Born and bred in the urban jungle of the Big Apple, Aurora Flores is a Renaissance woman of the 21st Century. A culture warrior since the early 1970s, Aurora's is journalist, historian, artist, musician, and cultural activist at the cutting edge of Latino identity.
She has published thousands of music and cultural articles for mainstream and ethnic publications, as well as run her own public relations and cultural marketing firm. Aurora has performed with legendary Latin music icons including Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, and has graced the stages with many other popular New York City-based salsa bands. She currently leads Zon del Barrio, a septet currently enjoying the release of its debut CD titled Cortijo's Tribe (La Tribu de Cortijo) for Protel/Fania Records.
Following is an interview with the multi-talented bandleader.
Rudy Mangual: Aurora, talk to our readers about your heritage. Aurora Flores: When I'm asked what town in Puerto Rico I'm from. 1 respond, "The largest: New York City." I've even said that I'm a 'manhateriana' and then folks ask me if that's near Santurce. Really! But I was born and raised in Manhattan, in the West Side Harlem projects across Central Park from El Barrio. The rest of my family also lived in the projects of East Harlem so we were always there, and of course, every weekend we went to the marketa (market) to buy groceries anda myriad of other things from the vendors that hawked their wares on the streets of El Barrio. I am the eldest of four children and as the oldest daughter I had the responsibility of being the family interpreter and the assistant to my mother.
For the holiday season, my father would fly his parents in from Lajas, ER. It was cheaper to fly them in than take all of us over there. My gran& father was a down-home plenero and played accordion. My uncles played guitar and one uncle sang operas as well as aguinaldos. I always looked forward to the holidays because all the family carne to our house for dinner and the music followed. My father was a chef at Toots Shor, a celebrity restaurant of the time, and carne home with stories, like when he met Anthony Quinn, who was celebrating his birthday at the restaurant and liked the food so much he asked to see the chef and had his photo taken with my dad.
My mother sang the songs of Libertad Lamarque, Toña la Negra and Olga Guillot. My father wrote songs and poetry and of course. I was m the middle of all this musical activity. I so adored my grandfather that I would not leave his side while he played. One day he asked me if I knew which buttons to press for the bass parts. I said yes. and he played the melody on the accordion keys while I played the bass parts. During these gatherings, my grandfather also gave me two spoons su I could keep time with the adults. He encouraged me to learn the songs of a popular Spanish child actor named Joselito and later, the songs of Lola Flores.
At night, before going to bed. my mother told us stories about Puerto Rico. slavery, the genocide of the tainos and the proud humility, and generosity of the jibaros. She taught us about culture and history and never let us forget that we were the descendants of Puerto Rico's most important patriot and visionary Eugenio María de Hostos.
RM: What paths led you to music and writing?
AF: My mother recalls two major incidents in my life as a toddler. The first occurred when I was about three and she caught me scribbling on the walls. Rather than reprimand me, she sat me down and spelled out words in Spanish that I copied onto paper. I recall her telling me that I had writer's blood in my veins and never realized until adulthood what she meant. The second incident occurred when I was about four of five years old and we were sitting in church during one of those long Pentecostal services. Back then, girls had to wear dresses with crinoline slips that itched and bothered, which made me fidgety on the hard, wooden pews. The Pentecostal services featured live music, and the moment I heard the slap of the bongó, followed by the scratching of a gourd, laced together by the strains of a guitar, I jumped up from my seat, threw my little arms in the air and shouted "mambo!" as I danced toward the musicians. They stopped playing when I got to them and there was a dead silence in the church. My mother came running and scooped me up and carried me outside where I remember her smiling face close to mine telling me that I could not say "mambo" in church because that was our secret at home.
My mother loved big band music and the music of Cortijo. Her favorite records when we cleaned the house were the classics Celine & Rutelio and Cortijo Te Invita a Bailar or Bueno y Que? But since my father's family was Pentecostal, we had to listen when he was not around. My mother then enrolled us in religious instruction and Catholic Sunday school, where I was recruited to sing in the adult choir when I was seven. Back then, the mass was all in Latin and I memorized every single hymn. Soon after, my mother enrolled me in a few piano classes and allowed me to audition for Latino talent shows in a local theater called the Olympia. I won second prize once for my rendition of Lola Flores' Angelitos Negros. However, once my father found out about this, he stopped my lessons, as he did not want his daughters involved in secular music.
In fourth grade, I wrote an epic poem that won a national award. In the fifth grade, our teacher took us on a trip to see Shakespeare in the Park. They performed Hamlet and she took us backstage to meet the actors. This made such ah impact on me that I wrote a review on the play in olde English, which impressed my teacher and the school.
I already knew I wanted to pursue writing and music. In junior high school, I enrolled in the school orchestra to play violin and German baby bass. Since I was the only bass player, the orchestra leader encouraged me to stick with the bass and got me a private instructor, Frederic Zimmerman. He was one of the most wonderful and kindest people I would ever meet and I was his charity case for three years. He charged me $5 for lessons and sometimes I didn't even have that, but he never turned me away and was always happy to see me. Sometimes he'd call and ask me to arrive earlier for the lessons and that was usually to introduce me to someone like Mary O'Brien, who became the first...