Tuesday, January 10, 2012

HOLA Legends: Ruth Fernández

Ruth Fernández Cortada (1919 – 2012) was a Puerto Rican contralto and a member of the Puerto Rican Senate. According to the "Comisiones Nacionales para la Celebración del Quinto Centenario" (National Commission for the Celebration of the Fifth Centennial), she is said to be one of three artists whose contributions have helped unite Latin America. The other two artists named were Libertad Lamarque from Argentina and Pedro Vargas from Mexico.

She was born on May 23, 1919 in the Bélgica sector of barrio Cuarto in Ponce, Puerto Rico to Santiago Fernández and Rosa María Cortada. Her mother died when she was three years old and she was raised along with her four other siblings by her grandmother. She received her primary and secondary education in her hometown. As a child she learned to play the piano and was very active in her school and community's activities. In high school she organized her own musical group. She became a professional singer at the age of 14 when she would go to the local radio stations, WPRP and WPAB, and sing for 50 cents a day, in 1935. She was heard by Mingo, a bandleader of a locally popular band and was hired. She then performed in nightclubs, dances and casinos.

She started to gain popularity and in 1941, at age 22, she was signed by Columbia Records with whom she recorded her first hit song, "Cuando Vuelvas" ("When You Return"), a theme written by Myrta Silva. At her first appearance in New York at The Latin Theater, the master of ceremonies, Héctor del Villar, introduced her as "El Alma de Puerto Rico hecha canción" (The Soul of Puerto Rico made into song). That nickname or introduction was to stay with her forever.

When Fernández returned to the island, she enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico with the intention of becoming a social worker. However, she once again joined Mingo and his band, the "Whoopee Kids," and toured with them throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America.

She was the very first successful Afro-Puerto Rican female singer, and as such, she broke color barriers and stereotypes. On one occasion the Mingo band was contracted to perform in the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. The director of the orchestra told her that according to the hotel's rules, she had to enter through the kitchen door like all other black musicians (a de facto integration rule, illegal at the time in Puerto Rico, but still in place at the time out of concern for American patrons of the hotel). She, however, did not follow the instructions and entered through the main entrance. She went on stage and performed before the astonished audience. During World War II and the Korean War, she traveled overseas to entertain the soldiers of Hispanic descent.

When she returned to Puerto Rico, she decided to go solo. In 1954, at age 41, she participated in the first televised musical television show in the history of Puerto Rico, "El Show Libby's." She also had many other "firsts": she was the first woman to sing in a Puerto Rican orchestra; the first Puerto Rican woman to sing "popular" music at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City; the first Latina singer of romantic music to sing in the Scandinavian countries (with some notable success in Norway), and the first Latina to record with a North American band. She recorded an album with the Orquesta Panamericana (under the direction of Lito Peña), which included what has since become a Puerto Rican folk standard, the bomba song "(La Bomba) ¡Ay, qué rica es!"

Her performances in the United States were transmitted coast to coast under her contract with the CBS radio network. She also performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. Among the many countries in which she has performed are Italy, France, Spain, Norway, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama and Cuba.

She also appeared in two Spanish-language films (Frente al destino in 1964 and Caña brava in 1966), and has a notable role in the Afro-Puerto Rican documentary Raíces, produced by the Banco popular de Puerto Rico.

She was twice married; both marriages ended in divorce. One of her husbands was Tito Henríquez, another popular Puerto Rican singer. Occasionally, they would sing duets together, even after their divorce. Composer Rafael Hernández Marín considered their duo rendition of his song "Venus" the definitive version of the song.

She had no children of her own; because of her public acknowledgement of her nephews and nieces, and because of her philantrophic work with children, many Puerto Ricans nicknamed her "Titi Ruth" (Auntie Ruth), a term popularized by Puerto Rican comedian José Miguel Agrelot.

She always stressed the positive in her life and in her interaction with people. Her most often repeated quote is "¡Arriba, corazones!" ("Hearts, go up!"). Her signature song is "Gracias, Mundo" ("Thank you, World"), which, in a way similar to Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World," in that it depicts the planet in a very optimistic way. On many occasions, particularly at charity telethons, she would be asked to sing the song as a closer, which she would do willingly.

Among the many awards and recognitions which have been bestowed upon her are:

  • The Medal of Vasco Núñez de Balboa from Panama;
  • The Order of Francisco de Miranda from Venezuela;
  • an Honorary Doctorate from the World University and
  • the declaration of a "Ruth Fernández Day" in the cities of Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, and in Puerto Rico.

In 1963, Pablo Casals wrote and dedicated the song "Ven a Mi" ("Come to Me") to her. In her hometown of Ponce, she is recognized as one of Ponce greatest musicians at the Park of the Illustrious Ponce Citizens. In 1985, she was given a tribute in recognition of the 50 years which she has dedicated to the artistic world with the participation of Mario Moreno "Cantinflas", Libertad Lamarque, Pedro Vargas, Olga Guillot and many others. She was also named by Quincentennial commission as one of the three Latin American artists who have contributed the most in uniting Latin America.

In 2000, she was paid a tribute in the Antonio Paoli Hall of the Luis A. Ferré Center for the Performing Arts in Puerto Rico. During the tribute she was proclaimed "The Singer of the Century" of Puerto Rico.

She was elected into the Senate of Puerto Rico, representing the district of Ponce as a member of the Partido Popular de Puerto Rico (Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico). As a legislator, shesought many reforms and better working conditions for the artistic class. She also sought after the interests of Puerto Ricans living in the United States; a tenement in The Bronx, New York, U.S.A. is named after her, Ruth Fernández Apartments. In 1990, she was selected by Imagen magazine as one the ten most powerful women in Puerto Rico.

At one time, she led the House of the Puerto Rican Artists organization. Her controversial tenure, spanning over a decade, ended with the granting of $500,000 to an actor's collective, with which they purchased the Teatro Coribantes, near San Juan's financial district (Hato Rey).

She retired from all activities in the 2000s. She acknowledged suffering from Alzheimer's disease, but 2010 newspaper interviews depicted her as having occasional moments of (very candid) lucidity. She died on January 9, 2012 in San Juan, Puerto Rico of a septic shock and pneumonia.

QEPD / RIP Ruth Fernández Cortada "Titi Ruth"

Singing "Gracias Mundo"

Singing "Venus" with Tito Henríquez

Singing "En mi viejo San Juan" with Rocío Jurado

In character as Dolores Santa Cruz singing "Po po po" (from the zarzuela Cecilia Valdés)

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