SYLVIA REXACH GONZALEZ was born and raised in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Her parents were Julio E. Rexach of Fajardo, and María Teresa González, of San Juan, Puerto Rico. There she attended public school and received her primary education then went to a private school where she finished her secondary education before attending the Central High School of Santurce. At fourteen, she amazed her teachers when she composed “Di, Corazón” and “Matiz de Amor.” Rexach also learned how to play the guitar, piano, and saxophone, at a young age.
Rexach enrolled with The University of Puerto Rico, where she intended to take a pre-legal course; however, when the United States entered World War II in 1942, she dropped out and joined the United States Army as a member of the WACS (Women’s Army Corp), where she served as an office clerk. There, she met and fell in love with the American officer, William Riley. They wed in 1943 and had three children, but the marriage was tumultuous and short-lived. After a divorce, she returned to Puerto Rico.
According to Yannis Ruel, who translated the original liner notes for the album Miramar – “Dedication to Sylvia Rexach” (Barbes Records, 2016), “Well before the struggles of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, Rexach embraced nonconformity and rejected societal roles. Living life as a woman emancipated of social standards, she spent her time composing and performing music and socializing with other artists at late-night parties, something previously enjoyed solely by men. She smoked, drank, stayed out late, and lived an intensely bohemian lifestyle. In 1949, she founded and directed the first all-female band in Puerto Rico, Las Damiselas (The Damsels), also known as El Combo de Sylvia Rexach, with Idalia Rosario, Marta Romero, Millita Quiñones, Elena Rita Ortiz, and Ketty Cabán. For several years, the band performed at major clubs and radio stations in Puerto Rico and New York, playing an eclectic repertoire of current hits mixed with her compositions and songs, including “Nave Sin Rumbo,” “Luna del Condado,” “En Mis Sueños,” “Nuestra Luna” and “Nave del Olvido.”
Rexach was a tireless artist. She worked various jobs in music and entertainment in the 1940s and 50s. Also, she composed and recorded commercial jingles, traveled the island, played the piano, sang in different musical reviews, bars, and hotels, wrote scripts, and performed one-act plays for acclaimed popular radio and television programs.
1951, Rexach had a newspaper column called “A Sotto Voce,” where she was a music critic. She was also a co-founder and the Secretary Director of The Puerto Rican Society of Authors, Composers, and Music Editors (Sociedad Puertorriqueña de Autores, Compositores y Editores de Música).
The tones of Rexach’s compositions varied from soft and romantic to harsh and tormented. Among the compositions that became hits in Puerto Rico and abroad were: “Alma Adentro” (Inner Soul, actually a homage to a brother who died in an accident), “Idilio,” “Olas y Arenas” (Waves and Sands), “Mi Versión” (My Version), “Nave sin Rumbo” (Wandering Ship), “Di, Corazón” and “Matiz de Amor.” She even wrote a humorous novelty song, “Cuchú cuchía,” which features Rafael Hernandez Marin as a co-composer.
About a decade before her death, Rexach was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Still, her declining health did not stop her from composing or living her life as a liberated woman. She died on October 20, 1961, at the Women’s Hospital of Santurce. She is buried at Cementerio Buxeda in Carolina, Puerto Rico.
According to Ruell, “Four years after her death, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture found an original recording from 1958, where Rexach sings fourteen of her songs accompanied by her friend and guitarist Tutti Umpierre. Entitled” “Sylvia Rexach Canta,” her followers revere Sylvia Rexach, this obscure album. Rexach’s dreamy, melancholy voice perfectly reflects the feelings of sadness and tenderness pervasive and expertly executed in her songs. Rexach’s boleros are unique because the lyrics could stand alone as poems. Still, the music magnifies the sense of intimacy and sensuality. She defined the feminine bolero. She was the Caribbean sister of García Lorca, Debussy, and Agustin Lara.”
Various artists have recorded Rexach’s compositions, including Marco Antonio Muniz, Danny Rivera, Gilberto Monroig, Chucho Avellanet, Lucecita Benitez, Linda Rondstadt, Ednita Nazario, and Lunna. She is the subject of two television specials, including “Sylvia, en tu Memoria” and Angela Meyer’s “El Fondo del Dolor”, starring Sharon Riley, Sylvia’s daughter.
In 2001, Rexach was posthumously inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame. Also, at The Luis A. Ferre Center of the Arts, El Teatro SylviaRexach bears her name. Also, on May 29, 2014, the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico honored 12 illustrious women who, by their merits and legacies, stand out in the history of Puerto Rico with plaques in the “Plaza en Honor a la Mujer Puertorriqueña” (Plaza Honoring Puerto Rican Women) in San Juan. Rexach was among those honored. Today, her music is interpreted by the groupMiramarand other proud “Sylvistas.”
Sylvia Rexach’s brief but spectacular life epitomizes the saying, “Women who behave rarely make history!”