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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.


Halloween and Día de Muertos Research Guide Expanded and Updated

Get ready for two upcoming holidays with the expanded and updated research guide on Halloween and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) from the Library of Congress! “Halloween & Dia de Muertos Resources” highlights collections from across the Library, including the American Folklife Center, Prints and Photographs, the Hispanic section, Rare Books, Manuscripts, and the National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC). Items we’ve added for this year’s Halloween season include a player where you can listen to Jack Santino’s classic Halloween lecture discussing the deep history of the holiday as well as folktales and other Halloween lore. We’ve also added: links to notable books to get you started in your Halloween reading; a player to watch the first film version of Frankenstein from 1910; a gallery of classic Dia de Los Muertos posters from the Mission Grafica/La Raza Graphics collection; and links to lots of new content like the witch tales from Aunt Molly Jackson that I blogged about just last week. Find it all at the link in this blog post!

New AFC Latinx and Latin American Research Guide : Navigating AFC Collections During National Hispanic Heritage Month

The research guides from the American Folklife Center help researchers navigate the AFC collections by geographic region or by topic. One of our most recent guides, Latinx and Latin American Collections: Resources in the American Folklife Center, provides quick access to our Latinx and Latin American resources during National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Homegrown Plus Premiere: Tlacuatzin Son Huasteco from Mexico

We’re continuing the Homegrown Plus Premiere series with Tlacuatzin Son Huasteco, a trio playing one of the traditional music styles of eastern Mexico, known as son huasteco or huapango music; As is usual for the series, this blog post includes an embedded concert video, an interview video, and a set of related links to explore!

Son huasteco music is built around two variants of the guitar, the jarana and the quinta huapanguera, as well as the violin and the voice. Son huasteco singing employs a distinctive falsetto style. Improvisation plays a strong role in this music, with each group adding their own lyrics and arrangements to a standard repertoire of songs. The result is acoustic string-band music that is both traditional and contemporary, with direct emotional appeal.

Web Archives and Cuban Songs: Interns and their Interests on the Folklife Today Podcast

We’re back with another episode of the Folklife Today podcast! Find it at this page on the Library’s website, or on Stitcher, iTunes, or your usual podcatcher. In this episode, John Fenn and and I interview the American Folklife Center’s recent interns, Bryan Jenkins and Elisa Alfonso, about the items and collections that caught their […]

Homegrown Plus Premiere: Vigüela’s Traditional Song and Music from Central Spain

We’re continuing the Homegrown Plus Premiere series with Vigüela, a a traditional folk quintet with a commitment to the rural musical traditions of central Spain. As is usual for the series, this blog post includes an embedded concert video, an interview video, and a set of related links to explore!

Vigüela was established in the mid-1980s, after the Franco regime, by young people who looked to folk culture for a way to channel their creative desires while staying rooted in their local communities. Grounded in this history, the band members value their tradition and perform it with accuracy and energy, as a living music, full of joy. They play traditional Spanish music, including jotas, seguidillas, fandangos, and sones, using the centuries-old singing styles, dialects, and instruments of their region. That region is Castilla-La Mancha, the southern part of the Iberian plateau, sometimes called “the heart of Spain,” or “Don Quixote country.”

Homegrown Plus: Changüí Majadero

In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both videos together in an easy-to-find blog post. We’re happy to be continuing the series with the Cuban American band Changüí Majadero. Founded by tres guitarist and vocalist Gabriel García, Changüí Majadero was the result of García’s pivotal pilgrimage to the Guantanamo region of Cuba, where he learned the musical style called changüí from the living masters of the style. He says he was inspired to spread the spirit of Cuban folkloric music mixed with a dash of East Los Angeles grit. The band’s concert included songs they learned during research in the American Folklife Center archive, along with other songs from their repertoire. Our conversation with Gabriel provides an introduction to the band and to the unusual style known as changüí, including the instruments, rhythms, and history of this important musical tradition.

La Llorona: Storytelling for Halloween and Día de Muertos

La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is a spirit that haunts the folklore of Mexico and other Latin American countries. In some versions she’s a ghost, but in others she’s an immortal wanderer, not dead but not really alive either. So far in the series, we’ve introduced the legend, given some of its history, explored songs related to La Llorona, and discussed the story’s role in growing up. Now, we present a telling of the tale. The post contains audio and a transcript of a performance by Joe Hayes, one of the best known storytellers from the American southwest. Hayes’s bilingual Spanish-English storytelling has earned him a distinctive place among America’s professional storytellers.

Growing Up with La Llorona

This is the fourth blog post in a series about La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, a spirit that haunts the folklore of Mexico and other Latin American countries. We’ll present comments on the legend by the writer Rudolfo Anaya, the scholar Domino Renee Perez, our former intern and Llorona expert Camille Acosta, pioneering Costa Rican writer Manuel Argüello Mora, and Esperanza Sernas, a restaurant worker interviewed in 1977 by fieldworker Philip George for AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project. This blog also contains one of the most gruesome traditional descriptions of La Llorona we’ve seen so far! The whole series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021, so stay tuned….

La Llorona: Roots, Branches, and the Missing Link from Spain

This is the second blog post in a series about La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunts Mexican and other Latinx cultures. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos 2021. In this post, I’ll show some of the story’s long history, especially in Mexico. I’ll give links to primary sources from the 1570s showing the story was already present among Indigenous Mexicans at that time and earlier. I’ll also present what I believe is new evidence of a strong link for some La Llorona stories with Spain.