Mention the name Ana Otero to the average person, in Puerto Rico or the States, and you are likely to draw a blank. Today, the prodigy and classically trained pianist, arranger, composer, and educator is mostly forgotten, but during her lifetime, she was among the earliest (some claim, the first) Puerto Rican female artist to achieve national and international stardom.
Ana “Anita” Hernandez Otero was born in the municipality of Humacao on July 24, 1861, where she and her siblings were born and raised in an artistic environment.
Her father, Don Ignacio Otero migrated to Puerto Rico from Venezuela, fleeing the wars of South American independence. A respected music teacher, he was the first in Humacao to own a grand piano and authored the first widely used music instruction book. Also, he founded the Teatro Otero, a music academy and organized musical presentations.
Don Ignacio married the vocalist and patron of the arts, Carmen Hernandez and she gave birth to a string of males and females, all of who studied under their father. Josefa, also known as “Pepa” and Modesta were pianists; Julia (the youngest) was a piano teacher; Tomas was a pianist, tenor and piano-tuner and Felipe was a pianist, singer, and composer.
When the time came for Ana to pursue her musical training, the family formed an ensemble, undertook an island-wide tour and successfully raised funds for her music education. At 25, she enrolled and was accepted at the prestigious Conservatory of Music in Paris, where she studied under the French pianist Antoine Francois Marmontel and Damien Tissot among others.
After the first year, Ana visited Barcelona and met and performed for the Spanish pianist virtuoso, conductor and composer, Isaac Albeniz. The maestro was so impressed with her talent, he gave her autographed charts with an inscription that read, “Congratulations to Puerto Rico for giving birth to such a gifted artist.”
After graduation, she remained in Europe and performed in Paris and Madrid to rave reviews.
In 1892 Ana arranged La Borinqueñea, which, sixty years later, was declared the national anthem for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico by Governor Luis Munoz Marin. With lyrics by, Félix Astol Artés, it made its debut in New York City before the leaders of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and the Puerto Rican Committee.
A local Arecibo newspaper describes a presentation in 1886: “When the show was finished, it was triumphantly brought home to the chords of the dance La Borinqueña, … in whose notes there is something of the melancholy that characterizes our guajiros (jíbaros).”
La Borinqueña is, arguably, one of the most well-known compositions associated with the Puerto Rican culture. Also, one of the most recorded in the history of Puerto Rican music. Yet, few know the significant role Ana played in its development and popularity.
Ana’s penchant for activism gained her the admiration of the poet, essayist, and patriot, José Marti, who sang her praises and wrote, “her expressive lyrics lifted hearts, and “she is faithful to the truth and the homeland.” Also, the maestro Albert Marmonte, who praised her “rare perfection,” and Ramón Emetrio Betances, who cited her as a “source of pride” for all Puerto Ricans. Moreover, she was the preferred accompanist for the Puerto Rican tenor, Antonio Paoli, known the world over as, “The King of Tenor and Tenor of Kings.”
In 1886-1887 Ana toured Puerto Rico, making stops in Ponce, Mayaguez, San German, Yauco, San Juan, Arecibo, Manati, Fajardo and Guayana, where she performed Danzas by Morel Campos, Mazurkas by the composer, Ramon Sarriera and works by Puerto Rico’s classical and renowned Danza composer, Manuel G. Tavárez (aka “The Chopin of America”).
From 1893 to 1896, Otero toured Caracas, San Jose of Costa Rica, Mexico, New York, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Thanks to the regional and local newspapers, such as La Correspondencia, El Anunciador, El Publicista, El Criterio, and El Clamor del Pais among others, there exist accounts of Otero’s life and career not found elsewhere.
An article dated 1904 states Otero underwent surgery (for an undisclosed illness) in the United States. The surgeon was Dr. Julio J. Henna, who ascended to the leadership of the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Party when Ramon Emetrio Betances died. Also, he was part of a contingent of Puerto Rican patriots who lobbied the U.S. Congress for Puerto Rican statehood and its sovereignty.
Another newspaper article dated 1887 mentions, Ana inherited her father’s music academy when he passed. Little is known about the academy, except for her instructing the underprivileged at no cost and its contribution to Humacao’s musical development.
On April 4, 1905, at 44, Ana Otero suffered a fatal stroke. Though not an official cause of death, the author, Fernando Callejo, attributes her death to excessive work and the demands of the public. Regrettably, she died before the recording industry came into existence, which may account for the lack of awareness about her life and music.
Ana’s funeral was widely covered by the press and attended by family, friends, colleagues, students, and dignitaries. Her coffin was adorned with flowers and a crucifix, made of lilacs. Three priests officiated the mass and the music of the late Italian-born French composer, Luigi Cherubini was performed by an orchestra and a chorus (Miss H. Cook; señorita Teresina Moreno Calderon and Mr. W. Hamilton).
She is buried at the Cemetery Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis, in San Juan, where she sleeps among the flowers, not far from the grave of her father, mentor, and teacher, Don Ignacio Otero.
One year after her death, the piano manufacturer, Kohler, and Campbell (New York) placed the following ad in a local newspaper: “Ana Otero, Elisa Tavarez, Lolita Aspiroz, Juleo Arteaga, Aristedes Chavier and other notable pianists and graduates of prestigious European conservatories recommend Kohler and Campbell’s pianos.” Today, La Escuela Especializada de Bellas Artes in Humacao and a street in the Urbanización Villa Nevárez in Río Piedras bear her name.
Ana Otero is one of many female Latin American artists whose narratives have been lost, misrepresented and overshadowed by the male-dominated music industry and passing time. Regrettably, the public will never hear her exquisite technique, rubato, her singular interpretations of the classics and the popular music of her day. History will remember Ana for placing a high ideal on art and playing the piano in a “priestly way.”
- Ana Otero Hernandez – A Woman Forgotten in Our History www.elnegritoestaloco.com
- Ana “Anita” Hernandez Otero – www.findagrave.com
- Callejo, Fernando – Ensayo de la Music – 1862 – 1926 (pg. 145-152)
- La Correspondencia Newspaper, El Anunciador, El Publicista, El Criterio, and El Clamor del Pais
- Puerto Rico Revista del Instituto de Cultural Puertorriqueña (No. 92/93), April/September 1986
Thank You: Richard Blondet for the invaluable research and advice.
Photo: Left to Right: Ana (Anita), Tomas, Pepa, Beatriz, Modesta, Felipe, Julia and, Don Ignacio (Center)