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Manuela C. García, the Voice Behind a Treasure Trove of Old Mexican Songs

A coloring page created by the Los Angeles Public Library's Octavia Lab. An illustration of Manuela C. García sitting next to a phonograph. Behind her is a faint sheet music background.
A coloring page created by the Los Angeles Public Library's Octavia Lab in celebration of heroes in California. Colored by Tina H. Lerno. | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
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On Mother's Day 2021, the all-female Mariachi Las Colibrí, dressed in colorful skirts adorned with sequined hummingbirds, performed in the beautiful historic ticket hall of Union Station. The event honored mothers while paying homage to musician Manuela C. García. The ensemble's harmonic voices and stringed instruments echoed off the station's Art Deco walls as the troupe sang the mariachi classic "El Sauce y La Palma." But instead of performing the song's traditional words, the group sang the lyrics as written down in the hundred-year-old songbook of Los Angeles native and musician Manuela C. García.

An educator and singer born in Los Angeles in the late 1860s, Manuela C. García is known mostly by historians specializing in 19th-century Mexican American music. García is the voice behind over 100 songs in Charles Lummis' recordings of Southwest musical heritage. Between 1904 and 1906, Lummis recorded 35 musicians as they performed Mexican and Native American songs into the Edison phonograph. He ultimately produced over 450 wax cylinders archived at the Braun Research Library at the Southwest Museum and published some of them in his book "Spanish Songs of Old California." García "made the most recordings and they were recorded in Los Angeles. So it is the earliest group of recordings by one singer in L.A. history," explained John Koegel, author of the forthcoming book "Mexican-American Music from Southern California, circa 1840-1920: The Lummis Cylinder Collection and Other Sources." Lummis considered García his most important "informant" (his term for those he recorded) and wrote in 1905: "The most extraordinary achievement has been that Miss Manuela C. García, of Los Angeles, who has sung the records of no less than 150 songs, with the full words! Few can do that in any language, from sheer memory."

"Laura" by Manuela García (1904)

Born into a musical family, García was the daughter of Rosario Dias (also spelled Diaz and Diez) and Ygnacio García Sr., a prominent figure who arrived from Sinaloa, Mexico in the mid-1800s. He made a name for himself working with wealthy businessmen and rancheros like Jonathan Temple and Ygnacio del Valle. García's mother Rosario "was said to have a beautiful, resonant voice, accompanying herself on the guitar, and she filled the lives of her children with music and song," according to John Mack Faragher in his book "Eternity Street." García's siblings were also musical and several even recorded with Lummis. In fact, García and her little brother Ygnacio Jr. were occasional musical guests at Lummis' El Alisal home and he in turn was invited to the García home. An excerpt from his diary:

January 1,1909. Manuela's dinner was a howling success as usual... Manuela and Nacho came in singing a New Year's carol in Spanish and from then on during the rest of the two or three hours that the dinner lasted, there was singing, talking and chattering and a mighty good time.
Excerpt from the diary of Charles Lummis

García lived in their family home on Olive Street while she worked as a teacher and bookkeeper. In 1886, she attended classes at the Normal School, a teaching college (and predecessor to UCLA) but she earned her diploma from Los Angeles Business College and English Training. While she was known for her musical talents, she rarely performed publicly, preferring instead to play for more intimate gatherings. She did serve as musical director for a production of "Ramona" at the Mason Opera House in 1905 and performed songs publicly to help Lummis promote his Southwest music project.

Learn more about sounds of the Southwest.
Charles Lummis' Wax Cylinder Recordings

Despite her role in the musical life of turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, García left little behind in the archive with the exception of the wax cylinder recordings. The few items related to García in the Lummis archive take up less than one linear foot (compared to 153.5 linear feet that make up his entire archive) and are featured in The Autry's current exhibit "What's Her Story: Women in the Archives." Related to the exhibit, a collective of artists and scholars found enough archival traces to create Versos y Besos, a project that aims to share García's story — "to liberate her from the archive." One of the team members Marissa López, historian for Picturing Mexican America, mapped out the biographical details of García's life from the family' home at 1115 S. Olive Street to her bookkeeping job at the Singer Sewing Machine company. Writer Amy Shimshon-Santo gave cadence to García's life in her biographical poem that she just recited as part of Metro's Mother's Day program at Union Station. The team published a series of essays and musical soundscapes titled "Versos y Besos: The Anthrophony of Manuela García" to ASAP Journal to explore the multi-layered legacy of García.

Versos del Alba lyrics from Manuela García's 1901 notebook. The lyrics are written in faded cursive handwriting on aged paper.
Versos del Alba lyrics from Manuela García's 1901 notebook, from the Charles Fletcher Lummis Collection. | Courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection at the Autry Museum

Also part of the Versos y Besos team, musician Suzanne García (no relation) breathed life into Manuela García's words as director for the all-female mariachi group Las Colibrí. In an Autry panel in 2020, Suzanne García explained, "What brought it all together for me was figuring out the parallels in our lives and seeing how two women … growing up in Los Angeles from the very beginning with Mexican American roots, could have so many things in common and deeply rooted in music." A page in García's song journal resonated with the mariachi musician as the words resembled lyrics to the mariachi classic "El Sauce y La Palma," officially registered by Mexican musician Luis Pérez Meza in 1951. Suzanne García and the Las Colibrí perform this mariachi favorite using the words García wrote down over one hundred years ago. And this was, as Autry archivist Liza Posas said in an interview, "one of the best examples of how archives can connect people." By finding the archival breadcrumbs, these present-day artists are amplifying the voice of Manuela García as they draw creative inspiration from her archive.

A blue-tinted portrait of Manuela C. García. She's wearing a long sleeved blouse with a lace neck accessory. She looks to her left and stands in front of a thick tree branch.
Portrait of Manuela C. García photographed by Charles Lummis | Courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection at the Autry Museum

Sources

"Versos y Besos: The Anthrophony of Manuela García"on ASAP Journal, October 2020,https://asapjournal.com/versos-y-besos-the-anthrophony-of-manuela-garcia-introduction-janice-ngan/

"'Canciones del país': Mexican Musical Life in California after the Gold Rush" by John Koegel, California History, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Fall, 1999)

"Artist Conversation: Liza Posas Versos y Besos" hosted by The Autry in December 2020:https://vimeo.com/487409428

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