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Caught My Ear: The Lullaby That Came to Symbolize the Exodus of Cuba’s Children

Lottie Espinosa seated with guitar, full-length portrait, photograph

Lottie Espinosa plays the guitar and sings for Sidney Robertson Cowell. Find the archival scan here!

The following is a guest post by former AFC intern Elisa Alfonso.

During my internship here at the American Folklife Center, I have been given the opportunity to explore many wonderful digital collections here at the Library of Congress as part of the Story Map and Podcast episode projects fellow intern Bryan Jenkins and I have been assisting with throughout the summer. One of those collections is California Gold, an online presentation of photographs, field notes, published articles, drawings, and (most notably) recordings that folklorist Sydney Robertson Cowell collected between 1938 and 1940 as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) initiative to collect Californian folk music.

While exploring this collection as part of researching the Story Map (Michelle Stefano, Bryan Jenkins and I will publish that soon), I came across a lullaby sung by artist Lottie Espinosa in 1939, which is listed in the catalog as “Dormi niño” or “Duerme niño.” As someone interested in children’s music, I couldn’t help but take a listen.

To my surprise, the tune actually has a very familiar story in it that many Latin American and Hispanic readers may recognize: the story of Santana, AKA Santa Ana, AKA Saint Anne, mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus Christ. She tends to a little boy who is crying because he lost his apple. The versions Ms. Espinosa sang has the familiar story as a refrain:

Señora Santana                                   Ms. Saint Anne
Señor San José                                    Mr. Saint Joachim
¿Por qué llora el niño?                       Why does the boy cry?
Por una manzana                                For an apple
Que se le ha perdido                           That he has lost
Vais hasta la huerta                            Go to the garden
Y córtese dos,                                      And cut two [apples],
Una para el niño,                                One for the boy
Y otro para vos                                   And one for you.

Ms. Espinosa sang another version which she called “Lo lo lo lo tata” or “Lullaby of the Coyote.” It’s essentially the same song, but with some different verses–hear it below.

What struck me about Ms. Espinosa’s versions was that they were different from the one I had heard before. Also, Sidney Robertson Cowell had heard “Lullaby of the Coyote” described by local historian Antoinette Little as a tune sung by “Indian women in servants’ quarters.” Those are associations with the song I had never heard of before.

A man kneels by a recording machine, another takes notes in a notebook, and a woman sings into a microphone.

Robert Cook runs the recording machine while Stetson Kennedy takes notes. The singer is Edith Kennedy, but the team used a similar method to record Adelpha Pollato. The photo is from the AFC subject files, courtesy of Stetson Kennedy, who told us it is a timed photo executed by Kennedy’s team to illustrate their method.

I decided to look for versions of the children’s song under the name I was most familiar with: “Señora Santana.” What came up was a much more familiar version recorded in the same year as Espinosa’s recording was (1939) but across the country in Ybor, Florida. The song was sung by Adelpha Pollato, and is in our collections as part of the Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook WPA Florida Recordings (AFC 1939/013). You can listen to this recording below, and follow along with the lyrics transcribed under the player:

Señora Santana                                   Ms. Saint Anne
¿Por qué llora el niño?                       Why does the boy cry?
Por una manzana                                For an apple
Que se le ha perdido                           That he has lost

Yo te daré una,                                    I will give you one
Yo te daré dos,                                    I will give you two
Una para el niño,                                One for the boy
Y otra para vos.                                  And one for you.

 Yo no quiero una,                               I don’t want one,
Yo no quiero dos,                                I don’t want two,
Yo quiero la mía                                 I want mine
Que se me perdió.                               The one that I lost.

Pollato’s version departs from Espinosa’s in a number of ways, but the one that strikes me the most is that in Espinosa’s version, the child’s reaction to the apples offered to him is not included- she offers him the apples and tells him to go to sleep. We assume the boy is soothed, and this telling of the story, as it turns out, was common throughout Latin America (albeit with numerous variations), and it still is common. But as you can see, Pollato’s version adds a twist- the boy rejects the apples, and the problem is left unresolved as he longs for an apple that is no longer obtainable.

The more I looked for other versions of the tune, the more I found that the recordings from before the turn of the 21st century around Latin America had largely left out the child’s rejection of the apples. Several recordings just took the words and title to “Señora Santana” and set them to the tune of a different song, creating a medley of children’s songs. One such example in our collections is the recording of “Señora Santa Anna,” performed by Isabella Salazar and recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in Kingsville, Texas on May 2nd, 1939. Hear that in the player below.

Despite the name, the tune being sung here is one of several associated with the Mexican lullaby, “Duérmete niño,” which directly follows the lyrics to “Señora Santana.” But in this version again, we don’t know the child’s reaction to the apple. The same is true for the four other recordings of this song in the Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip collection.

A woman poses for a full-length portrait.

Mrs. Isabella Salazar at Casa Ricardo Hotel, Kingsville, Texas, September 20, 1940. Photo by Ruby T. Lomax. Find the Archival Scan here.

In fact, the only versions I can find from the early to mid-20th century that include that verse are from the Cuban-American exile communities–one is Pollato’s recording, and the other is the recording found in the 1962 documentary film La manzana perdida or The Lost Apple, produced by the United States Information Agency, which brings a whole new layer of meaning to this tune.

You can watch the documentary through this licensed YouTube video.

The documentary’s opening scene shows an 8-year-old boy named Roberto riding alone in the back of a car as it goes down a windy road. A woman’s voice is the only thing we hear- singing Pollato’s version of “Señora Santana,” but slower. The woman finishes the song, a guitar gently enters, and a narrator comes in and says the following:

“Every Cuban child has heard his mother sing the lullaby about the little boy who is crying. A kind lady, a stranger, asks him why he is crying, and the little boy says it is because he has lost an apple. An apple his mother gave him. That’s why he is crying.”

At this point the music stops, Roberto gets out of the car and the man who was driving opens a gate for him and walks away while Roberto stands alone with his suitcase.

“This is Roberto- he’s from Cuba. He is going to stay here a while. It’s a refugee camp. Roberto… is a refugee.”

This documentary focuses on what would later become known as Operación Pedro Pan, or Operation Pedro Pan in English. This operation represents the largest exodus of unaccompanied child migrants in the history of the Western hemisphere, and transported an estimated 14,048 children out of Cuba and into the U.S. without their parents between 1960 and 1962 following Fidel Castro’s rise to power. With the use of this version of “Señora Santana” in the film, the song became an anthem for the exodus.

At the turn of the 21st century, as the histories, memoirs, and articles about the operation started invoking the song and the story of the crying boy and his lost apple, the story of “Señora Santana” became symbolic for a feeling of longing that comes from being displaced from a homeland, and its history as a children’s song speaks to the added layer of this loss occurring during childhood. The lost apple became symbolic for a homeland, family, friends, a way of life, a common language, and for many, a loss of their childhood. The Pedro Pans were offered replacements for these things- new friends, foster families, a new language, a new homeland, a new set of responsibilities- but they longed for what was lost, what was theirs to begin with.

The Library’s former Teacher in Residence, Carolyn Bennett, wrote a blog post (that was posted by Danna Bell) in honor of Gloria and Emilio Estefan being awarded the Library’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Music in 2019. The post, titled “Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Exploring the Cuban-American Musical Heritage of Emilio and Gloria Estefan–Diversity and Identity in ‘The Great Melting Pot,’” includes the song as part of the proposed lesson on migration, asking students to consider “How might the lyrics relate to a community’s experiences of migration?”. Clearly, the song has acquired this connotation of displacement in migration processes and the consequent longing for what was lost even outside of the context of Operation Pedro Pan.

There have been other versions collected in Latin America. You can hear a Puerto Rican version at this link, see a Chilean version at this link, and see another Mexican-American version at this link.  Combined with the versions from our archive, they tell us that the verse about the boy rejecting the apple was probably not standard in anything other than a Cuban and Cuban-American context. Cubans sang this version on the island most likely, too, but whether this verse about rejecting the apple was the invention of the Cuban-American community to talk about their exile experience or if it already existed on the island before pre-revolutionary migrants and exiles came to the United States is unclear. What is clear is this: children’s songs and folksongs take on different verses, different meanings, and different lives in different places and different times. This song likely started as a Spanish Catholic lullaby highlighting the generosity of Saint Anne and her aptitude as the Patron saint of Grandmothers, but became a vessel through which we talk about the sensations of trauma and loss that come with childhood forced migration, and migration at large.

And that’s kind of amazing. I hope you’ll explore our collections and find something else that catches you ear (and your interest) the way “Señora Santana” caught mine. As I am still learning about the history of this song, if you have recordings or more information to share please comment below!

Further listening:

You can find most of AFC’s online versions of “Señora Santana” at this link.

Elisa also spoke about this research in a podcast, which you can find here.


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