As many of you may already know, it is Women’s History Month. Though this is a great initiative that shines light on us as women, let’s try to keep in mind that this is something that should be celebrated yearlong. Nevertheless, it’s important to take any opportunity to shine light on women who have made significant strides throughout time. This is why today we will be focusing on a woman once famously known as, “La Reina de la Guaracha,” or “The Queen of the Guaracha,” Myrta Silva.
It can be said that Myrta Silva was one of the first women to express self-assertiveness in Latin America. She was a well-rounded musician that allowed the world to witness a myriad of her skills such as those of being a songwriter, singer, and a percussionist. Her musical skills were so influential that they were pivotal in unearthing the talent of Celia Cruz, one of the most legendary singers the world has ever encountered. Aside from that, Silva was also a commentator and a producer. Overall, she was a true businesswoman in all senses; something that was seldom seen in her era.
Let’s take a closer look into Silva’s life, shall we?
Myrta Silva was born on September 11th, 1927 in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. However, tragedy hit her life when her father, Aureo Silva, passed away when she was just six years of age. Her mother, who was commonly known as “Mamá Yeya,” looked after her for the years that followed and became one of her daughter’s greatest inspirations throughout her life.
Silva’s talents developed at an early age. By the time she was a 10-year-old girl, she had already performed at the once reputable theater of Arecibo, Teatro Oliver. After proving her worth in the music industry, Mamá Yeya decided to send her off to New York. Subsequently, Silva went to live alongside her maternal aunt and dedicated herself to learning about the world of music.
Even though Silva was only 12 years old when she arrived in the Big Apple, she adapted rather quickly. In just a short amount of time, she was able to secure performances in various local Latin theaters and radio stations. Her evident ambition and knack for show business led her to be recognized by many people in the area. Thanks to her growing fame, she was swiftly picked up by RCA Victor Records where she signed her first recording contract.
Throughout most of the 1930s, Silva continued to perform in many locations to hone her musical skills. But it wasn’t until 1939 when she had the privilege to meet Rafael Hernandez, someone that would eventually become an integral part of her musical development.
Rafael Hernandez was a highly esteemed Puerto Rican composer. Silva’s voice captivated Hernandez so much that he took her under his wing almost immediately. He introduced her to different styles of music and meticulously trained her for success. While learning these new layers of music, Silva’s style started to evolve. During her time under Hernandez’s guidance, she became enthralled in romanticizing her music. It was then that her music career burst into the waltzing notes of bolero that gently intertwined around her audience’s bodies for years to come.
Her talent was further exposed when she was invited to join Hernandez’s own musical group, Cuarteto Victoria, as a guaracha singer or a guarachera. It was in these moments that Silva confidently started to blend her newfound admiration for boleros and the fast tempo of the guaracha in her shows. Remember, since there were no DJs in those times, it was imperative for musicians to adapt to many genres to satisfy the needs of their audiences.
She went on to sing in dance salons and cabarets throughout many places in the world such as Panamá, México, and Venezuela. Silva’s success increased exponentially throughout the years she participated in el Cuarteto Victoria. This opportunity, without a doubt, took her career to new heights.
Upon completing her time with el Cuarteto Victoria, she returned to Puerto Rico to launch a soloist career. Her voice graced the halls of the historic Escambron Beach Club. These moves allowed her to solidify a spot in the music world.
Being ever ambitious, she was always looking for her next venture, despite how great everything seemed around her. This is how she ended up leaving Puerto Rico again.
During one of her many musical trips, she stopped in La Habana, Cuba. However, she didn’t leave as quick as she had arrived. This was all due to the fact that her sultry voice had charmed one of the most well-known musical bands in Cuba of the time, the Sonora Matancera. By this time, she had already developed a performance style that would leave many red in the face. Her stage act started to include hip swinging and provocative gestures (at least provocative for that era), which perfectly complemented her alluring voice. Silva’s charisma was very effective and she had no issue using it.
Despite all the fun she seemed to be having (one can only assume), she decided to leave. But before she left, she needed to leave a replacement for the Sonora Matancera. It just so happened that Silva had scouted a local young talent named Celia Cruz as the person to take her place. People still didn’t know who Celia Cruz was at that time, but Silva made sure Cruz got the exposure she needed. Without even knowing it, Silva was creating an incredible indent in the history of music with that decision.
After that experience, Silva changed the course of her career a bit.
In 1956, Silva became the producer and host for the program Una Hora Contigo that was broadcast from New York. She eventually took the idea of this show back to Puerto Rico, where she incorporated celebrities into her program. It was in these times that she acquired a new nickname, “La Gorda de Oro,” or “The Fat Lady of Gold,” as many felt that everything Silva touched turned to gold — much like King Midas’ touch.
Feeling comfortable in this new field of work, she continued to produce other programs, including Tira y Tápate, which quickly became a staple in Puerto Rican households during her time.
Tira y Tápate was particularly noteworthy because it was one of the first televised programs (if not the first) to highlight celebrity gossip and entertainment news in Puerto Rico. It gained a lot of its notoriety from the quirky TV persona Silva created named “Madame Chencha” which was inspired by one of her most recognized songs in her singing career, “Camina como Chencha La Gamba.”
According to a Puerto Rican family friend, Ernesto*, he recalls Madame Chencha as an expressive character that had no filter. She used every communication skill to her advantage to mercilessly incite laughter and promote views. In order to achieve this, Silva brought in a crystal ball that she’d “talk to,” where she tried to conjure rumors of Puerto Rico’s elite. She also integrated exaggerated body gestures and facial expressions in her act to obtain more publicity for her program. However, her “Madame Chencha” segment was not always so popular. She was constantly criticized for the type of news she tried to report or create, especially since a lot of her content circled around crude remarks regarding sexuality and unjust speculation. Regardless of the negative comments around her program, she is considered to be the pioneer of the genre of gossip TV in Puerto Rico. In fact, it is said that her character influenced one of Puerto Rico’s incredibly infamous and most insensitive shows in modern history, La Comay.
Silva received so much backlash that she exiled herself from Puerto Rico back into New York for a while. Throughout this time, she wrote a few songs that were laced with pain due to feelings of despair caused by not being in her hometown. This was short-lived though, as she ultimately returned to Puerto Rico.
There’s no question that Myrta Silva’s life ever shied away from excitement. She understood the significance of her immense talent and made it as important as breathing throughout her entire existence.
Silva passed away on December 2nd, 1987. Nevertheless, her achievements shouldn’t be brushed off. This vibrant woman was obviously ahead of her time. She led her life with ambition and through her business-natured mind — attributes that were not flaunted much in her era, especially not by women. Her contribution to Latin America and Women’s History are, without a doubt, distinguishable.
(*) Name has been changed.