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Who was "El Zurdo de Isabela" [Isabela Lefty]?

According to his daughter-in-law, this photo of Joaquín Rivera "El Zurdo de Isabela" ['Lefty' from Isabela] was taken in Arecibo around 1907 when the great cuatrista was around 25 years old. The ornate chair in the photograph belonged to his aunt. Arecibo was his birthplace, but he spent most of time on the Island in Isabela, hence his nickname. He was always well-dressed. He was a said to be a hard-drinker that was constantly surrounded by his many pals and girlfriends.
    This is also the earliest photograph we have been able to find of the violin-shaped cuatro (the instrument's modern config- uration). The cuatro that Rivera holds was made by Miguel Hernández of Arecibo. Hernandez may have been one of the first makers to make cuatros with a violin shape--although the great Maestro Ladí affirmed that it was Rosario (Sayo) Otero of his hometown of Vega Alta. We have been able to ascertain that violins were being made in Arecibo at that time, therefore it was likely that both artisans were inspired by the ones that they may have seen there.

Photo courtesy Joaquín Rivera, jr.

  Listen to Joaquín Rivera here in a 1916 Victor recording of the 19th century danza titled Ausencia [Absence] by Juan Morel Campos. What you hear most prominently is a mandolin and a curious plucked violin called a violarina, with Rivera's cuatro playing the third voice. Two guitars play rhythm and chords.

Joaquín Rivera and the Quinteto Borinquen

Joaquín Rivera, "Lefty from Isabela" is seen in the center of this photograph, surrounded by group members. Integrants were: (standing) Francisco Paniagua and Alberto Mitchell, guitars; Joaquín Rivera, cuatro; (seated) José López Rivera, mandolin; Felipe Rodriguez, violarina.
     You may wonder why Lefty Rivera is holding his cuatro like a righty. We have a number of old photographs with a left-handed player holding his instrument righty. It seems that it was common for studio photographers to insist that all the instruments be pointing in the same direction, regardless!!

The tall, dark, 34-year old gentleman in the center of this photograph (taken in New York in 1916) playing with the Quinteto Borinquen (also called Estrellas de Borinquen) Joaquín Rivera, "El Zurdo de Isabela", one of the most distinguished Puerto Rican cuatristas of the early twentieth century, and probably the first to ever play the cuatro on a recording. Joaquín Rivera died in either Arecibo or Santurce in 1925.


El Zurdo's Son

We also learned about Joaquín Rivera from his son. Below, John Sotomayor, chief investigator of the Cuatro Project, examines octogenarian Joaquicito Rivera, Jr.'s (1910-1995) old cuatro.