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Hernández, Victoria

Source:
Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography
Author(s):
Elena MartínezElena Martínez

Hernández, Victoria (1897–1998), Latin music entrepreneur, 

was born on 23 March 1897 in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to José Miguel Rosa Espinoza, a tabaquero (tobacco worker), and María Hernández Medina. Aguadilla is called “el pueblo donde hasta las piedras cantan (the town where even the rocks sing), and Hernández came from a musical family. Thanks to her grandmother, Cristiana (Tata) Medina, who raised and encouraged them, and her father, who played guitar and sang, she and her siblings (Rafael, Jesús, and Rosa Elvira) all became accomplished musicians. Victoria became a gifted violinist, cellist, and pianist, and Rafael would become Latin America’s most popular composer.

In 1919, when Rafael and Jesús were discharged from the US military following World War I (they had been members of the legendary James Reese Europe’s 369th Regimental Army Band, which is credited as bringing early proto-jazz to France), Rafael, Victoria, and other family members moved to New York City. Like many other female Puerto Rican migrants to the mainland, Victoria worked as a seamstress in a factory and also had side jobs teaching embroidery.

In 1927 Victoria and her brothers bought a storefront for five hundred dollars and opened Almacenes Hernández, (aka Hernández Music Store) in East Harlem at 1735 Madison Avenue. The store sold 78 rpm records, guitars, and popular pianola rolls. In the back of the store, she supplemented the family’s income by giving piano lessons to local youth. Her students included two young neighborhood boys, Ernest Anthony “Tito” Puente and Joe “Loco” Esteves, who would later become well-known musicians. According to Hernández, it was the first Puerto Rican–owned music store in New York City. She soon moved to a larger store at 1724 Madison Avenue to accommodate her growing business. Music stores such as Hernández’s were significant business ventures for new migrants arriving in New York. They provided a place where new arrivals could hear the music of their homeland, while at the same time they created economic benefits by providing jobs for musicians, thus forming an integral part of the economic infrastructure of the community.

The store helped support Hernández’s family and gave her brother Rafael time to write the music that would help make him the most prolific and well-known Latin American composer. Though an accomplished musician herself, she dedicated herself to the business side of the industry. A respectable woman could not be a working musician during that era. However, Hernández was unique in that she was one of approximately sixteen women, or 0.5 percent of the Puerto Rican female migrant population, who supervised or owned their own businesses in the mid-1920s, according to the historian Virginia Sánchez Korrol (1983).

In addition to running Almacenes Hernández, Victoria Hernández served as a manager for Rafael, organizing tours and recording dates for his group, Cuarteto Victoria, which he formed in 1932 and named in her honor. Her role as her brother’s booking agent extended to a larger role in New York City’s emerging Latin music scene. She would help the major record labels such as Victor and Decca find instrumentalists they needed for recording sessions, and even some of the most well-known bandleaders, such as Xavier Cugat, would contact her looking for musicians and music. Musicians bestowed on her the sobriquet La Madrina (The Godmother). In the same year she bought the store, Hernández started a record label called Hispano, one of the first Puerto Rican-owned labels. Although the recordings sold well, she was forced to close the label when her bank went bankrupt at the start of the Great Depression of 1929.

On 15 November 1939, Victoria and Rafael Hernández sold Almacenes Hernández to Luis Cuevas, from Puerto Rico, who owned the Verne record label. According to the bill of sale, Cuevas paid one dollar for the store at 1724 Madison Avenue. Rafael then went to live in Mexico City, where he participated in the thriving Latin music scene. Victoria followed and tried, unsuccessfully, to start a business. In 1941 she moved back to New York, settling in the Bronx and opening another music store, at 786 Prospect Avenue, on the bottom floor of the Manhanset Building, where she also resided. Her new store featured sheet music, records, and instruments on one side, and dresses on the other. A 1943 ad for the store called the establishment Casa de Música, and also listed the items it carried: trajes (suits), sombreros (hats), novedades para damas (latest arrivals for women), discos (records), and música impresa (sheet music). Though Rafael and Victoria were both listed as proprietors, it is most likely that Victoria managed the store, because Rafael lived on and off throughout the 1930s, and for most of the 1940s, in Mexico. She later renamed the store Casa Hernández.

When Rafael died, in 1965, Victoria lost interest in the business and turned over the management of the store to her friend Johnny Cabán. She found companionship with another Puerto Rican entrepreneur, Gabriel Oller, who had opened the Spanish Music Center in East Harlem in 1934. In 1969 Victoria sold the store to the well-known Puerto Rican composer and musician Miguel Angel “Mike” Amadeo, and her legacy continues there today. Mike renamed the store Casa Amadeo, antigua Casa Hernández, to honor Victoria and her brother. It is the longest continually run music store in New York City, and the building housing the store was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

Victoria Hernández died on 11 April 1998 in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, and was buried in her brother’s tomb in the Old San Juan cemetery, Cementerio Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis.

[See also Amadeo, Miguel Ángel and Hernández, Ramona.]

Bibliography

Alvarez, Bartolo. Interview with the author, 1 January 2001.Find this resource:

    Glasser, Ruth. My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities, 1917–1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.Find this resource:

      Puerto Rican Employees Association Souvenir Journal, 20 March 1943. Jesús Colón Collection, Box 22, Folder 7. Center for Puerto Rican Studies Archive, Hunter College, CUNY.Find this resource:

        Sánchez Korrol, Virginia. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.Find this resource:

          Elena Martínez