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Voices Spring-Summer 2014:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt from “Rafael Hernández and the Puerto Rican Legacy of the 369th Regiment’s Harlem Hellfighters” by Elena Martínez here.
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Voices SS2014


Volume 40

Rafael Hernandez
and the Puerto Rican Legacy of the
369th Regiment's Harlem Hellfighters

Over a decade ago, I became interested in the story of the Puerto Rican musicians and the World War I Harlem Hellfighters Regimental Band and their influence on jazz music, after finding scholar Ruth Glasser’s extraordinary book, My Music is My Flag, in a Smithsonian Museum bookshop and then viewing the exhibit, RAICES: The Roots of Latin Music, curated by Louis Bauzó and Roberta Singer at the Museum of the City of New York. It was such an incredible story that I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it elsewhere. I found that in some circles the African American component of this history was well known, but the Puerto Rican history was either ignored or disregarded, which is a shame because it adds another layer to an already fascinating tale. For instance, in Ken Burns’ serial documentary, Jazz, during the episode recounting the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, never once were the roles played by the 18 Puerto Ricans mentioned. It is especially disturbing, because one of the Puerto Rican musicians was a young Rafael Hernández, who would become Puerto Rico’s—and Latin America’s—greatest composer. I think this exclusion reflects a tendency to look at different issues, cultural or social, in terms of either Black or White, and musically speaking, this leaves out Latinos or relegates them to ethnic genres such as salsa and norteño. Ethnomusicologist Deborah Pacini Hernández has commented how numerous scholars “…have begun breaking down such essentialist notions by providing more complex and nuanced views of the musical practices of Latinos, demonstrating that for decades they have engaged extensively with US mainstream popular musical styles” (Pacini Hernández 2000, 71). So, in search of this history and to pay homage to those rarely mentioned musicians, I have delved, along with musician Bobby Sanabria, into the Hellfighter’s Latino past to find ways to bring this story to light.

Rafael Hernández— Beginnings

Rafael Hernández was born October 24, 1891, in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to Afro-Puerto Rican tobacco workers. His grandmother inspired him and his three siblings, Victoria, Rosa Elvira, and Jesús (Pocholo), to take an interest in music. Rafael learned the cornet, trombone, bombardino (small concert tuba known as a euphonium), guitar, violin, and piano. Jesús played clarinet, and Victoria was an accomplished violinist, cellist, and pianist. Not surprisingly, the siblings came from the town that has been called “El pueblo donde hasta las piedras cantan” (“The town where even the rocks sing”). ...

James Reese Europe

In 1917, 26-year-old Rafael met the renowned African American bandleader James Reese Europe. This meeting drastically changed Rafael’s life and brought him into contact with people and events that would make musical history....

As the US was about to enter World War I, Europe signed up for service and became part of the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard (on June 2, 1913, the governor of New York signed a bill that authorized the creation of the regiment, which was New York’s first Black National Guardsman troop, and on June 16, 1916, the regiment was formed). Though it was a Black regiment, it had a white commander, Colonel William Hayward, who was a military music enthusiast. Hayward’s dream was to have a regimental band that would bring prestige to the regiment, as “the best damn brass band in the United States Army.” Europe, now a lieutenant, was assigned to assemble and direct this band....

An infantry band normally consisted of 28 individuals, but for the music that he wanted to play, Europe felt that the minimum wouldn’t work, and due to his standing in the musical community, he was permitted to recruit 40 musicians. At one point, the regimental band reached 65 musicians, but most were not actual soldiers, and many were unwilling to enlist. In addition, Europe had recruited Black musicians from around the United States, but after some rehearsals, Europe realized the clarinet section was weak. He needed these players on short notice, and they had to meet three requirements: they had to read music well, be disciplined, and most importantly, had to be Black.

Puerto Rico

Europe traveled to Puerto Rico where he recruited 18 Afro-Puerto Ricans from the island’s municipal bands. How did Europe know he could find well-trained musicians on the tiny island of Puerto Rico? There are a few possible reasons. The respected Puerto Rican bass and tuba player, Rafael Escudero had played in Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra, and there were also Puerto Rican musicians in Europe’s Syncopated Society Orchestra, which played for the Castles, so Europe would have been familiar with the quality of musicians from Puerto Rico (Thompson and Moreno de Schwartz 2008, 3). The Victor Talking Machine Company had been in San Juan in early 1917 on a recording tour through Latin America, and Manuel Tizol’s band (whom Rafael Hernández had played for in San Juan) had recorded for them. Europe also recorded with Victor, so through the record label, he would have been aware of Tizol and the musicians who performed with him (Glasser 1995, 55). Tizol was known on the music scene in New York, because he regularly contracted orchestras from New York to play in San Juan. In fact, he likely had preselected some potential musicians for Europe prior to Europe’s visit to the island; therefore, Rafael would certainly have been on the list of candidates (Thompson and Moreno de Schwartz 2008, 4). ...

Puerto Ricans have had a unique relationship with the United States since 1898, with the ending of the Spanish- Cuban-American War, which also made the island a natural place to turn to for more musicians. In 1899, the US Congress authorized the establishment of a Puerto Rican military unit, and the following year the Porto Rico Battalion was established, and this eventually became the Porto Rico Regiment, US Infantry, and eventually the 65th Regiment, US Infantry (the Anglicized name for the island was used until 1932, when it was changed back to the Spanish spelling through U.S. Code, Title 48, Sec. 731a). In World War I, 236,000 registered for the draft on the island; however, a total of 17,855 actually served in the war (Cabán 1999, 202). Many Puerto Ricans were sent to Panama for the strategic defense purposes thought necessary by many in Congress. The passing of the Jones-Shafroth Act in Congress on March 2, 1917, imposed US citizenship on Puerto Ricans, which just facilitated the process of recruitment of Puerto Ricans into the military; since they would have been available for recruitment anyway, along with other immigrants, as citizens now, they would be migrants to the mainland.

Every source lists a different number of recruits from Puerto Rico. Noble Sissle’s memoir states Europe “enlisted fifteen of the best Porto Rican musicians” (Sissle 1942, 51); a document from the James Reese Europe Collection at the Schomburg Manuscript Collection lists 18 musicians; and the ship manifests on the Ellis Island Passenger Search, www.ellisisland.org, also lists 18 musicians arriving on at least three different ships, but a couple of names are different from the document in the Schomburg collection. According to the Ellis Island passenger manifests, they came in three groups to New York. The first group came onboard the SS Caracas, along with Europe, on May 5, 1917, and were enlisted the same day they arrived in New York City on May 11. The second group included Rafael Hernández and his brother, along with Eligio Rijos, and they arrived July 23. The last group had Duchesne (the nephew), Cruz, and Sánchez and arrived on August 6 aboard the SS Brazos. In this last group, not all the names coincide with the list below, and one from the list, Ramón Hernández, has an enlistment date when the regiment would have already been en route to Europe.

The 18 Puerto Rican Harlem Hellfighters are listed here (James Reese Europe Collection, 1847–1996, Box 1, Folder 1):

Rafael Hernández
Rafael Duchesne
Antonio Gonzales
Severino Hernández
Eligio Rijos
Gregorio Feliz
Jesús Hernández
Jiminez Froylan
Elenterio Melendez
Nicholas Vasquez*
José Rosa
Janero Torres
Leonardo Cruz
Pablo Fuentes
Arturo B. Ayala
Sixto Benites
Ramón M. Hernández
Angel Carrión
DOB Oct. 1898
May 11, 1917
May 11, 1917
May 11, 1917
May 11, 1917
July 24, 1917
May 11, 1917
July 25, 1917
May 1, 1917
May 11, 1917
May 11, 1917
May 11, 1917
May 11, 1917
August 12, 1917
May 11, 1917
May 11, 1917
May 11, 1917
February 13, 1918
June 5, 1917
Band SGT
Musc 1st CL
Musc 1st CL
Musc 2nd CL
Musc 2nd CL
Musc 1st CL
Musc 1st CL
Musc 3rd CL
Musc 2nd CL
Musc 2nd CL
Musc 2nd CL
Musc 2nd CL
Band SGT
Band Corporal
Musc 3rd CL
Musc 3rd CL
Musc 2nd CL
*(He is listed a second time as Nicholas Vasquese, but has same Service Number)

Tim Gracyk (1996), in his liner notes, has tried to reconstruct the band and has come up with the following:

TromboneRafael Hernández
TromboneRafael Hernández
ClarinetRafael Duchesne, Antonio Gonzales, Gregorio Felix Delgado, Genaro Torres, Elige Rijos, Jesús Hernández, Arturo B. Ayala
SaxophoneCeferino Hernández
BassoonPablo Fuentes
MellophoneFrancisco Meléndez, Eleuterio Meléndez
Baritone HornsNicolas Vazquez, Froilan Jiménez
TubaJosé Rivera Rosas, Sixto Benitez

World War I

So 18 musicians from Puerto Rico sailed to New York and were enlisted in the 15th Infantry Regiment. In his memoirs, Noble Sissle recounts the obstacles encountered by them, such as a radically different climate and a language barrier, but musically, they continued to shine. ...

In the summer of 1917, National Guard troops were mustered into federal service, and in early 1918, the regiment sailed for France and became the first African American military unit to ever land in Europe (Harris 2003, 152). Yet in all their experiences that led to their going to fight on the European front, the men of the regiment experienced racism. One such incident occurred when Colonel Hayward asked to have the 15th included in the Rainbow Division (Guard units from 27 states) for the farewell parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City. He was told the Regiment could not join the parade because, “Black is not a color of the rainbow” (Nelson 2009, 31). Jim Crow followed them to France. Under orders from General John Pershing, the commander of the US forces, and following the War Department’s segregation policy, Blacks were not allowed to fight with the white US Army. In fact, many African Americans worked in the Services of Supply when they arrived in France and were harassed by officers, fellow soldiers, and military police (Sammons and Morrow 2014, 214). Pershing, however, had heard of Europe’s musical reputation, and as soon as they landed, he had them transferred to his headquarters to entertain the officers (Shack 2001, 18). As there were not enough Black regiments to form their own division, the 15th Infantry was “temporarily detached” from the US Army and put under the command of the French army as part of its 16th Division (Pershing had “lent” the 27th and 30th Divisions to the British, but they retained their identity as part of the fighting forces of the US Army) (Laskin 2010, 228). They were now called the 369th US Infantry Regiment (369 ème Régiment d’Infanterie US) and were the only American regiment with the French army. In March 1918, they had started training with the French army, and they now wore some of the accoutrements of the French army— blue helmets of the French Infantry (which were later replaced with American helmets), leather belts and pouches, and French Lebel rifles with bayonets. ...

Ironically, the first Black US soldiers to engage in combat did so while serving in the French army (Sammons and Morrow 2014, 76). The regiment soon gained the name “Hellfighters” for their prowess in battle and became one of the most decorated on the European Front, even earning the French Croix de Guerre. ...

The musicians in the regimental band did not actually fight because, customarily, band members act as stretcher-bearers in the Ambulance Corps (though this did not lessen their danger, as it often put them on the front lines). Rafael (who had became a sergeant in the band) remembered “running from trench to trench offering help to the wounded more than playing music” (Javaríz, quoted in Glasser 1995, 63). But the band (by this time in France, it was comprised of 44 members) gained its own recognition, credited with introducing proto-jazz and ragtime to the European continent. The music that heralded jazz had probably been played in Paris before, but the 369th Regiment band introduced this music to the French working class (Harris 2003, 155). In 1917, the band played in 25 French cities, performing for both French civilians and Allied soldiers who were at first astonished and then entranced by the music they heard. It was basically ragtime music adapted and performed for a marching band and not what came to be known as “jazz.” They didn’t improvise, which is a major feature of jazz, but the music contained many jazz-like elements such as “breaks, riffs, and trombone smears” (Ward and Burns 2000, 68). ...

After serving 10 months in France and 191 days under fire—the longest time spent by any US regiment during the war (Badger 1986, 36; Harris 2003, 185), the 369th US Infantry Regiment triumphantly returned to the United States as the most decorated US combat unit in WWI. On February 17, 1919, they were the first African Americans ever to lead the parade down Fifth Avenue, led by Drum Major “Bojangles” Robinson (Shack 2001, 20). ...

Rafael and Victoria Hernandez.
Rafael and Victoria Hernández. Courtesy of Miguel Angel Amadeo.

James Reese Europe’s decision to bring musicians back from Puerto Rico, many of whom would settle in New York City after the war, would change the face of New York’s and Latin America’s music scene forever (and Paris, too, as French audiences in the Montmartre quarter were soon eager to hear and see Black performers, such as Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and Paul Robeson). Europe’s cultural importance cannot be overstated, as many credit him as one of the initiators of the subsequent Harlem Renaissance. Due to the regimental band’s success, bands with Black musicians became a regular feature on Broadway, and this opened doors for many other Puerto Rican musicians such as Moncho Usera and Augusto Coen; and it led to Rafael settling in New York City for a short time.

Rafael’s Musical Career in New York, Cuba, and Mexico

I will briefly outline Rafael’s musical trajectory, because it is incredible that for one whose music remains so influential throughout the entire Western Hemisphere, many times he doesn’t even garner a footnote in the regimental band’s story. ...

Into this milieu in February 1919, Rafael settled in New York City. He soon found work with the Harlem stride pianist Lucky Roberts (a fellow comrade in the 369th). In 1921, he was offered the job to direct the orchestra of the Teatro Fausto in Havana and went to Cuba. There, he composed songs that would become part of his celebrated repertoire, such as “Capullito de alelí” and the guaracha entitled “Cachita.”. ...

By 1925, Rafael was back in New York City and soon organized his own trio— which included the legendary Manuel “Canario” Jímenez (the famed plena singer). He called it Trio Borinquen, after the indigenous name for the island of Puerto Rico. In 1927, Rafael started a music store with his sister Victoria. According to Victoria, it was the first Puerto Rican-owned music store in New York City, ...

Rafael started a band called Cuarteto Victoria, named in honor of his sister. During this time Puerto Rican musicians, based in New York City, composed some of the songs that are now considered standards in the repertoire of Latin American popular music and have become unofficial anthems among the Puerto Rican community, such as “Lamento borincano” by Hernández and “Sin bandera” by Pedro Flores. ...

...In 1935, Rafael was in Mexico, and during this time he composed many more of his most famous songs, such as “El cumbanchero,” “Amor ciego,” and “Noche y dia....

In 1947, he settled in Puerto Rico where he lived the remainder of his life. He passed away on December 11, 1965, in the Puerto Nuevo Hospital de Veteranos de San Patricio. ...

In 1969, Victoria’s store in the Bronx was bought by the composer/musician Mike Amadeo who still owns it today. Today the store’s awning reads “Casa Amadeo, antigua [formerly] Casa Hernández,” in honor of its former owner and Rafael. In March 2001, Casa Amadeo was added (from an application submitted by City Lore) to the National Register of Historic Places— the first time a Puerto Rican site from the mainland was added to the National Register. ...

The 369th and Rafael’s Legacy Today

One of the first steps that Bobby Sanabria and I took to learn about the history of the regimental band was to visit the 369th Historical Society located at the regiment’s landmarked armory at 142nd Street and Fifth Avenue along the Harlem River Drive. ... Last year, City Lore began digitizing the remaining sheet music from the regiment, which dates from the first half of the 20th century; and in November 2013, on the first day of Puerto Rican Heritage Month, at Hostos Community College (right across the 145th Street Bridge from the armory), Bobby Sanabria’s Multiverse Big Band played a concert in honor of Rafael Hernández and his legacy in the 369th Regiment....

As of October 1, 2014, the historical society had relocated to Taino Towers at 240 E. 123rd Street. Although this move is not meant to be permanent, closings and moves weaken the support organizations located at the armory such as the Veteran’s Association, the 369th Sergeant’s Association, and the Harlem Youth Marines, as well as the historical society, by separating them from the location which anchors their identity. [For more information about the historical society, visit their website, www.369historicalsociety.org.] In 2016, the Harlem Hellfighters will celebrate their 100th anniversary. We hope to see them last another century!

Thanks to Bobby Sanabria, Max Martínez, and Alberto Hernández, as well as Maya Alkateb and Max Marinoff (City Lore interns), Mike Amadeo, Richie Blondet, Noemi Figueroa-Soulet, Major General Nathaniel James, and Vinny Tiernan.

Photo from the concert in honor of Rafael Hernández, El Jibarito Bohemio, which took place at Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture at Hostos Community College in the Bronx on November 1, 2013. The title came from Rafael’s nickname, El Jíbaro, the term for a farmer from the countryside of Puerto Rico; Rafael was also known as a bohemian, as were many jazz musicians. Rafael was part of jazz’s early history, and the concert’s music was arranged for a jazz band, hence the name. Pictured are the Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band, the 319th US Army Band, the string section for the Bronx Arts Ensemble, soprano Brenda Feliciano, soñero Jorge Maldonado, and bomba dancer Cristal Reyes. Photo by Dan Z. Johnson.

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Elena Martínez received an MA in Anthropology and an MA in Folklore at the University of Oregon. Since 1997, she has been a folklorist at City Lore and is currently also the co-artistic director for the Bronx Music Heritage Center. She co-produced the documentary, From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale, which aired on PBS in September 2006 and won the NCLR’s (National Council of La Raza) 2007 ALMA Award for Best TV Documentary. She has been a contributor to Latinas in the United States: An Historical Encyclopedia by historians Virginia Sánchez Korrol and Vicki L. Ruíz (Indiana University Press 2006); Women’s Folklore & Folklife: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art (ABC-CLIO 2008); and New York State Folklife Reader: Diverse Voices (University Press of Mississippi 2013). She is currently on the Advisory Boards for Casita Maria/Dancing in the Streets’ South Bronx Culture Trail, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies Archive at Hunter College, the Bronx Children’s Museum, and Los Pleneros de la 21. She has been awarded a 2013 BOROMIX Puerto Rican Heritage Award and Comité Noviembre’s Lo Mejor de Nuestra Comunidad 2013. Photo by Francisco Molina Reyes.


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This excerpt was from an article appeared in Voices Vol. 40, Spring-Summer 2014. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society.

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