Illustration: Roman Alsina
Illustration: Roman Alsina

Rumberas from Matanzas: iconic women through history and tradition

12 minutos / Roxana Coz

23.03.2020 / Articles

Walking the neighborhoods of Simpson and La Marina, we go through part of the history of the women who gave life to the rumba in Matanzas. In currently abandoned houses, with old brick facades, the rumberas (in Spanish, women who plays rumba) were the protagonists of a cultural practice that accompanied the saint's birthday celebrations, the afternoon gatherings after doing housework or the Blue Team parade in the first hours of the new year. 

En los diversos espacios del entorno social y familiar las rumberas matanceras delinearon la rumba a tal punto que hasta nuestros días llegan sus pasos de baile y el eco de sus cantos, como una rica herencia guardada por hijas y nietas. Esa fuerte energía ancestral femenina fue la que inspiró una agrupación única de su tipo en Cuba: la Asociación de Mujeres Rumberas de Matanzas (AMR) Estanislá Luna y Yeya Calle, la cual creada el 13 de octubre de 2013 es un medio imprescindible para la preservación de la memoria histórica y el legado cultural de las rumberas desde finales del siglo XIX.

Who were those women who since then, inside their homes, in lots and parties, raised their voices and waved their skirts in the most genuine expression of rumba? This text presents only a brief overview of those paradigmatic figures that remain in the popular imagination of the city and live in the collective memory of the Association of Rumberas Women.

The Calle-Mesa family

The history of this family begins with the figure of Anselmo Calle, one of the first linked to the origin of the rumba in Matanzas. From him it is known that he was the organizer of the rumba choir La Lirita and a famous player, singer and dancer of the Yambú style. His great-great-granddaughters describe him as an "seductive old man" who maintained a stable and lasting relationship with two women at the same time. From both unions a pleiad of rumberas was born who, without any rivalry, recognized themselves as sisters, aware of the father's relationship with their respective mothers. 

De la unión entre Anselmo Calle y Joaquina Domínguez nacen Manuela, Amadita, Antonina y Regla Calle. De esta última nace Maximina Calle, quien da a luz a Bárbara Jiménez Calle, conocida por Bárbara Calle, madre de Álida  y Miriam Leicea, actuales integrantes de la AMR.

From the union between Anselmo Calle and Juana Mesa, on the other hand, Inés Mesa was born, who would then maintain the mother's last name. Two highly significant figures are born from Inés Mesa for the origin and development of the Guaguancó Matancero group, later known as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas: Juan and Julián Mesa.

This family became a fundamental focus of rumba in the city of Matanzas. The members who achieved the greatest popularity in professional groups, owe much to the inspiration and improvisation of their predecessors. In the transmission of songs and the construction of that rich sound skein, maternal ties were a link of force majeure. Creativity found fertile ground in the names of these women, seeds of a local tradition.

De Regla ( Yeya ) Calle is only known to have been born one day in 1870 and died in 1956, at the age of 86. She organized many rumbas and was the host of the main rumba center in Simpson, where Esteban Vega (Chachá), Hortensio Alfonso (Virulilla), Esteban Lantrí (Saldiguera) and Félix Campos passed. Around it also gathered an important circle of rumberas such as Estanislá Luna (Tani), Liduvina Miró and Flora Heredia.

As a housewife she was in the care of the grandchildren, who were inserted daily into the rumba through the environment that their grandmother fostered. Miriam, one of her granddaughters, remembers that in the afternoons, when she returned from school, they could find a rumba with her grandmother's songs, among which the jarana ones stood out, which could be accompanied by the clave that she played with two spoons.

Barbarita Calle. Foto: Cortesía de Roxana Coz,

Barbarita Calle. Foto: Cortesía de Roxana Coz.

Yeya Calle assumed the upbringing of her granddaughter Barbarita Calle when the mother passed away. Her house, in the Ayuntamiento between Daoíz and Velarde, was the headquarters of the rumba on countless occasions. She even conditioned the living room of the house so that Los Muñequitos de Matanzas had a rehearsal room and could reorganize their artistic activity in the 1960s.

Barbarita was born on December 4, 1918 and 10 years later she was baptized, her great-aunt Manuela Calle was the godmother. She was distinguished by the skill of the dance movements and was recognized for the merit of never letting herself be "vaccinated", a gesture that defined whether or not you were a good dancer. In the improvised rumbas that were given in her house, where they took what was within their reach by instruments, many remember her with a couple of spoons marking the clave at the front door.

Barbarita Calle was a rumba girl who had no chance to study, but learned self-taught. It was only after the triumph of the Revolution that she was able to complete her secondary studies. Her death, on April 23, 1999, plunged the Matanzas rumba movement into deep mourning, reflected in the silence and pain that prevented a farewell party.

In the Calle-Mesa family the name of Inés is mentioned with the utmost respect. Her rumba songs, often created in collaboration with her son Julián, became part of the repertoire of Matanzas professional groups. 

Inés Mesa taught her children and grandchildren how to sing rumba. She was the one who formed his granddaughter Martha Mesa after being orphaned by his father at the age of nine, and as a natural part of her upbringing she bequeathed to her an entire arsenal of ancient rumbas. Martha still testifies to the songs created by her grandmother with Julián. Her father was inspired and took out the lyrics for a song; Inés helped him with the melody, taking as a reference the songs she knew from yesteryear, and likewise gave him others to be incorporated into the repertoire of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.

Inés María Mesa was born on December 21, 1883. Although she did not marry Martín Gómez, four children were born from their consensual union. In her descendants we find rumba musicians who have played and sung in first-rate professional rumba groups. Her sons Julián and Juan (Bosco) Mesa were founders of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and her grandsons Enrique and Pedro Mesa have worked in the Afrocuba groups in Matanzas and Los Matanceros, respectively.

Francisco Zamora (Minini), senior rumbero and director of the Afrocuba group in Matanzas, recognized the place that the Calle and Mesa sisters occupy in popular tradition. For him, “Yeya and Inés Mesa were the rumberas who sounded the most here […]. On holidays, at home, it was not necessary to look for anyone from the street to form the rumba. When people came, the rumba was already formed by them.”

"Here comes Tani!" Shouted the boys who were playing at Yeya's house. With her shoulders covered by her dark cape and her light body, despite the years she walked gracefully through the streets of her rumba friends. Among the jokes that the grandchildren made of her, she sang the occasional puya song, the one that only she could give away with her overflowing imagination.

Estanislá Luna. Photo: Courtesy of Roxana Coz.

Estanislá Luna. Photo: Courtesy of Roxana Coz.

Estanislá Luna, for her part, has been a significant figure in popular culture and, as far as we know, the longest-lived of the Matanzas rumba community, born on November 13, 1881. 

In the rumba she stood out for the yambú songs and the wealth of dance movements, which earned her a fame that attracted many of the most renowned rumba dancers, to the point that José Rosario Oviedo, the mythical Malanga, he arrived in the city of Matanzas with the interest of meeting her personally and accompanying her at the dance.

Within the rumba she was concerned that the intonation of the original song was respected, directing and rectifying the youngest in the celebrations. Her knowledge allowed her to be recognized as "the last queen of the Yambú from Matanzas." Thanks to the interview that Estanislá Luna gave to Reinaldo Peñalver and that Bohemia published under the title Rumbera Mayor, we know her ideas and the way she solved issues of gender and social position. Referring to Malanga's death, she comments: "[...] here in Matanzas we also mourned him... But my husband did not go to the funeral and I could not go if he did not go." This can be interpreted as the subordination of the woman to the decisions of the husband, even if her interests had been different.

Therefore, Estanislá was forced to deal with the patriarchal conceptions that imposed certain dominant behaviors of the time, but she managed that the marriage did not prevent her the enjoyment of singing and dancing the rumba, which occupied a foreground of interest in her life. In the same interview, when referring to the husband, she states:

“He did let me dance… He had to, because that was the condition I put in when we joined. I had many lovers and I put the same condition to all of them. I was born with the rumba inside. No one could take it from me. Whoever loved me had to accept that I danced.” 

The rumberas Álida and Miriam Leicea refer to the ingenious resources that Estanislá used to avoid letting herself be dominated or controlled by her husband, Martín Corona. She liked to share a conversation alone with her friends the same as a rumba; if Martin unexpectedly came to look for her, she —with the complicity of the others— would hide. Then they continued the rumba or the party, mocking the control of Martín or some other of her partners.

Estanisla demonstrated unusual strength and autonomy for women of her time often abused and undervalued by men whether in the physical or subjective sense. 

His death in 1987, at 106 years of age, was an event in Matanzas, and his funeral was one of the most popular. Through the provincial radio station Radio 26, the news was broadcast several times during the day, alluding to the fact that the rumba was in mourning because the "rumbera mayor", as she was known, had died. From her house to the cemetery, she was followed by the people of Matanzas, who led her as she had requested. Que canten las mujeres was the yambú of Estanislá Luna, which was sung over and over again.

According to the testimony of Álida Leicea: “We buried Estanislá with rumba, because she gave her songs and wanted them to sing to her. She died in Salamanca street, a block mediation before arriving in Zaragoza, and she was taken in a small box because she was very small. He was dancing until Dos de mayo, where he got into the car and then all danced and played for her all the way ”.  

In the cemetery, that January 9, 1987, the rumba continued until nightfall.

Liduvina Miró. Photo: Courtesy of Roxana Coz.

Liduvina Miró. Photo: Courtesy of Roxana Coz.

Other women also shared the passion for rumba and were important cultivators of the genre in Matanzas. Among them we can mention Liduvina Miró, who came from a large family of rumba people from Unión de Reyes, was the mother of Jesús Alfonso Miró —a quinto performer in Los Muñequitos de Matanzas— and Regla González Miró, who serves as coordinator of the current Association of Rumberas of Matanzas Estanislá Luna and Yeya Calle and the Rumba de Matanzas Theoretical and Practical Workshop.

Liduvina was born on April 13, 1935. She enjoyed the opportunity to play rumba and that is why she accompanied with a rumba any significant moment in her life, whether it was the birth or death of a close person. She is remembered for the peculiar way she had to dance, for her work in the Blue Band and for the way she participated in the street dance of the comparsas. The rumba was present until the last days of its existence and as it was their wish, the people of Matanzas said goodbye with this rhythm on March 9, 2015.  

Along with these older rumberas, the names or nicknames of Isabel Santiago, Yolanda Curbelo, Elvira Barani, Isabel Urrutia, María Sixta Pita, Flora Heredia, Andrea Gutiérrez, Lina Campos, Carlota Guada, Francisca Rodríguez ( Panchita Chamalapo), Dominga Bacallao, Moraima Lausurique, Ana Luisa Piloto ( Chacha ), Margarita Zequeira (Cundunga la China), Chichí Guasabá and Casilda Uldeber.

Fueron estos los nombres que convirtieron en arterias de vida las calles, los solares y entradas de las casas, defendiendo a todo pulmón el mensaje de Tani, con sus muchos cantos reunidos en uno solo: “Que canten las mujeres, que no les siento la voz…”. Entre guajacos —esa bebida preparada a base de aguardiente, azúcar y zumo de limón— y sopones se atrevieron a contar su existencia a golpe de rumba, hilvanaron sus tristezas y alegrías, unieron sus voces y vidas en celebraciones de barrios con olor a río. Estas mujeres fueron verdaderas guerreras que rodeadas por sus descendientes inculcaron amor a la tradición. Con la fuerza de una sacudida de hombros evitando el “vacunao", así hemos querido alejar el polvo y el olvido de autoras que hicieron, de la rumba matancera, una historia increíble. 

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Roxana Coz

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