Versos y Besos / Born in Los Angeles on Los Angeles Street / Amy Shimshon-Santo

From page one of Manuela García’s Diary, 1901. Courtesy Autry Museum Archive.

Manuela García’s devotion to music reveals the centrality of the feminine voice in the sonic history of the Southwest. Over 100 wax cylinders of her singing were carefully preserved in the Autry Museum’s archive, but her story had been separated from her songs. In one sepia photograph, she gazes out of frame. In another, she stands with a group of women by the trunk of a thick-limbed tree, branches wide as elephant legs. I was asked to write a poem to honor her for the centennial of women’s suffrage. In order to celebrate her in poetry we first had to restore the missing link between inert archival objects and her life.

Manuela García and friends, 1901. Photographed by Charles Lummis. Courtesy Autry Museum Archive.

I first learned of Manuela García from curator Janice Ngan at a Korean restaurant on Olympic Boulevard over bowls of spicy tofu stew. Ngan wanted to highlight García’s wax recordings at a public engagement event for the exhibition What’s Her Story. As we savored pickled cabbage, and scraped the stone bottom of a bowl of bibimbap, Janice’s imagination levitated between us above the savory plates. I saw people walking through shafts of sound beamed across the museum courtyard like Star Trek teleportation. These wax recordings are recognized at the root of Latinx music in L.A., but our hemispheric research revealed that they are also the earliest known recordings of classic Mexican songs anywhere in the Americas.

The pandemic reached California shortly after Ngan introduced me to community engagement producer Brittany Campbell, and music producer John Hendicott. We pivoted the live event to broadcast online and adhere to public health mandates. I reached out to Ani Boyadjian who enlisted a team of special collections librarians from the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) to unearth information on García’s life including her studies, professions, dwellings, and family members. The librarians introduced us to Marissa Lopez who was excited to map García’s history in space.

As a writer, I wanted to see García’s pages. She curated her ideas in her diary. Music and handwriting were her personal technologies. On the cover of her journal she wrote: “— 1901 —, Manuela García, 1115 S. Olive St., Los Angeles.” With the museum facility shuttered, and her last recorded dwelling now a parking lot, we even toyed with the idea of projecting her sounds and images on the walls of downtown skyscrapers. Eventually, we chose cyberspace.

Cover of Manuela García’s Diary, 1901. Courtesy Autry Museum Archive.

García crowned the first page of her notebook with the number one, drawn with a sharp angled hat. Beneath the number was a song written in impeccable cursive lettering on an unlined page. She drew a mark through the first word in the title, “Besos,” and floated the corrected spelling “Versos” above it. Kisses and verses. Her editorial mark inspired the name of the project: Versos y Besos: The Anthrophony of Manuela García.

From page one of Manuela García’s Diary, 1901. Courtesy Autry Museum Archive.

At first, I misread her handwriting “Versos del Alba” (Verses of the Dawn) as “Versos de Luta” (Verses of Mourning). This reflected my mindset during quarantine. Daniel Bellm corrected mourning to dawn (luta to alba), and blood to willow (sang to sauz) in the line: “el sauz y la palma se mecen con calma.” García’s message to us during a pandemic— in a 100-year-old journal-bottle—was to find calm, recognize beauty, and value companionship.

I’m no mariachi, but I think like a capoeirista. The art of capoeira survived tremendous odds due to cultural practitioners’ dedication to education and performance. I reached out to mariachi Jasmín Morales to see if she recognized García’s repertoire, and sent the songs to Delia Xóchitl Chávez from the Mexican Secretary of Culture. The song on the first page of García’s diary had become a mariachi standard sung throughout the region. Chavez traced the path of the song through publication histories. The song had been copy written by a male artist in Mexico fifty years after it first appeared in García’s diary in Los Angeles.

We could not have fulfilled this project without taking a collaborative, hemispheric approach. Working hemispherically meant being attentive to migration and culture, colonization and sovereignty. The earth is an orbiting sphere, and species migration is a natural occurrence. I am a part of those nomadic flows, and so was the family of Manuela García. California is a part of a connected landmass that faces the Pacific Ocean. 100 years later, half of L.A. residents still have familial ties to Mexico, Central and South America.

Manuela García’s story illuminates the circulation of music, culture, and family between California and Mexico. The daughter of Rosario Diez and Ignacio García, she dedicated herself to study, teaching, and music. She was one of ten children born to her twice married mother. She earned a degree in business, became a teacher, studied theater, scored presentations, and threw birthday parties that made the local news. She defended her self-worth and expertise with dignity in sophisticated correspondences with Anglo male power brokers of her time. Manuela García earned her place as a respected voice of early Los Angeles, known for her cultivated knowledge of Mexican music, education, and performance.

    Elisa Quiñonez of Las Colibri at La Fonda. Courtesy author.

The L.A. based women’s mariachi ensemble, Las Colibri, agreed to interpret the song on the first page of her diary. Suzanne García, the company director, arranged a performance of “Versos Del Alba” at La Fonda—an iconic local space for mariachi artists over the past fifty years. She flicked on the lights to reveal towering embroidered mariachi regalia framed on the walls. A century after García wrote in her diary, Angelenos were still singing her song. Finally, I could write the poem.

Stacy Lopez on guitarrón, and mariachi regalia at La Fonda. Courtesy author.

born in los angeles on los angeles street

 after manuela c. García

born in los angeles
by los angeles street
y la calle de negros

manuela garcía sang
of willows and palm leaves
painted blue by the sea

hija y maestra, daughter
teacher, encantadora de mundos

desde sinaloa hasta la porciúncula
mazatlán to the zanja madre
her worlds still strum the city’s center

coro: —

we read your butterfly cursive
hear your cien canciones
que hermosa eres tú!
how beautiful you are!

cien por ciento angelina, one
of ten children, familia hecha de música
encyclopedic manos y mentes musicales

legacies of sound, collected
dentro del cuerpo, body of metaphor
metáforas escrito a lápiz

alfabetizadíssima, the singer carried
the culture forward as student
bookkeeper, teacher, teacher of spanish

conjuring hyacinth and fern
down los angeles street, spring, olive
inhabiting six homes in seven decades

her voice skips across centuries
floating above the andes, bailando
la zamacueca in a jipijapa hat

coro: —

we read your butterfly cursive
hear your cien canciones
que hermosa eres tú!
how beautiful you are!

la voz de manuela garcía, one woman
more than an artifact, canister of cara negra
more than a check for 12 cents a song

her life, handwritten
at the spark of women’s suffrage
la chispa de un siglo feminino

mujer, no dividida
whole — before and after a treaty, la frontera
inventada crossing calles, casas, familias

her sound circulates el espacio, expansive
sonic territory, territorio abierto de pasado-futuros
songs that continue to be sung

coro: —          continúa

coro: —          continúa

coro: —          continúa

: :

This is one of six project components of Versos y Besos: The Anthrophony of Manuela García. Explore the other components here:

Introduction / Janice Ngan
The Responsibility of Sonic Transference / Janice Ngan & Britt Campbell
The Female Voice Between Borders / Susie García
Mapping Manuela / Marissa López
Our Shared History: The Revolutions of the Wax Cylinders / Delia Xóchitl Chávez