Behind the curtain today, we see a man sitting in his studio. He is surrounded by books, some of which he’s written. The walls are covered in art and family photos. Through the window, we see bougainvilleas in full bloom. He is an older man. Handsome. Tall and strong. Full white hair and intense blue eyes that look not only out at the world but also deeply into the hearts of things. Everywhere he goes, people are drawn to him.
This man is a prolific writer and reader. He contemplates deeply. He feels deeply. He appreciates sophistication and elegance and surrounds himself with beauty and culture. A song is playing, but not in the background. It has his full attention. As he listens, first a single tear and then another rolls down his cheek.
This man is not a singer or musician, but he loves Mexico and music. He is Pablo Aveleyra Arroyo de Anda, and he is the inspiration for this post. Two of his favourite singers were Toña la Negra and Lucha Reyes, whom we’ll meet today.
The last post of México elegante featured Agustín Lara, premier composer of the bolero, a genre famous for its themes of tragic, unrequited, or eternally enduring love. Many people have sung Lara’s songs, but no one more than Toña la Negra, known as “the greatest female interpreter of Lara’s music.”1
Toña la Negra was born Antonia del Carmen Peregrino Álvarez in Veracruz in 1912.2 She received no formal musical training, but she had been gifted with a singing voice that was smooth, rich, and deep like maple syrup. She began singing as a child at informal social gatherings, with family and at church. In 1932, she moved with her husband and child to Mexico City, where she began working with radio station XEW.3
At some point around this time, Toña was performing and Agustín Lara heard her for the first time. Imagine the moment: a young, vital Lara, magic burgeoning in his pianist fingertips, is sitting in the audience. A young, vital Toña la Negra, modest, not yet very well known, comes out on the stage and begins to sing. Lara is amazed, almost overwhelmed, by the power and beauty of her voice. Instantly, he knows he has to compose for her. “One account of their meeting tells how Lara sat transfixed upon hearing Toña for the first time as she sang the song ‘Enamorada’. Merely days later, he composed the trenchant ‘Lamento Jarocho’ to be recorded specifically by her as an homage to the people of her coastal hometown.”4
From that point on, they began a collaboration that would last for decades. In addition to producing “Lamento Jarocho” just for her, Lara produced her renditions of “Veracruz,” “Noche Criolla,” “Oración Caribe,” “Palmera,” “La Clave Azul,” and “La Cumbancha,” all of which became enormous successes.5
Although her relationship with Lara was undoubtedly the central one of her career, Toña la Negra also enjoyed fruitful collaborations with other artists, both musically and in the movies. For example, she sang with La Sonora Matancera, a famous Chilean group.6 She also sang and acted in over 20 films,7 underscoring her undeniable talent and appeal.
It comes as no surprise to me that she was one of Pablo’s favourite singers. Nor am I surprised that he also loved Lucha Reyes, whom we’ll now meet. It has been said that the incomparable “Toña ‘La Negra’ is to the bolero what Billie Holiday is to the jazz ballad.”8 And, indeed, as those two greats to their genres, Lucha Reyes is to the ranchera.
While the bolero is one of many types of music and dance styles that crossed the gulf from Cuba and had a significant influence on Mexican culture, ranchera is a sound and feel that arose directly from Mexican soil and blood. “Ranchera, a style of music that grew out of the Mexican revolution, highlights the beauty and simplicity of Mexican life for all citizens. Known for its drama, passion and patriotism, this style of music elicits images of Mexican ranch life….Over time adaptations of this style have given rise to mariachi bands.”9
I enjoyed finding the following description of ranchera by music writer Gustavo Arellano:
“Trying to explain what música ranchera is to non-Mexicans reminds me of the apocryphal quote attributed to–take your pick–Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, when someone asked what jazz is. Ranchera isn’t so much a genre as it is a sentido–a way of life, of viewing the world in all its melancholy, grandiose beauty.
It’s no surprise, then, that ranchera is considered the quintessential Mexican music genre in a land with a dizzying variety of music. Ranchera embodies everything that Mexicans think of themselves when at their best–macho, romantic, backed by mariachi, dressed in splendid outfits, and stubbornly stuck in a myth of a bucolic Mexico that never truly existed. There is no corollary for it in American song.”10
Future posts will explore more ranchera and mariachi but for now, here is the woman known as the “Mother of Ranchera:” Lucha Reyes.
Reyes was born María de la Luz Flores Aceves in Guadalajara in 1906.11 Young María’s family recognized her voice talent early as she sang regularly at home. However, at age five, she suffered a stroke of bad fortune, “an illness, some say typhus, which caused her to lose her voice for a year, presaging a future, fateful illness as an adult that also left her mute. When the girl finally recovered her voice, she began a singing career, but had to drop out of school to help support her family.”12 This type of situation is all too well known among us: people having to give up whatever makes their hearts truly sing in order to focus on basic necessities instead.
However, Reyes eventually got another chance to sing when her family moved to Mexico City and she began to sing at church. And it wasn’t long before she branched out from there. When Reyes was 15 years old, she entered a contest being held in a carpa, or travelling tent show, located at the Plaza San Sebastián. She thrilled the audience with her operatic rendition of “Un Viejo Amor” and was hired on the spot.13 The San Sebastián tent became Mexico City’s first to present opera, and Reyes always had the central roles, performing in “Carmen,” “Madame Butterfly,” and “Pagliacci,” just to name a few.14
In pursuit of a career in opera, Reyes moved while still a teenager to Los Angeles to study and perform. There, she met and married her first husband, playwright and journalist Gabriel Navarro. “The dissolution of that relationship, according to some sources, set Reyes on her course of psychic agony and alcoholism.”15 It was said that Reyes experienced domestic violence at the hands of Navarro, and this trauma naturally affected her professionally as well as personally. She moved back to Mexico, without Navarro, and resumed performing at popular venues. Her love of opera got pushed to the side for a while as she began to sing rancheras as part of a trio and later joined a burlesque show.
Her opera dream remained close to her heart, however, and in 1927, Reyes “joined a tour headed to Europe, with bright hopes of emerging as a professional opera star who would return to Mexico and perform at Bellas Artes.”16 The tour group was ill fated, and after a series of mishaps, the director left. However, before that, Reyes had had the opportunity to make her first recordings in Germany,17 which was an important milestone for her career.
While on the tour, though, another misfortune struck Reyes. She became ill in Europe, and “in an echo of her childhood illness, lost her voice once again. Reyes returned to Mexico and was unable to sing…for about a year. As legend has it, when Reyes recovered her voice it had changed from a pure soprano to a hoarse, breaking vocal no longer suited to classical styles. To continue her career as a singer, Reyes had no choice but to turn to the folkloric style of mariachi music that complemented her ‘new, husky voice.'”18
From then on, Reyes poured her being into singing ranchera, and she rose to enormous success in Mexico. She performed with raw power, infusing the songs with the full range of her experience: pain, passion, sorrow, hope, and humour. She was known to drink onstage and otherwise carry herself in ways unconventional for a female performer at the time. Audiences were drawn to her and were challenged by her. They adored her, and “her rise to stardom was dazzling. Reyes was soon the toast of the town and the darling of the Mexican literati, rubbing shoulders with creative peers from the revolutionary era, from Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, to film actor and director Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández, who was her compadre.”19
“During her career, Reyes debuted and/or popularized many songs by major composers that would become classics of Mexican folk music: ‘La Feria de las Flores’ by Chucho Monge, ‘Guadalajara’ by Pepe Guizar, and ‘La Panchita’ by Joaquín Pardavé. Reyes also performed many hits as a singing star in a series of Mexican movies made between 1935 and 1943, including ‘El Herradero’ from Flor Silvestre (1943), ‘Con los Dorados de Villa’ from the 1939 film of the same name, and, of course, the 1941 classic ‘¡Ay, Jalisco, No Te Rajes!,’ starring Jorge Negrete, in which she performs the title ranchera song with all the passion and panache that made her so popular.”20
Reyes’ success wasn’t without a price, however, and after struggling publicly through several hardships, including a miscarriage and the end of another marriage after her husband’s infidelity, she committed suicide in 1944 at the age of 38.21
Of all the great voices of the era, perhaps it was how hers balanced so precariously between pain and passion that drew audiences to her. Her story alone was enough to move people.
And she is the one who moved Pablo to tears.
Don Pablo, you gave me a gift the second time we met: a small, decorative wooden box with four delicate miniature string instruments inside. I like to think of you looking at all the little treasures and choosing the one with music. At the time, neither of us anticipated all that would come. Thank you, again, for the gift. Thank you for sharing your love of music with everyone around you. And thank you for inspiring me.
Picture of Toña la Negra from El repositorio digital de acceso abierto del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de México Picture of Lucha Reyes from Espectáculos