Boricua Pioneer Ana Otero: “The Pianist of America”

Mention the name Ana Otero to the average person in Puerto Rico or the States. More than likely, you will draw a blank. In her brief but spectacular life she was a prodigy, an internationally renowned virtuoso, composer, arranger, musical director, educator, activist, and patriot. Today, with rare exceptions, she is mostly forgotten.

HUMACAO · THE EARLY YEARS

Ana “Anita” Otero Hernández was born in the villa of Humacao, Puerto Rico on July 24, 1861, to Don Ignacio Otero y Aquilina and Doña Carmen Hernández Ramos. She was one of sixteen siblings (twelve males, six females) and one of eight who survived. According to her mother’s unpublished memoirs “There were neither vaccines nor the magic of antibiotics and while our house and surroundings were impeccable, water, the most precious liquid in nature was not always safe. Our only hope was to pray that the child would at least reach the age where survival could be most certain.”

Don Ignacio and Doña Carmen were doting parents. Also, the children grew up in a veritable, “school of fine arts.” Don Ignacio was multi-talented: an artisan who sculpted in ivory and wood, a pianist, educator, writer, theater director, and printer. Also, in 1872 he set up Humacao’s first printing press and published the newspaper “Juan Bobo.” Don Ignacio is the author of the music instruction book Rudimentos de Música Escritos Expresamente Para Niños (Rudiments of Music Expressly Written for Children). He also brought the first piano, which he tuned to perfection as well as the first sewing machine to Humacao. 

Rudimentos de Música Escritos Expresamente Para Niños
Rudiments of Music Expressly Written for Children

Doña Carmen was an educated woman and an avid reader. When the couple wed on December 28, 1847, he was thirty-three, she sixteen. According to Doña Carmen, “While you may think otherwise, I was not young at 16, quite the contrary. I was a young woman following the natural steps of wife and then mother. In my time there was no time to go through a period of consideration. One just went through the natural change from child to adult without a moment to complain.”

According to educator, writer and neighbor, Antonia Sáez, the Otero house was located on the site that once occupied The Oriente Theater (today it houses a coffee shop and a diner). Comfortable and spacious, it housed a printing press and the family residence. Artists who passed through Humacao were welcome and impromptu concerts, comedies and zarzuelas were common.

The Otero’s homeschooled the children until they reached the equivalent of high school age—a necessity as there were few schools for girls and many were not encouraged to further their education. Also, under the tutelage of Don Ignacio and several local instructors, the children grew into accomplished instrumentalists, vocalists, and educators. Felipe was a pianist, composer; Carmen, a soprano; Tomás was a pianist, double bassist, and piano tuner; Pepa, Julia, and Modesta were pianists and dedicated teachers.

At an early age, it was apparent Ana was a prodigy. According to her sister Julia, Ana gave piano lessons to the neighbor’s children and participated in benefit concerts at the Otero Theater for the Church and other charitable organizations. According to Doña Carmen, “Those were the years when she morphed from a young woman to an exceptional pianist.”

ANA EMERGES

For the most part, the Spanish Government did not support local talent. In lieu of that, the Otero’s formed a musical troupe made up of Ana’s brothers and sisters and launched an island-wide tour to raise funds for Ana’s travel expenses and education through performances and ticket sales. From February 1886 to April 1887, the family toured the island, making stops in Humacao, Arecibo, Guayama, Ponce, Mayagüez, San Juan, San Germán, Yauco, and Manatí. Also, many supporters helped the family raise funds.

On February 14, 1866, at the Villa de Humacao Theater, Ana led the zarzuela Choza y Palacio and participated in a program consisting of danzas, guarachas, mazurkas, and waltzes. According to the newspaper, El Agente, “Miss Otero occupied the Director’s chair, and admirably directed the zarzuela. It is the first time in our theater that a lady plays the role of the master director.” “Ana was the first woman to conduct an orchestra in Humacao,” says Ana’s grand-nephew and custodian Robur Otero. “Also, on several occasions, conductors yielded the command of the orchestra and Anita led a zarzuela and other musical pieces. For example, Maestro Juan Morel Campos gave her the baton in Ponce and Julio Andino handed her the baton in San Juan. She also conducted in San German and Mayaguez.”

Otero Family: (Left to Right): Ana, Tomas, Pepa, Beatrice, Modesta, Felipe and Julia.
Otero Family: (Left to Right): Ana, Tomas, Pepa, Beatrice, Modesta, Felipe and Julia.

PARIS AND BEYOND

In May of that year, Ana and her brother Felipe embarked on the steamship Hernán Cortés bound for Paris by way of Barcelona, Spain. The voyage gave Ana the opportunity to perform for the passengers and crew and to participate in a benefit concert for the Shipwreck Rescue Society. An unnamed eye-witness wrote: “To those who doubt the existence of a mermaid, they are in error; I have seen one. I have heard it; she did not sing, but her hands tore into the piano, which emitted moans, smiles, whispers, and humor. Ana Otero is an elegant mermaid and a star in the sky of Puerto Rico. She was our good angel during the crossing.”

To Ana and Felipe’s surprise, when they arrived in Barcelona they were embraced by the city’s Puerto Rican community. Also, the medical student Manuel Martínez Rosselló arranged for Ana to perform a benefit concert at the Dorado Theater for the Shelter for The Society of Spanish Writers and Artists. As fate had it, the French flutist Joseph Pujol attended. Afterward, Ana requested a private audience with the maestro and sight-read and performed his composition, El Fausto. Pujol was so impressed he declared Ana “a most accomplished pianist,” and “an excellent candidate for the Paris Conservatory.”

Life in Paris was challenging. Ana and Felipe had to master the language, adapt to the frigid weather and, survive on a modest budget. Also, Ana underwent The Paris Conservatory’s rigorous acceptance process, which included competing against international students and few vacancies. In the end, Ana passed muster but due to a lack of vacancies, she was put on a waiting list. Because of her exceptional abilities, she was allowed to study with the French pianist, composer, Henry Fissot and Professor Teaudon one day per week. Roughly one year later, Ana began her formal studies in earnest.  

There is little to no information about Ana’s day-to-day activities at the Conservatory however at the end of the first year, she and Felipe ran out of money and temporarily relocated to Barcelona, where they moved in with their sister Carmen Otero de Gálvez, and her husband, Julio Gálvez Canizares, a Spanish officer she met and married in Puerto Rico. It’s worth noting, their son, Santiago Gálvez Otero, was the premiere violinist of the Madrid Conservatory of Barcelona. Regrettably, he died young. 

Unbeknownst to Ana, her Puerto Rican compatriots followed her exploits closely. When they learned she and Felipe were struggling financially, they formed a group under the leadership of the educator, suffragist, and co-founder of the University of Puerto Rico, Ana Roqué de Duprey. Also, the group created the magazine Euterpe, whose sole purpose was to publicize Ana’s exploits and raise money for her education. The publication was short-lived but it succeeded in raising enough money for Ana to complete her education. 

In the summer of 1888, Barcelona hosted a Universal Exposition. There, Ana met and performed for the renowned Spanish pianist, conductor Isaac Albéniz. “I take great satisfaction in predicting a bright future for the Señorita Ana Otero,” said he. “Puerto Rico should be proud to count her among its compatriots.” 

Also, when Ana returned to Paris, she performed for the renowned Conservatory Professor, Antoine Francois Marmontel, whose comments regarding her performance appeared in several newspapers. Ana developed a relationship with the maestro and he enthusiastically encouraged her to perform and tour Europe. 

On April 29, 1889, Ana performed at Madrid’s Salle Pleyel Hall and received glowing reviews. Marmontel, who attended the performance, wrote, “She gave evidence of a singular touch and of extraordinary ability in her style of rendering the Polonaise of Chopin, the romantic pieces of Schumann and the Flying Dutchman of Wagner-Liszt. The young pianist was recalled several times and obtained a most enthusiastic success.” Also, in attendance was the Puerto Rican physician and independence advocate, Ramón Emeterio Betances, who was living in Paris in exile, and the Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío, who created the moniker: “Pianist of America.” 

Details on Ana’s time at the Paris Conservatory are sketchy but according to her mother’s memoirs, she graduated on April 20, 1889.

In November of that year, she returned to Barcelona and performed several concerts organized by Casa Erard (Erard Hall). “Ana Otero was one of those entertainments which leave sweet recollections for a long time. It was sufficient for Mlle. Otero to run her fingers over the keys of the piano to demonstrate her as a pianist of a brilliant future. A perfect execution, a correct phrasing in the highest degree, an exquisite doigte (finger placement) application of irreproachable and extensive knowledge, a perfect acquaintance of the pedal, all these she possesses.” (El Diluvio 1889).

Celebración Centenario 1961 - Julia Otero al Centro
Ana Otero’s Centenary Celebration – 1961 – Julia Otero wearing a black dress

ANA AND FELIPE RETURN TO PUERTO RICO

On January 23, 1890, Ana and Felipe boarded the steamship, Veracruz bound for Puerto Rico. According to newspapers and eyewitness accounts, the siblings received a warm welcome. That evening they stayed at San Juan’s Hotel Boneta where Casimiro Duchesne and his 20-piece orchestra serenaded Ana. The following day they traveled to Humacao for a family reunion. Shortly after that, Ana toured Yabucoa, Las Piedras, Ponce, Aguadilla, Arecibo, Utuado, Cayey, and San Juan. Interestingly, after performing for some of the most discriminating audiences in Europe, performing in front of her compatriots gave Ana the jitters. The following year Ana toured Latin America and the Caribbean, making stops in Venezuela (Caracas, Carabobo, Acarigua, Valencia, Maracaibo, Puerto Cabello, Colombia (Cartagena, Barranquilla), Costa Rica (San José), and Curacao. 

NEW YORK · LA BORINQUEÑA

At the end of the 19th century, Felipe went to live with his sister on 14th Street in New York City, an artistic hub in every sense,” wrote the Otero family historian Carmen Otero-McCulloch. “The siblings dedicated themselves to teaching, performing, writing music, and participated in meetings with the Cuban poet, philosopher, essayist, journalist, professor, and independence advocate, José Martí. The group had high regard for Ana, and Martí’s newspaper, Patria, frequently publicized her artistic achievements.” 

As the story goes, during a meeting with the Cuban patriots, they asked Ana to perform and she played the Puerto Rican anthem, La Borinqueña. Afterward, she received a warm ovation and shouts of “Viva Puerto Rico y Cuba Libre!” Also, Martí commissioned Ana to arrange the anthem for the leaders of the Puerto Rican Committee and the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York City and Chicago. According to historian Richard Blondet, Ana, “was highly adept at arranging and as most arrangers can tell you, they are unheralded. Or, at least composers get more ‘shine.’ This is why most people have no idea that she arranged La Borinqueña,’ our Puerto Rican national anthem.” Also, during her stay in New York Ana endorsed the prestigious piano manufacturer, Chickering & Sons, and taught piano to make ends meet. When Ana and Felipe received news Ignacio was gravely ill, they immediately set sail for Puerto Rico. Don Ignacio died on November 6, 1894. 

In 1896, shortly after Don Ignacio’s death, Ana and her sisters Josefa, Modesta, and Julia moved to San Juan and founded a Music Academy at Calle Fortaleza #37. Also, in 1897, with the aid of Doña Matilde de León de Marín, they received an annual subsidy of $1500.00 from the Provincial (Spanish) government, which stipulated the money was to be used to teach “twelve underprivileged girls.”

In an open letter to the public, Ana wrote: “This October, the Academy (Academia del Piano), at Calle Cruz #10, will open under my direction. With the elements, we have gathered for the success of the school; women will acquire musical training. Some time ago, we conceived establishing an academy in Puerto Rico that rivals the music schools in Europe. But we could not have achieved our goal without the help of Mrs. Doña Matilde de León de Marín, who stood behind the endeavor as (Spain’s) Provincial Council attempted to subvert us. Without her support, the Academy would not be possible. Thanks to the help, we can offer the Academy and the island, a modern teaching center, which stands for progress, enhance women, and a powerful medium of culture and perfection. We are confident the people will help with the project we undertake today. The Academy will open on October 1 (1897). I hope it will be beneficial to the country and the progress of the arts.”

In anticipation of the Spanish-American War and the imminent bombardment of San Juan, Ana and her sisters were forced to close the academy and return to Humacao. On May 12, 1898, Doña Carmen wrote, “Today the Yankees have begun to bomb the City starting at 5 AM. The bombing continued until 18:00 AM (6 PM). This is a sad and deadly day for the peaceful inhabitants of this island. As a result of the declaration of war and expecting the bombardment, we had left Capital city on the 23rd of April having to abandon the Music Academy which perhaps may never open again.” After the war, Ana returned to San Juan and founded a music academy on Tanca Street but for reasons unknown, it was short-lived. Some of her notable students include Carmen Bélen Barbosa Sánchez, Alicia Sicardó Jiménez, “Monsita” Ferrer Otero, and Carmen Sanabria von Ellinger Figueroa among others.  

PREMATURE DEATH

Ana died on April 4, 1905. According to chronicler Bernardo Vega, she was in poor health for the better part of her life. Also, during her last years, she suffered from a condition that prevented her from playing the piano with both hands. According to Antonia Sáez, “The last impression I have of Anita is her sitting at the piano exercising one-handed works since the other was immobilized by the paralysis.” Though it appears Ana suffered a stroke, no one really knows. According to her death certificate, the cause of death was mitral insufficiency, a heart disease where the mitral valve fails to close properly as the heart pumps out blood.

The funeral was covered widely by the local and international press. In Humacao, her family, friends, students, and disciples filled the mortuary. Three priests officiated the mass, which featured the music of the classical composer Luigi Cherubini, known for composing operas and sacred music. Ana’s remains are buried in the Cementerio Civil de Humacao (Eusebio López Ramírez), next to her sister, Modesta.

Ana Otero’s posthumous note in San Juan’s newspaper La Correspondencia

ANA’S IMPACT

Ana and her sisters were dedicated educators. Also, many of their protégé’s became teachers, and several created dynasties. Case in point, the pianist Carmen Sanabia Von Ellinger married the clarinetist, flutist, contrabass player, composer, and orchestra director Jesus Figueroa Iriarte. Together, they created an internationally renowned dynasty that spans five generations. Other alumni include Carmen Belen Barbosa Sanchez, Rosita Galinanes, Mercedes Sanabia Von Ellinger, Alicia Sicardo and Jimenez.

LACK OF RECOGNITION

Ana’s artistic credentials were impeccable, she was internationally renowned and shattered glass ceilings. Why, with rare exceptions, is she mostly forgotten? Aside from the plight of women in general, who lived and worked in a male-dominated society other reasons include: Ana died young. Also, she spent the better part of her career studying and performing abroad. After her father died, she returned to Puerto Rico and dedicated her life to the music academy and teaching. Also, in the 1950s some of Ana’s documents, memorabilia, etc. were destroyed and damaged in a flood. Ana never married or had children and the majority of articles, essays, poetry about her are written and published in Spanish. The fact that she accomplished as much as she did, despite the odds, is astonishing!  

Today, the Humacao’s Escuela Especializada de Bellas Artes and a street in the municipality of Río Piedras bear Ana’s name. Also, her portrait holds a special place at San Juan’s prestigious Ateneo, where they celebrate her birthday annually. During her lifetime she was the object of many poems including Oyendala (José A. Machiavelo), Luz y Bomba (Fidela M. De Rodríguez), and Después de Oírla (Juan Escudero Miranda) among others. 

In 2011, on the 150th anniversary of Ana’s birth, the production (CD) Camerata Ana Otero Hernández – Antologia de Compositores Humacaeños paid tribute to Ana and acknowledged some of Humacao’s most esteemed figures and teachers including Juan Peña Reyes, Luis Mojica Sandoz, Ramón Favery Nieves, Francisco “Paco” Duclerc Fovisset, José “Cheo” Ríos Pérez, Raúl Rodríguez Morales, Germán Peña Plaza, and superb liner-notes and direction by Mariano Rodríguez López. 

Camerata Ana Otero Hernández – Antología de Compositores Humacaeños

ANA · THE WOMAN

Life-long friend, Antonia Sáez sums up Ana, the woman: “Anita was a beautiful, elegant, majestic woman, with no airs or artifice. Her face did not reveal stubbornness, but a proper austerity. Her character can be summed up in a few words: Integrity of purpose and sobriety of words; however, she spoke out when the cause was just. Ana was a cultivated intellectual who spoke several languages. Also, she was deeply concerned about the fate of Puerto Rico. She loved her art and sacrificed everything for her ideals.” 

POST-SCRIPT

In December 2019, I traveled to Puerto Rico and visited Ana’s gravesite in Humacao’s “Old Cemetery.” It was my way of paying my respects, connecting with Ana’s spirit, and thanking the Otero family for their confidence and support. Particularly Ana’s grand-nephew Robur Otero and the family historian, writer Carmen Ferrer-Otero (McCulloch), whose unpublished manuscripts are the basis for this article.

Ana Otero’s gravesite in Humacao’s Old Cemetery

REFERENCES

  • Blondet, Richard – La Blonde Archives
  • Ferrera, Carmen Otero – Otero Family History (unpublished)
  • Otero, Robur – Custodian, Otero Family Memorabilia (mostly related to Ana Otero
  • Otero, Ana Elba Pérez – Author, Otero Family History (unpublished)
  • Sáez, Antonia – Caminos y Recuerdos (Instituto De Cultura Puertorriquena, 1967)
  • Revista Musical Puertorriqueña
    Tras Los Pasos y la Musica de Ana Otero Hernández (No. 2, Julio-Diciembre 1987)
  • Revista del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña
    Crónica Sobre Una Gira Artística de Anita Otero Hernández – Díaz, Edgar (No. 92, 93 – Abril-Septiembre 1986)
  • Revista del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña En El Centenario de Ana Otero Hernández (No. 11, Julio-Septiembre, 1961)

I wish to express my gratitude to the Otero Family. Particularly, Robur Otero, Custodian of the Otero Family Memorabilia and Historian, Writer, Carmen Otero McCulloch.

© 2020 Tomas Peña
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tomas Peña
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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