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Felita Oyola:
A life dedicated to art and culture

This biography was originally published in the Activities Program marking the 25th anniversary of “Estrellas Tropicales,” a Hispanic theater arts academy, on October 18, 1997. Felita passed away in December 2010.

     Felita was born in Naranjito, Puerto Rico on May 4, 1924, the eldest of the eleven children of Julián Oyola and María Cruz. Her schooling only went as far as the second grade of elementary school, but even as a child she showed artistic inclinations, taking part in school programs.

    At age 15 she married Joaquín Rivera Padilla, but divorced him after eight years of marriage and four children: Reinalda, Aurora, Emma, and Felita. Her divorce led Felita to pursue artistic outlets, and around 1948 she made her first appearance as a singer in the popular radio program “Tribuna del Arte” (Showcase of the Arts) hosted by Rafael Quiñones Vidal. Even though later in her life she cultivated other musical genres, her career began with singing “jíbaro” music, and Quiñones Vidal dubbed her “the Queen of the Mapeyé.”

From there she went to the radio program “El Gran Batey” (The Village Square), directed by the great cuatro player Tomás “Maso” Rivera, where she stayed until 1952, when she moved to New York, where she became a factory worker until she participated in the popular radio program of Perín Vázquez.

She won a first prize as an amateur and went on to appear in Santiago Grevi’s program “La Voz de Borinquen” (The Voice of Puerto Rico), until she joined the Delicias Quartet, which was featured in the program “La Mañana Canta” (Morning Sings).

Encouraged by her successes and harboring further artistic ambitions, she once more took up academic studies and singing lessons in an effort to widen her repertoire. Eventually she was able to record various numbers with famous cuatro players Yomo Toro and Nieves Quintero, such as “Los Celos” (Jealousy), “Sillita en el Cielo” (The Little Chair in Heaven), “Mi Despedida” (My Good-bye), and others. She moved to Boston in 1965 and began appearing in the Frolic Night Club, where she worked for eight years. In 1970, she began working as a teacher’s assistant in the public schools, where she became aware of how little Puerto Rican children and those from other Hispanic countries knew about their culture’s folklore. Attempting to remedy this situation, she established an academy offering free classes in those areas.

     One of her dreams became a reality in 1974 when, through the interest and the dedication of the parents of her students, she was able to establish the theatrical revue “Estrellas Tropicales de Boston” (Tropical Stars of Boston). The efforts of Felita and these parents, and their desire to have the children of their community become acquainted with their roots, led to the foundation of a non-profit corporation whose purpose was to further Hispanic culture through an emphasis on traditional celebrations, theatrical arts, music, and folk dances.

Felita Oyola in a newspaper article from the mid-1960s

      Felita received great praise and continued recognition for her great work; in 1978, for example, she was named “Mother of Artists” by the Hispanic media of Boston. Through her involvement with and dedication to folk arts, she opened doors for many in the community who had artistic talent. She stimulated, supported and helped them move forward until they and others were able to establish themselves as artists in Boston.

An editorial in the weekly paper “El Mundo” (The World), observed: “Those who grew up in this area remember her from their youth. They know her from her multiple artistic endeavors. Those who came later and grew up under her influence learned from her music, songs and dances. And those who are now on the rise and begin to dominate the scene have learned from the teachers of several generations the secrets of the theatrical arts and the folkloric dances that are an expression of our culture. Felita starred in Boston with the help and support of both Hispanics and members of other ethnic communities. In the course of her life she has earned the affection and admiration of us all."

Felita Oyola around 1965

Who doesn’t remember the charming girls and teenagers of the Baton Corps, an artistic group she created for the great parades of the Puerto Rican Festival in New York and other such celebrations in Boston? Felita is an institution, beloved and admired in New York, Boston, and other Massachusetts cities with Hispanic communities. Both local and out-of-state media have recognized her efforts."

The magazine “Estrellitas de Puerto Rico” (Stars of Puerto Rico) published a four-page article about her in its issue number 96, and the Boston Globe published a front page article on August 8, 1995. The weekly newspapers “El Mundo” (The World), “La Semana” (The Week), “Dia y Noche” (Day and Night) and “El Universal” (The Universal) among others, have published articles about this tireless lady.

Felita Oyola on stage aroud 1960 accompanied by the great cuatro player Nieves Quintero

       Past governors of Massachusetts such as Michael Dukakis and Edward King, as well as Boston mayors Kevin White, Ray Flynn, and Tom Menino have honored her.

So did the editorial of the newspaper “El Mundo” (The World): “We praise her undisputable merits, her worthy labor in anything that benefits her community, her tireless quest for the best for her people, her participation in any venture that seeks to achieve basic goals for Hispanics. Felita is an object of pride to Puerto Ricans and to all ethnic minorities who see in her the qualities necessary for achieving success. Hispanic to the core, she is always willing to be present at any worthwhile activity. Who can forget the moment when Boston mayor Kevin White presented her in 1978 with a beautiful trophy in recognition for her work in fostering good relations among ethnic minorities and between Hispanics and Anglos?”

Felita Oyola in the early part of the 1960s

      As a devout Christian, Felita observed her Catholic traditions with the same enthusiasm that she devoted to her cultural traditions. For seventeen years she helped celebrate the rosary and the chants to the Holy Cross and the Virgin Mary. For almost as long she orchestrated the Christmas celebrations with the Nativity scene and the Three Kings Day feast, distributing toys to the children of the community and thus helping to preserve the holiday traditions of many Hispanic countries and acquainting the children with their Christian and cultural heritage.

Two years ago, after open-heart surgery, we prayed for her recovery. Many thought that this tireless woman would never appear on stage again, but in a year’s time she proved the doubters wrong, returning to her thing: art and culture. She remains a Bostonian institution, and we pay tribute to her indomitable courage, her impulse towards better things, and her dedication.