Victoria Hernández & the Music Store

by Elena Martínez

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 Dynasonic label, the first Puerto Rican-owned recording company (Salazar 1980: 91). Later 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 at 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 stopping 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 wrote and played his music in the back of the store. 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—Tito Puente and Joe Loco. Though Victoria Hernández was an accomplished violinist, cellist, and pianist, she dedicated herself to the business aspect of the industry; it was a time 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 vendí todos que lo encontraba” (Glasser 1989: March 21). She was one of approximately 16 women, or .5% of the Puerto Rican female migrant population who supervised or owned their own businesses in the mid-1920s, according to historian Virginia 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 Hernández ,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, which recorded Rafael’s famous song, "Pura Flama" (Pure Flame). Unfortunately, although the records sold well, she had to close the company when her bank collapsed at the start of the Depression in 1929.

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Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Image Credits: Jesús Colón papers Collection | All Rights Reserved