Sylvia Rexach, a Woman Before Her Time

Sylvia Rexach Nuestro Stories

Image courtesy of Nuestro Stories.

Sylvia Rexach was a woman ahead of her time. The Puerto Rican composer and songwriter led a short yet intense life. She died at 39 and crystallized it for generations to come in the romance of her music and tormented lyrics of her songs. She was a poet who put her words to music — always at her piano with a drink and a cigarette in her hand. 

sylvia rexach

Image courtesy of MIRAMAR.

Rexach defied stereotypes by doing things women of her generation were not supposed to do. She refused to play the roles assigned to her gender at that time — although she became a mother and a wife- and embraced bohemian life.

She learned to play the piano and guitar. She became a songwriter, poet, journalist, actress, and radio and television comedy writer for the kings of Puerto Rican comedy — Ramon Rivera (Diplo) and Tommy Muniz. She formed “Las Damiselas,” the first all-female music band on the island, and toured Puerto Rico and New York in the 1940s and 1950s. 

Rexach has achieved cult status in Puerto Rico but is not well known outside its shores, which is a shame. A woman considered one of the best composers of Hispanic popular music and who defied convention should be in the pantheon of feminist trailblazers for women everywhere. 

This year marks the 100 anniversary of her birth, and it is passing without many commemorations, especially in Puerto Rico. Her songs are part of the island's soundtrack; everyone knows at least one or parts of a lyric. Some of her biggest hits are "Alma Adentro," "Olas y Arena," "Nave sin Rumbo," "Di Corazon," "Matiz De Amor," "Nuestra Luna," and "Luna Sobre Condado."

She composed “Di, Corazón” and “Matiz de Amor” when she was only 14, which should be heard today because they still speak to the heart.

The bolero outfit “Miramar” is fixing that. Marlysse Simmons Argadona arranged a new rendition of her song "Olas y Arenas," — sung by Miramar lead singer Laura Ann Singh.    

sylvia rexach

Image courtesy of MIRAMAR.

These lyrics are among her most beautiful and desolate.

 "Soy la arena que la ola nunca toca y que en la playa tendida vive sola su penar. Eres ola, que te envuelves en la bruma y te disuelves en espuma, alejandoteme más". 

As her daughter Sharon Filey wrote, her mother was "the fiber of feeling."

Rexach evokes images of Old San Juan's bohemia and was its central character, with long, boozy nights singing ballads at her piano. One of her favorite piano players was Puerto Rican composer Roger Maldonado. Maldonado composed Sylvia, En Tu Memoria in honor of Rexach. As Maldonado wrote: "Sylvia, aún brilla la Luz que aquí encendiste". (Sylvia, the light you created still shines.)

She died young, fighting alcoholism and cancer, but she left us the story of her life in haunting musical storytelling.

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Susanne Ramirez de Arellano Nuestro Stories

By Susanne Ramírez de Arellano.

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is a writer and cultural critic who used to be a journalist, television producer, and news director. She lives between San Juan and New York and is, at present, making her first attempt at writing a novel.