La Madrina’s Music Store: Victoria Hernández and the Beginnings of Puerto Rican Music in New York

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Victoria Hernández was an amazing woman, a pionera. Some may know her as Rafael Hernández’s sister. And Rafael, of course, is one of Latin America’s most celebrated musical composers. But what about Victoria? Well, this amazing woman was one of the most successful businesspeople in El Barrio during the early part of the 20th century.

Her New York story begins when she migrated with other family members from Puerto Rico to the city following the end of World War I. In the city, she joined her brothers Rafael and Jesús (Pocholo), both recently discharged from the U.S. military after serving with the famed Harlem Hellfighters. After working as a seamstress in a factory and teaching embroidery to the daughters of Cuban families, in 1927 Victoria bought a storefront for $500 and opened Almacenes Hernández (aka the Hernández Music Store), in El Barrio at 1735 Madison Avenue.

According to Victoria, it was the first Puerto Rican-owned music store in New York City, “Yo fuí la primera puertorriqueña que puse un negocio de discos de música.... la única tienda de música puertorriqueña” (Ruth Glasser interview with Victoria, 3/21/89). To accommodate her growing business, as Bartolo Alvarez, musician and founder of the Casa Latina music store, remembers, “Victoria moved the store from there because she had a very small store… She moved to a bigger store at 1724 Madison Avenue.”

Besides selling records and giving piano lessons, Victoria served as a booking agent for many Puerto Rican musicians and served as a liaison between the major record companies and the Latino community. The large record companies felt the small business owners would be more in touch with the preferences of their community and therefore better arbiters of what would sell. Music stores served many other purposes, other than the selling of records. They were hangouts for musicians and places where bandleaders could find instrumentalists. Victoria was also involved in the recording and producing of numerous records. In this way she was very much a part of the music scene, and most likely one of the only women playing such a key role in it. According to historian Virginia Sánchez-Korrol:

As a business venture, the small music store spread quickly throughout the colonia hispana and came to symbolize the Latin settlements as the candy store had characterized other ethnic immigrant neighborhoods. Emanating from these establishments the rhythms of el son, la guaracha, Puerto Rican plenas and aguinaldos combined with the romantic boleros and danzas to serenade the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods day and night, nurturing a continuation of vital cultural expression rooted in Puerto Rico and Spanish America. (Sánchez Korrol 1993: 80–1)

In this emerging music and recording industry, local music stores played an important role. For instance, the Spanish Music Center in East Harlem was opened in 1934 by Puerto Rican Gabriel Oller. He sold recordings, pianola rolls and guitars. In the back of his store he recorded the music of neighborhood tríos and cuartetos for the Dynasonic label, the first Puerto Rican-owned recording company (Salazar 1980: 91). In 1949, when Casa Latina on 110th St. and Park Avenue in East Harlem was bought by the Puerto Rican musician Bartolo Alvarez, it too had many roles in the music industry. The store sold music and instruments and in 1950, Bartolo founded Alba, where pianist Charlie Palmieri first recorded as a bandleader with the band Carlos Palmieri y su Conjunto, and later Rival Records, which recorded some of the most popular artists of the time including the Puerto Rican singer Davilita. Ironically, Bartolo Alvarez said he was inspired to become a musician at the age of 14 when he started dropping by Almacenes Hernández and listening to Rafael Hernández play music (Carp 1994; Martínez 2001).

The store helped support Victoria Hernández’s family and gave Rafael Hernández a place to write and play his music. Victoria supplemented the family’s income by giving piano lessons. (Her students included two young neighborhood boys who would later become internationally known Latin music performers—Ernest “Tito” Puente and José “Joe Loco” Estévez.)

Though Victoria Hernández was an accomplished violinist, cellist and pianist, she dedicated herself to the business aspect of the industry; it was a time when being a business owner was more respectable than being a musician, especially for women. In her case, it may have also been her calling. She remembers selling fruit to her neighbors as a young girl, “Yo siempre he sido comerciante de chiquita. . . Desde los 8 años yo vendía todo lo que encontraba” (Glasser 1989: March 21). She was one of approximately 16 women who supervised or owned their own businesses in the mid-1920s, according to Sánchez-Korrol (1996).

In addition to running Almacenes Hernández, Victoria Hernández served as a manager for Rafael’s group, Cuarteto Victoria, organizing tours and recording dates. Her role as a booking agent extended to serving as intermediary between representatives from record labels such as Victor and Decca and the musicians the companies were seeking to record. Bandleaders would also contact her looking for musicians and other necessities, “[Xavier] Cugat me llamaba para buscar músicos y me llamaba para que le mandara maracas y mandar palitos” (Glasser 1989: March 21). Victoria, in this capacity, became known to musicians as La Madrina. She was also involved in the production as well as the marketing of music. In the same year that she bought the store, Victoria started a record label called Hispano. Victoria remembers, “Fuimos los primeros puertorriqueños que hicimos discos. Grabamos dos veces” (Glasser 1989: May 11). The label produced records by Los Diablos de la Plena and Las Estrellas Boricuas, who recorded Rafael’s famous song, "Pura Flama." Unfortunately, although the records sold well, she had to close the company when her bank collapsed at the start of the Great Depression in 1929.

In 1939, the Hernández family sold the store and moved to Mexico. The next year, after a failed business venture, Victoria Hernández moved to the Bronx, in the vanguard of a similar path soon followed by many other Puerto Ricans migrating from the island to East Harlem to the Bronx.

In 1941, she opened Casa Hernández at 786 Prospect Ave. where she once again sold music and clothes and give piano lessons. She lived, along with Rafael at various times, on the third floor of the apartment building which also housed the store. Her decision to include clothing among her wares reflects another aspect of the Puerto Rican migration experience. There weren’t many options open to women for work, but domestic help and needlework employed large numbers of them. Needlework and lace-making had a long history in Puerto Rico, and after World War I became especially important when there was a halt to the export of these materials from Europe. In the 1920s, Puerto Rican women became a major segment of the garment industry’s labor force. All the while, Victoria Hernández continued to give piano lessons to budding musicians in the neighborhood, though she came to rely more on selling dresses than the music.

After Rafael died in 1965, Victoria lost interest in the business and turned over management of the store to her friend Johnny Cabán (Martínez 2000). Later in life she married Puerto Rican entrepreneur Gabriel Oller, who had opened the Spanish Music Center in East Harlem in 1934. She died in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico in 1998 and was buried in her brother’s tomb in the Old San Juan Cemetery.

Casa Amadeo (antigua Casa Hernández) at 786 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx, NY.

Her legacy, however, remains alive. Her store, Almazenes Hernández, was bought in 1969 by composer/musician Mike Amadeo. Mike had experience working in the other record stores important to the Latin music scene in New York City—Bartolo Alvarez’s Casa Latina in East Harlem and Casalegre in the Bronx (owned by Bartolo’s nephew Al Santiago). Though he changed the name of the store, he kept some features from the days when Victoria Hernández owned it: the awning reads “Antigua [formerly] Casa Hernández.” Some of the original merchandise cases are still in the store; and a sign painted near the front door said “Novedades” [novelties] reflecting Victoria Hernández’s eclectic wares—both in music and dresses. In 2003, “Casa Amadeo antigua Casa Hernández” was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. It was the first Puerto Rican site from the mainland to garner such placement.


References
Carp, David. 1994. Interview with Bartolo Alvarez. 17 April.

Glasser, Ruth. 1989. Interviews with Victoria Hernández. 21 March and 11 May. Available at Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY.

_______.1995 My Music is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities, 1917-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Martínez, Elena. 2000. Interview with Mike Amadeo. 1 March.

________.2001. Interview with Bartolo Alvarez. 1 January.


Salazar, Max. 1980. Latin Music: The Perseverance of a Culture. In Historical Perspectives on Puerto Rican Survival in the United States, eds. Clara E. Rodríguez and Virginia Sánchez Korrol. 87–96. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.

Sánchez Korrol, Virginia. 1993. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York. Berkeley. University of California Press.

_______.1996. Survival of Puerto Rican Women in New York Before World War II. In Historical Perspectives on Puerto Rican Survival in the United States eds. Clara Rodríguez and Virginia Sánchez Korrol. 55–67. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.


© Elena Martinez. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 25 February 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.