Ruth Fernández: New York Times Obituary

Dennis Hevesi has written this obituary for The New York Times.

Ruth Fernández, a soothing and spirited singer known in her homeland as “el alma de Puerto Rico hecha canción” — “the soul of Puerto Rico made song” — died on Monday in San Juan. She was 92.

The cause was septic shock and pneumonia, a friend and producer, Vicky Hernández, told The Associated Press.

In a career of more than 40 years, Ms. Fernández performed a repertory that ranged from fiery Latin music to spirituals. “She was Puerto Rico’s premier singer, representing the island to the world,” Joe Conzo Sr., a music historian and author of “Mambo Diablo: My Journey With Tito Puente” (2010), said in an interview on Thursday. “She sang all rhythms. And she was an integral part of concerts and tributes to Puerto Rico’s premier composers, like Rafael Hernández and Pedro Flores.”

While continuing her singing career, Ms. Fernández entered politics in 1973 and served as a member of the Puerto Rican Senate for eight years. She was an advocate of maintaining Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth of the United States, rather than seeking statehood or independence.

“Go to any Latin American country,” she said. “Who is the most advanced in education, health? Puerto Rico. You don’t change what’s good.”

Ms. Fernández performed on the mainland United States as well as throughout Latin America and Europe.

In 1973, when she sang at Carnegie Hall at a “Salute to Puerto Rico,” Howard Thompson of The New York Times called her a “vocalist with a warm vibrancy and a full, husky contralto” who was “also a born actress, effectively using a fan or shawl to heighten her songs, which range from the traditional to sprightly to soulful.”

Eight years earlier, Ms. Fernández had taken part in a concert sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera at City College. Among the songs she sang was the lament “Mi Ochún,” a black woman’s prayer to have a baby.

“In some of those tribes in Africa,” she explained to the audience, “a woman’s husband could just leave her if she couldn’t give him a child.”

Her empathy for the woman in the song stemmed, in part, from her experiences as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican who had endured discrimination. In one instance she was told to enter a San Juan hotel through the kitchen, even though she was scheduled to perform there. She refused, and pushed through the hotel’s front door.

Ruth Fernández was born in the city of Ponce on May 23, 1919, to Santiago Fernández and Rosa María Cortada. She studied piano as a child. By 14 she was singing on radio stations, which led to a contract with the popular band Mingo and His Whoopee Kids.

Twice married and divorced, Ms. Fernández had no children.

“A true glory of Puerto Rico has died,” former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón told The A.P. on Thursday. The government declared three days of mourning, with the Puerto Rican and American flags to be flown at half staff.

Ms. Fernández was beloved outside Puerto Rico as well. At her 1973 Carnegie Hall performance, the audience began applauding her numbers even before she finished them.

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