Ernestina Reyes (“La Calandria”) was born in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico in 1925. The fifth of nine siblings, she was “from a small-town working-to-middle class” (Fiol-Matta 2017: 134). She began her career at age ten singing boleros, rancheras and danzas in the radio with her sister Carmen as part of the duo Las Hermanas Reyes. According to Carmen, in an interview conducted by Licia Fiol-Matta in 2007, during their debut in Rafael Quiñones Vidal’s radio program "La correspondencia," their father, a friend of anticolonial leader Pedro Albizu Campos, had wanted them to sing the patriotic song “Sin bandera.” However, because it was banned, they settled for Rafael Hernández’s “Campanitas de cristal” (2017: 122).
At 18, Ernestina began to sing jíbaro music. By the mid-to-late 1940s, she was singing with trovador Jesús Sánchez Erazo (“Chuíto el de Bayamón”) in the Puerto Rican version of a Cuban radio program called "The Colgate Show with Calandria and Clavelito." This experience transformed her into “La Calandria” (The Songbird), an artistic name that had already been given to other female singers such as Cuban Nena Cruz, Tejana Rita Vidaurri and Argentinian Inés Arce (Fiol-Matta 2017: 122-123). It was around then, in 1947, that she recorded with Chuíto el de Bayamón and the Conjunto Típico Ladí for RCA Victor (Fiol-Matta 2017: 143).
The early 1950s saw Ernestina singing with Florencio Morales Ramos (“Ramito”) in the radio program “La hora del volante.” Throughout this decade, she, along with Ramito and other jibaro singers, “participated in heavily promoted goodwill tours to the United States (especially New York) to aid” the newly established Free Associated State of Puerto Rico in its “quest to present itself as the migrants’ amigo (friend)” (Fiol-Matta 2017: 121). As part of this effort, she sang in two state-produced educational videos: "Un amigo en Nueva York" and "Un amigo en Chicago." She also took part in the short film "Trulla" (1951) directed by Jack Delano, alongside Ramito and Chuíto el de Bayamón, and the film "El otro camino" (1959). Indeed, she was the first woman singer of jíbaro music “to appear both on radio and television” (Fiol-Matta 2017: 121). From the 1950s forward she went back and forth between New York City and Puerto Rico, permanently settling in the Bronx in 1960. She remained professionally active until the early 1990s when she was diagnosed with cancer, passing away in 1994.
Throughout her career Ernestina toured extensively in the Hispanic theaters of New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Philadelphia performing as well in Hawai’i—where US colonialism led to the migration of around five thousand Puerto Ricans at the beginning of the twentieth century as contracted plantation laborers (today, the Puerto Rican population is around forty thousand strong). As highlighted by Miguel López Ortiz, she recorded forty-five albums, and is remembered for several hits released between 1956 and 1960, among which are “Ese hombre es mío” (That man is mine), “Solo tú y yo” (Just you and me) and “Somos boricuas” (We are Puerto Ricans), the latter two included in Ansonia’s catalog.
-Dr. Mario Cancel Bigay
**This biography is largely based on Licia Fiol-Matta’s “Techne and the Lady” from The Great Woman Singer (2017) and Miguel López Ortiz’s bio for the Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular prpop.org/biografias/ernestina-reyes-la-calandria/ **