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Juan Antonio Romero Muñiz, a.k.a Toñín Romero, was born in Barrio Collores in the town of Jayuya, Puerto Rico on December 28, 1918 (some documents also list January 28, 1918 or December 13, 1918 as his birth date). The eldest of eight children of Juan Bautista Romero Vélez (~1852-1932) and Antonia Muñiz Navarro (1895-1978), he grew up around musicians, singers, improvisers and developed great love for Puerto Rican “jíbaro” (rural folk) music. However, after the island was devastated by hurricane San Felipe in September of 1928 he left school and, at ten years of age, moved to Ponce, Puerto Rico with his aunt María. In Ponce he held many jobs, including working in a sugar plantation, selling newspapers in the streets, shoe shining, running errands and many others. While in Ponce he stayed connected through the radio to the folk music he loved, but was also exposed to other types of music, more related to the coastal, sugar cane growing areas, like plena and bomba.  At fourteen years of age, he started singing with a plena group led by Narciso Muriel, also known as “Siso Cabeza”, and at age eighteen, in 1937, he began singing on radio programs.

In the late 1940s, and with the help of another established troubadour and group leader, Arturo Silvagnoli, he formed a musical group that was known as Toñín Romero y su Conjunto. Initial members of the Conjunto included Bautista Ramos as singer and guiro player, Pío Vélez as second guitar, Vicente Velázquez playing the diatonic accordion, Gregorio (Goyo) Salas Velázquez playing the cuatro/tres guitar, guitar virtuoso Gabriel Luna (who was blind and also a member of the Hermanos Luna Quartet with his siblings Lorenzo and Neri, both also blind, and Sarito) as first guitar, percussionists Zacarías Velázquez and Ismael (Jalisco) Medina. Two of his brothers, Esteban (Tebito) and Moisés were also part of the Conjunto as singers. Throughout the years many other musicians and singers were part of the Conjunto such as Hermógenes Reyes (guitar), Erasmo (Mito) García (guitar/singer), Cruz Torres (cuatro/guitar), Daniel Pumarejo (cuatro), Angel (Gelo) Febles (diatonic accordion), Humberto Torres (guiro/singer), Sergio Febles (bass) and singers Ildefonso Cotto, Pablo (Pablito) Troche, Cruz (Luguito) Lugo, Antonio (Toño Gole) Rodríguez and Toñín’s son Luis Antonio Romero among many others.

Toñín had a prolific recording career both with his Conjunto and by himself with other musical groups. His recordings started in the late 1940s to early 1950s with New York-based label Riney, owned by Dominican singer and entrepreneur Ney Rivera. He recorded approximately ten songs under the Riney label. Many of these early recordings were made at the WPAB radio station facilities.

Toñín was a generous, non-self-centered group leader that recognized that it was not only about presenting and promoting himself but really about showcasing the talents of the Conjunto as a whole. This showcase was not only about the singers but also about the musicians as noted by several instrumental numbers recorded as well as solos within most of the sung numbers. He contributed in launching, maintaining and promoting the careers of many singers and musicians. He also strived to maintain the musical traditions of his people, such as the peasant/rural music, the plena, bomba and Christmas time “parrandas.” He was called “El Jíbaro del Campo y del Pueblo” (“The peasant from the countryside and the urban town”), both for his Jayuya roots, in the mountain countryside,  and growing up and developing in the coastal city of Ponce but also for being a champion of the peasant/rural music (aguinaldos, seises, etc.), the coastal music like plena and bomba and popular music like guarachas.

 

Toñín died of a heart attack on June 5, 1978 at 59 years of age. Since 1979, a music festival has been held in his honor each December: the “Fiesta Nacional Toñín Romero” (Toñín Romero National Festival) organized by the Club Recreativo Cultural Valle Alto, a local civic group in Ponce. To this date, it has taken place for 43 uninterrupted years.

-Ramón Cintrón Velázquez

Sources:

  1. Ateneísta - Boletín Oficial del Ateneo de Jayuya, Inc (Official Bulletin from the Ateneo of Jayuya, Inc.), Number 6, 1988. Club Recreativo Cultural Valle Alto.

  2. “Toñín Romero: El Jíbaro del Campo y del Pueblo” by Jorge Luis Ruiz Rosaly; “La Canción Popular” magazine, year #7, Num. 7, 1992, p43-45

  3. Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular (prop.org), biographical notes by Miguel Lopez Ortíz

  4. Ansonia Records ledgers for Toñín Romero’s recordings

  5. Riney Records, Colonial Records, Marvela Records and JARM Records Discographies