Hand in hand with Teresita Fernández

She received less than what she gave.

Teresita Fernández is already in the eternal resting place of fairies, singing and dancing with the angels, while we, dismayed, have the consolation of listening to her songs, which we can always evoke through the sound of the wind, the smell of rain or simply, “if during the day with joy/ we see the golden sun come out.”

If the dimension of an artist is directly related to the amount of joy she/he provides, who can compare with Teresita? Her songs filled with joy several generations of Cubans; they taught us that beauty is everywhere, even in an old washbowl if we know how to plant something in it.

The artistic life of Teresita Fernández (Santa Clara 1930-Havana 2013) was enormously rich and diverse and was full of obstacles, lack of understanding, injustices. Her originality, self-assurance, irreverence, religiosity did not adapt to the moulds and parameters imposed from higher up and this greatly harmed her. A review of that life story makes it possible to see on how many occasions her paths were dynamited.1

Teresita could have had a brilliant career in teaching – and she did in her way – because she graduated as a doctor in pedagogy in 1959 and won a chair to teach music, music theory and choir in the Primary Education Teachers School of Santa Clara, the same profession her mother had, but her artistic vocation pushed toward another direction: “I handed my mother the title of primary schoolteacher and of piano professor and I gave her back her chair and told her: ‘now I want to be what I like, a singer-songwriter.’”

She also could have had a career in television – and for a short time she demonstrated this – because she entered this means with Los Camejos in the children’s programme “Los amigos” in 1960 and afterwards she founded “La casita de azúcar,” an unforgettable space for the children of the time, in which Teresita sang, animated, worked with puppets, directed and composed music, until they withdrew the joy, hers and the children’s. “Carlos Franqui kicked me out of television, from channel four, which was the one that broadcasted ‘La casita de azúcar.’ I am Catholic and it seems he didn’t like that.”

Neither could her professional entrance to the universe of song have been more resounding: her first recital, in 1965, in Havana’s Arlequín Hall, was presented by Fina García-Marruz and witnessed by Sindo Garay and Bola de Nieve, who, captivated, invited her to share the stage in the “Chez Bola” of the Monseigneur Restaurant, where she made her debut a month later.

Thirty days later, in the newspaper Revolución, this commentary appeared: “since the reopening of the Monseigneur-Chez Bola, without knowing how, the question comes up in all the conversations: ‘Did you already hear Teresita sing?’, if the persons answer no, they will respond: ‘Well, you have to hear her, she’s marvellous!’ Enthusiastic requests of that type were a daily event ever since Teresita, with the amazing tenderness of her sons…was presented to the patrons of the sumptuous restaurant on 21 and O. There…she lets her clear and warm voice be heard and it does not stay there, but rather goes out into Havana, spreading in the city’s air, until it resounds in the ears of her admirers, which are already a grand legion.”

But the stage in the Monseigneur was also ephemeral. This was explained by Teresita: “I did not quit from the Monseigneur, I was kicked out. The person who managed the restaurant called me one day to tell me: ‘We have to take you out because Bola no longer wants you.’ I think that the very public contributed to this, because I remember one night in which Enrique Santiesteban arrived and he asked: ‘Who’s singing today?’ And since it was not my turn that night, he left. Not because I was better than Bola, because he was the greatest, but because of the novelty. And that happened other times. At the time Bola was also travelling a lot and now that I have been able to live that experience I know what awaits people who go abroad, because a host of lowly passions is formed as well as piranhas…. Bola was very generous with his friends and there were people at work who thought I was benefitting with his presents. That aroused envy and they made my life so difficult that they resorted to lies. Bola did not participate personally in that farewell, but it did hurt me because I still love him a great deal.”

However, a few metres from the luxurious restaurant, the singer-songwriter found a place and made it hers. Without the glamour of the Monseigneur, but having great charm, El Coctel, on 23 and N, was a gathering open to poetry, song and friendship, with an unequalled host who did not sing the usual songs of the clubs, but rather her own compositions: from a poem put to music to a song for children.

Being the animator of a club located in the very centre of La Rampa in its years of greatest mayhem contributed to giving a dimension to the fame of Teresita Fernández, which continued to grow, in that second half of the 1960s, boosted by her presentations in numerous scenarios of acceptability. Though no artistic prestige was enough to counteract that disaster that came during the following decade, but which was already rearing its head in the late 1960s, as Teresita herself recalls: “Only a few days had gone by, after I left El Coctel, when all the cabarets and nightspots of the capital were closed and I was sent to the Cordón de La Habana to plant coffee.”

The darkness that covered the island’s cultural policy in the 1970s arrived in the following chapter; that black mantle that silenced Teresita’s voice for four years. Her public reappearance in October 1974 opened a new page in her legend: the Lenin Park gathering, another magic space where she remained until 1991, a site to the south of Havana which on Sundays was attended by persons of all ages and professions to exchange poems, songs, conversations, life stories.

Starting the 1980s, Teresita Fernández travelled through the Americas and Europe, she received tributes and important prizes, published a part of her songs and her poems and consolidated her popularity in the world children’s songs, where she was boxed, forgetting a bit about everything else she had done.

Because while it’s true that her creations for children have enjoyed the highest esteem for many years and that some of the characters of those songs – like the cat Vinagrito – have reached the category of icons, the work of Teresita Fernández should be valued taking into account the contribution she made to Cuban culture in the last 50 years, without ruling out her diverse contributions, without ignoring either that she received much less than what she gave us. (2013)

1 Regarding this, see: Alicia Elizundia Ramírez: Yo soy una maestra que canta (I am a teacher who sings), Unión publishers, Havana, 2001, a book where Teresita Fernández relates her memoirs. All the following quotes come from this book.

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