprouted from the bowels of asphalt [and earth] in the urban centers and suburbs, from the Havana neighborhoods of Belén, Jesús María, los Sitios, Atarés, Pueblo Nuevo, from the poor Matancero districts of Simpson and La Marina, and from the humble areas of Marianao, Regla, Guanabacoa, Güines, Jovellanos, Unión de Reyes, Alacranes, Sagua la Grande, [and also Artemisa].

And within this newly created Artemisian neighborhood the rumba took root, its fundamental rhythms and songs arising from the tears of the shanties, sprouting in this inhospitable climate, like a tree in a desert.

It could not have been otherwise: this music flows like a cry from those who were cruelly taken from their land, and then took parts of the music and dances of their "masters," transforming into the originality of our Cuban music, and as Orovio tells us, "the music was more than music, more than song, drumbeat and dance, it was an expression of the Cuban being, a fiesta of the humble, disinherited, dispossessed, which in this manner hit upon an identification of his native culture."

And so among women of "the easy life," and their pimps, the drinking and roughousing, the rumba reigned supreme, binding these elements together.

From time to time, guests from other places, some famous such as Chano Pozo. Personalities of a bygone era, impression of a town, its culture and idiosyncrasies; some in fact not so good (prostitution, fights, stabbings, drugs, etc.) and others terrible (settling of scores, deaths) but that marked an entire generation and that undoubtedly constitutes part of our history of the place, which in the end makes up the history of the nation.

With their virtues and defects, passions and misfortunes, hatreds and quarrels, music and dances, they left, perhaps without intending to do so, an indelible track in this town — a past turbulent and deeply rooted forever in its history.

These are the traces that we try to capture with this work, as a memory of that time; good or bad, I do not know. I am not, nor do I believe anyone to be, in a position to judge them; for me they were only human beings, playing the role that fell to each one according to their destiny and to those musicians, natural-born rumberos, thanks to the gift with which nature endowed them, although mostly they did not have the privilege of musical instruction, making it worth twice as much.

This investigation is supported by testimonies of their descendants, from what's left of the neighborhood and of others related to Pueblo Nuevo. They have made this work possible. Some, after almost eight years of conversations, have now passed away, but their information remains, and in some cases even recordings of their voices.

Testimonies about not only the person or people who are spoken of, but to the neighborhood, to the environment of those years, that made it possible to almost reconstruct it as it was in the 1940s, house by house, block by block, family to family. There are legends, anecdotes, stories, experiences related by them, forming a proud oral tradition.

To all those who kept these memories to be shared, our infinite thanks. That's what this work is about.

Humanity is like it is: it's not a matter of changing it, but of knowing it.
—Gustave Flaubert

Besides the families helped by Padre Arocha, others soon came to settle. They were just as poor, mainly blacks, former-slaves and their descendants, whites without means, a few Chinese, brought from the early and middle 19th century to build the railroad and to work on coffee and sugar plantations.

These are the people who originated the identity of this neighborhood, with their range of races and cultures, marginalized by the class-conscious society in the difficult times of the war and then in the uncertain beginning of the Republic; illiterate, humble people, fighting daily for their lives; others, riotous and quarrelsome, for this reason, perhaps, some woman with no alternative first began to sell her caresses for pennies, perhaps as she had done during the war, for some crusts of bread to stave off hunger.

The frequent idle time was filled with gambling and music, which everyone brought from their ancestors, and if the blacks (now freed) didn't have a drum, then they grabbed a codfish box, some spoons and some claves. Thus ritual music became urban, as they adapted it to the environment, adorning it with the brushstrokes of Spanish music, making it accessible to the surrounding human conglomerate, transculturizing the musical roots as as they did with their gods.

Here we have the original neighborhood, its people and its music: the rumba, a sonic escape from states of mind, from protests, from yearnings.

Beginning in the 1920s, small businesses grew in the area, bodeguitas, stands, a meat market at Calles Agramonte and Yara (today called 23rd and 44th streets), shacks were added to some solares, which were rented for prostitution.

ccording to the census of 1901 the neighborhood had 89 houses of thatch and palm board, the remainder of the population had 87 houses of masonry and tiles and 246 of wood; the inhabitants numbered a little over 2000.

The number of prostitutes grew in the 1930s and '40s. Many came from other places; the figure of the "rascal" appears, of the pimp, more brothels are opened and also bars — among them that of EL NEGRO, MAXIMILIANO MORENO CASTILLO, (B) located on the corner of Zenea and Yara (today 21st and 44th).

Zenea y Yara, site of El Negro and Juana Mena's bar

Bar de El Negro, Bejuco y amigos

Diagonal to this was the bodega EL CAMBALACHE.

El Cambalache, corner of Zenea and Yara, Pueblo Nuevo

These four corners can be considered the heart of the neighborhood of Pueblo Nuevo and cradle of the rumba there, and this bodeguita with its bar became the central points of the rumba.

Map of Pueblo Nuevo c. 1940s-1950s
Showing places related to rumba and prostitution
Circle indicates "cradle" of rumba in Pueblo Nuevo
(Credit: Berta Martínez Páez)

EL CAMBALACHE originally belonged to FELICIANO CHACÓN, Chano, (B). Later, around 1948 or 1950 it was owned by LONGINO HERNÁNDEZ ESTÉVEZ, (B) and was subsequently acquired by SABINO SAN MARTIN, "Sabino Canto," (N) a key neighborhood figure, and still legendary as one of its best rumberos, in spite of the years since his passing away. Sabino renamed it EL BARRACÓN DE PAPÁ, which is how this corner is known to this day, although just the top floor of the entryway and part of the bodega remain.

Sabino Canto
Legendary rumbero of Pueblo Nuevo
Columbia dancer

In the 1940s, the area began growing more dense with little houses (though mostly cardboard, some were now of wood and clay tiles or zinc roofs), with women dedicated to prostitution. From Yara and from Manuel Valdés to Zenea (today from 44th and 19th to 21st), along both sides.

Calle Yara, from Zenea to M.Valdés
Houses dedicated to prostitución at the time

However, from the rest of the streets from Baire to Agramonte, Zenea to the Avenida 28 de Enero and from there to Agramonte one could find other houses and bars with their shacks out back dedicated to the commerce of the "paid pleasure." This is the cradle.

The years between 1940 through 1959-60 can be described as boom years for the neighborhood, with some brothels and bars becoming more sophisticated. There were rumbas every weekend and also on holidays and saint's days, and according to one informant, Matilde Collazo Barceló, "to have a rumba all that was needed was for a few people to get together, it didn't matter the day or the time."

They all had their specialties, as musicians, singers, or dancers. Visitors came from far away, attracted by the fame of the neighborhood, to enjoy the art of rumba and to compete with their hosts. The young and not-so-young from the middle class were known to frequent these parties, and to enjoy the rest that the neighborhood had to offer, hidden from their families, as always.

Somewhat peculiar to the rumbas of this neighborhood was the way in which the participants dressed. Some rumberos used suits of Drill 100, Hacendados and many with guayaberas of bramant linen and gold buttons. The shoes were Ingelmo or other brands, two-tone cordovan leather, caramel or black and white with dots. Several people attested to this, among them Susana Sierra de Armas.

Pueblo Nuevo had its intangible limits. The inhabitants were discriminated against simply for their marginality, living in a society that closed its eyes to indigenous art. It was a vice zone, immodest and coarse, and no visionary from high society ever tried to take this rhythm and its performers out of their element, to perfect them.

Nothing was recorded, nothing was written, and so this rich period of people and personalities was lost to history, though still recalled today in spite of the passing years. Although from an environment of vice and corruption, they were natural art, "diamonds in the rough" as they say Chano Pozo called Sabino Canto when they met in the 1940s.

Chano Pozo
who visited Pueblo Nuevo in the 1940s

Sabino was without his usual fine clothes or shoes, but when Chano and friends came to the bar, all dressed very elegantly, Sabino showed them that he was the best columbia dancer of all.

This story has become the main legend (among others) of the neighborhood, to the extent that even many people born after the event tell it very proudly as if they had been eyewitnesses.

Pueblo Nuevo had many colorful personalities dedicated to the rumba, such as Bacardí, Cabo Corto, Félix Junco, EL SHERIFF and others. Also many of the hundreds of "easy women," or "women of the windows," who passed through this suburb, without another alternatives in life, many times their families not knowing what they were doing, chose to live here. Women such as ROSE FCA. URIARTE MARTÍNEZ, Bejuco; VIRGINIA, Tania; Sangre Azul, ESTER Musiquilla, Mantecao, and so many others throughout almost 60 years.

Other personalities also left their mark, such as BACHILLER padre, LOLA, EL NEGRO, VERENA XENÉS, PANCHITA, bar owners and many others who we treat in detail in and many more than yes we treat in detail in our investigative work: Pueblo Nuevo. Sus mujeres públicas, sus chulos y proxenetas. (Unpublished paper).

This in broad strokes then, is the much commented-upon Pueblo Nuevo, where prostitution provided a framework for the rumba in Artemisa to shine, and they both passed into history for posterity. The musicians, dancers and singers from the town set a precedent in this neighborhood and so, without meaning to, won the right to enter the town's history.

How many hours of sweat, how many hands aching from striking cajones and drums, how many throats gone hoarse from singing, how many tired bodies, especially feet, from so much dancing, how many fights and guapería caused by too much rum and aguardiente, and arguments ending in spilled blood?

But it was all part of the environment. It was impossible to extract that musical discipline from the environment in which it was born and developed, they are consequences of each other, and the music stemmed from the heart, oppressed by so much marginality, and the rumba was the voice of the feelings of that man in pain.


From Helio Orovio we've become aware of probably the first rumberos from Artemisa such as
Tumbalaye, Higinio Montes y Catalino Navalé, who were possibly famous even in the first decades of the 20th century, and if it weren't for Helio their names would have been lost to history.

The list that follows we have compiled from the memories of those we interviewed. There were probably many others who played or started the rumba in this neighborhood, but sadly, as we have said before, they have been forgotten with time. The "mayores" (elder rumberos) must have started out in the 1930s or 40s as young lads. Then in the 1950s other younger players came along and took their first steps alongside their maestros.

The "mayores" (elder rumberos) of Pueblo Nuevo in the time of this study (1940-1960):
† RAMÓN VALDÉS DÍAZ, (B) – El Niño de Utrera
† ELIO PEÑALVER, (N) – Zumbío.
† PABLO SIERRA___________(N) Musa
† FACUNDO ORTA PRIETO (N) Pata de palo

The younger rumberos in the time of this study:

† RODOLFO CASTRO (N) – Mellona


The elder rumba dancers in the time of this study:
† ELIO PEÑALVER, (N) – Zumbío
† SABINO SAN MARTÍN (N) – Sabino Canto
† ELIO PEÑALVER (N) – Zumbío
† SANTIAGO DORTICÓS (N) - El Vate, Tatayo

Dancers around 30 years old:

actualmente es el único buen bailarín que queda vivo. Columbiano
† LÁZARO__________ ___________

Those about 15 or 20, in the 1950s and early '60s:
† EGNES DOTRES_____________ – Fafarruco, Fafi. _____________________________ - Tatín.
JACINTO SEOANE____________ (N)
SILVITO ___________ _________ (M)
LÁZARO BÁEZ_______________ (M)
† FRANCISCO JAIME___________ (N) – Anquito
__________KESSEL____________ (N) – El Veterano

The women were:

__________ COLLAZO XENÉS (M) – La Gallega
† JULIA PÉREZ PÉREZ (N) – Mercedita
MARÍA JOSEFA GRANDAL __________ (M) Fefa

The places where rumba was played in the 1940s and '50s:

Bodega / bar EL CAMBALACHE, located at the corner of Yara (44th) y Zenea (21st), as it was called until Sabino Canto made it his and called it EL BARRACÓN DE PAPÁ. They used to start the rumba on Zenea, in front of the little quiosque that Sabino had in this corner of his solar, where his house was and also other rooms in back. The palm at the right was witness to so many rumbas at the bar. As the sun got stronger, they moved to the side, in the shade of the bar belonging to EL NEGRO and JUANA MENA. To rest and refresh they went to the nearby solar on Yara, sitting in the shade of an old mamey tree (which still exists). Then they all ended up in EL CAMBALACHE.

Corner of Baire and Zenea, site of Bar BACHILLER
(foto: Berta Martínez Páez)
Bar BACHILLER, on the other corner, that is Baire (42nd) and Zenea (21st)
Bodega of Hermógenes "El gallego," at Agramonte (23rd) and corner of Yara (44th)
House of DOMINGA DÍAZ, "Mamita," on Agramonte (23rd) between Baire (42nd) and Yara (44th)
House of MANUELA, "LA QUEMÁ," in the 50s and 60s, next door to Mamita's.
House of Yoyo Lima, La Matilde.

Without music, life would be a mistake
—Federico Nietzsche

About the author Berta Martínez Páez:

Born July 4 1940 in Artemisa, formerly Pinar del Rio Province, now La Habana. Professor of Piano, Solfege and Theory, accountant and economist. Local history researcher.

From 1982, during my work as an economist, I began researching documents on the coffee plantation ANGERONA in the Archivo Nacional y Biblioteca, Archivos Parroquiales and others. En 1996 I presented a paper on this plantation at the 110 ANIV. DE LA ABOLICIÓN DE LA ESCLAVITUD, Taller Científico Internacional, sponsored by UNESCO, at the Universidad de Matanzas. Other events followed of the same category such as the II Taller Internacional, MUJERES EN EL UMBRAL DEL SIGLO XXI, Universidad de La Habana en 1997, and the Ier CONGRESO INTERNACIONAL. DE HISTORIADORES LATINOAMERICANISTAS, in the Casa Benito Juárez in 1998. From there other events, "conversatorios," TV and radio programs, etc., with this history such as the chapter La Leyenda de Angerona, from the La Isla más Hermosa series, broadcast on CubanTV cubana and other English and French speaking countries. I am considered the biographer of Úrsula Lambert and the researcher who has the most documentation on the history of Angerona in Cuba and in Germany.

After I retired in 1995, I began to dedicate myself to local history full time. As a result I have completed the following studies (all unpublished):

  • LA RECONCENTRACIÓN DE WEYLER EN ARTEMISA ¡Perdonemos, pero no olvidemos! (1er. Lugar en Simposio de la Cultura l998, también Mesa Redonda prov.)

  • EMILIO, OTRO PEÑARREDONDA DOLLEY, PATRIOTA – Se da a conocer la historia del hermano de la insigne patriota Magdalena Peñarredonda. Premio en evento municipal y distinción en Simposio Historiadores previo Congreso Nacional 2008.

  • SAN MARCOS DE LA ARTEMISA. Orígenes, fundación, primeras épocas. (Investigación presentada al PCC y Gobierno, para determinar nuestra fecha de fundación. Se escogió como guía.)

  • LA RUMBA EN ARTEMISA. Su cuna: pueblo Nuevo, barrio marginal. Crónica de una época. (Rescate de tradiciones; fue parte de un programa de TV, Catálogo Cubano, evento teórico CUBADISCO en Pinar del Río. Buena evaluación por el Dr. Gómez Cairo, Dtor. Nacional de la Música).

  • ÚRSULA LAMBERT, la singular haitiana del cafetal Angerona. (Personaje fundamental de este cafetal. Crónica de esa época, del cafetal y sus personajes).

  • JUAN PÁEZ FLORES, un isleño palmero asentado en Alonso de Rojas, Cuba. (Historia de mi bisabuelo y abuelo canario y la familia Páez-García).

  • Sobre la prostitución en el barrio marginal de Pueblo Nuevo, será parte de una colaboración de un libro con el Dpto. de Historia de la Universidad de Yale.

  • Web page about ANGERONA, 2003

  • I am now working on other research of vital importance for local history.


CongaDR said...

I am so blown away by posts like this.

You should win some prize for the coolest blog on the planet!


Barry said...

Thanks Tony, glad you like it. I just have some really cool friends is all! ;)