Poverty, as well as the prospect of a life with limited opportunities, has traditionally motivated individuals born amid those circumstances to struggle to break free of such situations. In Spain, history is full of stories about poverty-stricken young men who became bullfighters to escape miserable lives. In other parts of the world, boys have looked to the boxing ring as their ticket out of the slums. Throughout the years, the arts have also opened the doors of opportunity to those who carne into this world poor but with talent. In this piece I chronicle the achievements of some of the artists in Latin American music who escaped the cycle of poverty to become acclaimed artists.
Orlando Guerra, alias "Cascarita"
On September 14, 1920, in the city of Camagüey, Cuba, a tiny baby boy named Orlando was born to a disadvantaged family. As is typical in families of limited resources, he had to work from an early age to supplement the family's income. His first job was delivering prepared food to private homes and as he walked from house to house, he amused himself by singing. Some of the neighbors heard the young boy and encouraged him to approach a local radio station for a chance to sing on one of its programs. He did just that and soon gained enough experience to warrant moving to Havana to look for better opportunities.
In 1939, he, joined the Hermanos Palau Orchestra and in 1941, became the lead singer with Julio Cueva's band. The guarachas he recorded with these groups earned him enormous popularity. He developed an original singing style that, together with his outlandish mode of dress, set him apart from other performers. Cascarita was the archetype of all guaracheros. His voice had that characteristic street sound that is a prerequisite for all real guaracha singers. His intimate knowledge of people's expressions and his inventive genius provided him with material for endless inspirations.
By the late 1930s, the guaracha had fought its way into the repertoire of the Cuban jazz-style bands. Orlando Guerra, a skinny, jumpy, pepper pot singer, emerged as its best interpreter. He was better known as "Cascarita," a nickname given to him by fellow musicians after an incident that occurred when the singer was a member of the Hermanos Palau Orchestra. One night, while returning from playing at a dance in another city, the bus stopped at a roadside stand for the group to get something to eat. Orlando ordered a ham sandwich to take back to the bus. When he unwrapped the sandwich, he discovered that they had only given him a very thin slice of ham between the bread. He cried out indignantly, "Me dieron sólo una cascarita" (They gave me only a crusty shaving of ham). From that point on he was known only as "Cascarita."
His recordings with Hermanos Palau and Julio Cueva were frequently heard on Puerto Rican radio stations. As a result, in 1941, he was given a contract to perform with Pepito Torres' Siboney Orchestra at the Escambrón Beach Club in San Juan. The famous Cuban guarachero spent one year singing with the band, with whom he recorded Llora timbero, Ladrón de gallinas and El brujo de Guanabacoa.
After returning to Cuba, he kept busy with nightclub appearances, while performing on his own radio program and doing recordings. During this period, he was backed by the Hermanos Palau's band. His biggest hits, however, came with the Casino de la Playa Orchestra, with arrangements by Dámaso Pérez Prado. The following are some of the recordings from that era: Champú de cariño, El caballo y la montura, Bigote de gato, Quiero un sombrero and Lo que sea.
Cascarita was the master guarachero and sonero from whom others learned and borrowed as they developed their craft. He went from delivering catered food (known among Cubans as cantinas) to delivering creative interpretations of Cuban popular music. Cascarita spent the last years of his life living and performing in México. He died in the Aztec capital in 1975.
Daniel Santos' roots were planted in the low-income...