Rumberas from Matanzas: iconic women through history and tradition
Walking the neighborhoods of Simpson and La Marina, we go through part of the history of the women who gave life to the rumba in Matanzas. In currently abandoned houses, with old brick facades, the rumberas (in Spanish, women who plays rumba) were the protagonists of a cultural practice that accompanied the saint's birthday celebrations, the afternoon gatherings after doing housework or the Blue Team parade in the first hours of the new year.
In the various spaces of the social and family environment, the Matanzas rumberas outlined the rumba to such an extent that their dance steps and the echo of their songs continue to this day, as a rich heritage kept by daughters and granddaughters. That strong female ancestral energy was what inspired a unique group of its kind in Cuba: the Association of Rumberas Women of Matanzas (AMR) Estanislá Luna and Yeya Calle, which —created on October 13, 2013— It is an essential means for the preservation of the historical memory and the cultural legacy of the rumberas since the end of the 19th century.
Who were those women who since then, inside their homes, in lots and parties, raised their voices and waved their skirts in the most genuine expression of rumba? This text presents only a brief overview of those paradigmatic figures that remain in the popular imagination of the city and live in the collective memory of the Association of Rumberas Women.
The Calle-Mesa family
The history of this family begins with the figure of Anselmo Calle, one of the first linked to the origin of the rumba in Matanzas. From him it is known that he was the organizer of the rumba choir La Lirita and a famous player, singer and dancer of the Yambú style. His great-great-granddaughters describe him as an "seductive old man" who maintained a stable and lasting relationship with two women at the same time. From both unions a pleiad of rumberas was born who, without any rivalry, recognized themselves as sisters, aware of the father's relationship with their respective mothers.
Manuela, Amadita, Antonina and Regla Calle are born from the union between Anselmo Calle and Joaquina Domínguez. From the latter, Maximina Calle is born, who gives birth to Bárbara Jiménez Calle, known as Bárbara Calle, mother of Álida and Miriam Leicea, current members of the AMR.
From the union between Anselmo Calle and Juana Mesa, on the other hand, Inés Mesa was born, who would then maintain the mother's last name. Two highly significant figures are born from Inés Mesa for the origin and development of the Guaguancó Matancero group, later known as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas: Juan and Julián Mesa.
This family became a fundamental focus of rumba in the city of Matanzas. The members who achieved the greatest popularity in professional groups, owe much to the inspiration and improvisation of their predecessors. In the transmission of songs and the construction of that rich sound skein, maternal ties were a link of force majeure. Creativity found fertile ground in the names of these women, seeds of a local tradition.
From Rule (Yeya) Calle only knows that he was born one day in 1870 and died in 1956, at the age of 86. She organized many rumbas and was the hostess of the main focus of rumba in Simpson, where Esteban Vega (Chachá), Hortensio Alfonso (Virulilla), Esteban Lantrí (Saldiguera) and Félix Campos passed. An important circle of rumberas such as Estanislá Luna (Tani), Liduvina Miró and Flora Heredia also gathered around her.
As a housewife she was in the care of the grandchildren, who were inserted daily into the rumba through the environment that their grandmother fostered. Miriam, one of her granddaughters, remembers that in the afternoons, when she returned from school, they could find a rumba with her grandmother's songs, among which the jarana ones stood out, which could be accompanied by the clave that she played with two spoons.
Yeya Calle assumed the upbringing of her granddaughter Barbarita Calle when the mother passed away. Her house, in the Ayuntamiento between Daoíz and Velarde, was the headquarters of the rumba on countless occasions. She even conditioned the living room of the house so that Los Muñequitos de Matanzas had a rehearsal room and could reorganize their artistic activity in the 1960s.
Barbarita was born on December 4, 1918 and 10 years later she was baptized, her great-aunt Manuela Calle was the godmother. It was distinguished by the skill of the dance movements and was recognized for the merit of never allowing itself to be "vaccinated", a gesture that defined if you were —or not— good dancer In the improvised rumbas that took place at her house, where they took whatever was within their reach as instruments, many remember her with a couple of spoons marking the key on the front door.
Barbarita Calle was a rumba girl who had no chance to study, but learned self-taught. It was only after the triumph of the Revolution that she was able to complete her secondary studies. Her death, on April 23, 1999, plunged the Matanzas rumba movement into deep mourning, reflected in the silence and pain that prevented a farewell party.
In the Calle-Mesa family the name of Inés is mentioned with the utmost respect. Her rumba songs, often created in collaboration with her son Julián, became part of the repertoire of Matanzas professional groups.
Agnes Table taught to sing rumba to his children and grandchildren. He was the one who trained his granddaughter Martha Mesa after losing her father at the age of nine, and as a natural part of her upbringing he bequeathed her an entire arsenal of old rumbas. Martha still bears witness to the songs created by her grandmother with Julián. His father was inspired and drew the lyrics for a song; Inés helped him with the melody, taking as a reference the songs he knew from long ago, and in the same way he gave him others to be incorporated into the repertoire of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.
Inés María Mesa was born on December 21, 1883. Although she did not marry Martín Gómez, four children were born from their consensual union. In her descendants we find rumba musicians who have played and sung in first-rate professional rumba groups. Her sons Julián and Juan (Bosco) Mesa were founders of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and her grandsons Enrique and Pedro Mesa have worked in the Afrocuba groups in Matanzas and Los Matanceros, respectively.
Francis Zamora (minini), Major rumbero and director of the Afrocuba de Matanzas group, recognized the place occupied by the Calle and Mesa sisters in popular tradition. For him “Yeya and Inés Mesa were the rumba dancers who made the most noise here […]. On holidays, at home, you didn't have to look for anyone from the street to form the rumba. When people came, the party was already formed by them.”
"Here comes Tani!" Shouted the boys who were playing at Yeya's house. With her shoulders covered by her dark cape and her light body, despite the years she walked gracefully through the streets of her rumba friends. Among the jokes that the grandchildren made of her, she sang the occasional puya song, the one that only she could give away with her overflowing imagination.
Estanislá Luna, for her part, has been a significant figure in popular culture and, as far as we know, the longest-lived of the Matanzas rumba community, born on November 13, 1881.
In the rumba he stood out for the yambú songs and the wealth of dance movements, which earned him a fame that attracted many of the most renowned rumba dancers, to the point that José Rosario Oviedo, the mythical Malanga, arrived in the city of Matanzas with the interest of meeting her personally and accompanying her in the dance.
Within the rumba he was concerned that the intonation of the original song be respected, directing and correcting the youngest in the celebrations. Her knowledge allowed her to be recognized as "the last queen of yambú from Matanzas". Thanks to the interview that Estanislá Luna granted to Reinaldo Peñalver and that Bohemia published under the title Major Rumba, we know his ideas and the way he resolved issues of gender and social position. Referring to the death of Malanga, she comments: "[...] here in Matanzas we also mourn him... But my husband did not go to the funeral and I could not go if he did not go." This can be interpreted as the woman's subordination to the husband's decisions, even though their interests might have been different.
Therefore, Estanislá was forced to deal with the patriarchal conceptions that imposed certain dominant behaviors of the time, but she managed that the marriage did not prevent her the enjoyment of singing and dancing the rumba, which occupied a foreground of interest in her life. In the same interview, when referring to the husband, she states:
“He did let me dance… He had to, because that was the condition I put in when we joined. I had many lovers and I put the same condition to all of them. I was born with the rumba inside. No one could take it from me. Whoever loved me had to accept that I danced.”
The rumberas Álida and Miriam Leicea refer to the ingenious resources that Estanislá used to avoid letting herself be dominated or controlled by her husband, Martín Corona. She liked to share a conversation alone with her friends as well as a party; if Martin unexpectedly came looking for her, she —with the complicity of the others— he was hiding. Then they continued the rumba or the jaranas, mocking the control of Martín or some other of his companions.
Estanisla demonstrated unusual strength and autonomy for women of her time often abused and undervalued by men whether in the physical or subjective sense.
His death in 1987, at 106 years of age, was an event in Matanzas, and his funeral was one of the most attended. Through the provincial station Radio 26, the news was broadcast several times during the day, alluding to the fact that the rumba was in mourning because the "rumba mayor", as she was known, had died. From her house to the cemetery, she was followed by the people of Matanzas, who danced with her as she had requested. Let the women sing It was Estanislá Luna's yambú, which was sung over and over again.
According to the testimony of Álida Leicea: “We buried Estanislá with rumba, because she gave her songs and wanted them to sing to her. She died in Salamanca street, a block mediation before arriving in Zaragoza, and she was taken in a small box because she was very small. He was dancing until Dos de mayo, where he got into the car and then all danced and played for her all the way ”.
In the cemetery, that January 9, 1987, the rumba continued until nightfall.
Other women They also shared a passion for rumba and were important cultivators of the genre in Matanzas. Among them we can mention Liduvina Miró, who came from a large family of rumberos from Unión de Reyes, she was the mother of Jesús Alfonso Miró —performer of the fifth in Los Muñequitos de Matanzas— and Regla González Miró, who works as coordinator of the current Association of Rumba Women of Matanzas Estanislá Luna and Yeya Calle and of the Practical Theoretical Workshop of Rumba of Matanzas.
Liduvina was born on April 13, 1935. She enjoyed the opportunity to play rumba and that is why she accompanied with a rumba any significant moment in her life, whether it was the birth or death of a close person. She is remembered for the peculiar way she had to dance, for her work in the Blue Band and for the way she participated in the street dance of the comparsas. The rumba was present until the last days of its existence and as it was their wish, the people of Matanzas said goodbye with this rhythm on March 9, 2015.
Along with these older rumberas, the names or nicknames of Isabel Santiago, Yolanda Curbelo, Elvira Barani, Isabel Urrutia, María Sixta Pita, Flora Heredia, Andrea Gutiérrez, Lina Campos, Carlota Guada, Francisca Rodríguez (Panchita Chamalapo), Dominga Bacallao, Moraima Lausurique, Ana Luisa Piloto (chacha), Margarita Zequeira (Cundunga the China), Chichí Guasabá and Casilda Uldeber.
These were the names that turned the streets, lots and entrances of houses into arteries of life, defending Tani's message at the top of his lungs, with his many songs gathered in one: "Let the women sing, I don't feel sorry for them." voice…". Among guajacos —that drink prepared with brandy, sugar and lemon juice— and sopones dared to recount their existence to the beat of a rumba, weaving together their sorrows and joys, uniting their voices and lives in neighborhood celebrations that smell of the river. These women were true warriors who, surrounded by their descendants, instilled love for tradition. With the force of a shrug of the shoulders avoiding the “vacunao", this is how we wanted to remove the dust and oblivion of authors who made an incredible story out of the Matanzas rumba.