CubaNostalgia: La Reina del Bolero

I think every Cuban family has that one member – whether an uncle or an aunt or a cousin or a great aunt or uncle – that is a bit on the eccentric side. In my family’s case, being that my grandfather had sixteen brothers and sisters and my family is huge, we have a few. The closest relative I have that earns the “eccentric” moniker is my Madrina – my Godmother – Tia Olga, my mom’s sister. There are hundreds of little anecdotes I could tell about my Madrina – like the fact that she drives all around town but never, ever, makes left turns – but those would be a subject for another post someday.

Tia Olga has always been the lover of music in the family. She always carried around a radio in her car along with a Mr. Microphone, maracas, a set of claves and a guiro. And every Thanksgiving, every birthday party, every Noche Buena, Tia Olga would regale us with song.

My grandparents loved this, of course. Come Noche Buena, Tia Olga would get a scotch or two in her and quickly sneak to her car and bring out the instruments, set them up, and just begin singing even if there was no one around to listen. After a song or two, her audience would begin to appear. The first few usually being my grandfather and grandmother.

My grandparents were always the first because in between loud renditions of Beny More or Orquesta Aragon or even El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Tia Olga always sang a tune or two, sometimes acapella, of one of my grandparents favorite singers: La Reina del Bolero – the Queen of the Bolero – Olga Guillot.

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I remember many a Noche Buena or Thanksgiving sitting out front with my grandfather when one of my aunts would peek through the door and say: “Papa. No quieres oir a Olga Guillot? Ya empezo el show.” Loosely translated: “Dad. Dont you want to listen to Olga Guillot? The show has begun.”

And my grandfather would get up from his chair and lead me out back or to the Florida room where Tia Olga was already crooning away some bolero or another made famous by the incomparable Olga Guillot.

After my grandparents passed, the family sometimes gathered around during one family reunion or another and listened to my Madrina sing a soft rendition of one of Olga Guillot’s boleros, remembering just how much her music was loved by the old folks.

This year, Cuba Nostalgia payed tribute to Olga Guillot. Her exhibit featuring photos of her in her heyday in Cuba, old movie posters, album covers made here in exile and her music playing in the background was the first thing you saw as you came into the convention center. She honored the convention goers a few times with her presence, and you could barely keep your eyes open from all the flash of cameras whenever she was around.

My good friend Al of Cuban Crafters Cigars – who incidentally came by the Babalú pavilion and donated a bundle of cigars along with a very nice humidor – knows Olga Guillot’s daughter and led me to one of the vendor spaces where La Reina del Bolero was signing autographs. It was hot and the crowd was all around her, all clamoring for a kiss, an autograph, or even glimpse of the singer’s famous smile.

Al spoke to Mrs. Guillot’s daughter and within seconds I was right in front of the Cuban legend who asked me my name, thick Sharpie pen in hand, and when I responded said “Ay, que nombre mas lindo.” She then gestured for me to hand her my picture of her for her autograph but I had none.

“Me Puedes firmar la camisa?” I asked. Would she sign my shirt.

And as she signed my Babalú shirt, the one with my aunt Amanda’s eyes, the one that represents my Cuba, my culture, my family and our past, my eyes welled up. I couldn’t help but think of my Tia Olga, crooning away on her Mr. Microphone with the entire family gathered all around.

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Some people may visit the Cuba Nostalgia Convention and see marketing and advertising and complain about a paltry $12 entrance fee. Others, they get to caress their past, relive a few moments with loved ones long gone, and remember old folks on their rocking chairs, hand in hand, with boleros in their hearts.

2 thoughts on “CubaNostalgia: La Reina del Bolero”

  1. Val,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! You and I could be brothers, everytime I read a story like this all I have to do is change the names to make it my own. I’m all choked up. The photo with Olga Guillot just blows my mind, oh here I go, the melancholy creeping in.

    Thanks again, Val.

  2. Val,
    Here’s a little known fact about Olga Guillot’s humble origins. Her father used to be an army sergeant and she grew up in the military housing project next to the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba. Next time you see her, ask her about it, as she will recall it with fond memories.

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