Mercedes Fernández Vargas – La Serneta 1840-1912, a flamenco legend
The Utrera Connection by Tony Bryant (Part 1)
This article explores the life of flamenco legend La Serneta and attempts to clarify doubts surrounding her origins and history. It is based on years of ground breaking research into flamenco in Utrera and conversations and discussions with people deeply involved in the flamenco tradition in Andalucia. by Tony Bryant. Tony Bryant has lived in Andalusia since 1994 and is the author of two books concerning the art of flamenco: Flamenco, an Englishman’s passion and A Time-Defying Heritage. He also writes articles for various magazines concerning the Andalusian gypsies and their music and has had work published in Spain, London, France, America and Israel.
One of the most debated and inconsistent issues concerning the history of the cante flamenco is the on-going dispute concerning the origins of the soleares of Mercedes La Serneta.
This year marks the centenary of her death and yet we are no closer to knowing the truth about whether La Serneta had lived in Utrera for more than just a year or two.
There are many people in Jerez who aggressively and fiercely deny that she had lived in the town before 1910; hence in their minds the soleares de Serneta evolved in Jerez and not, as is the prevalent hypothesis, in Utrera. This disavowed attitude completely destroys the popular belief that La Serneta had indeed lived in Utrera for some considerable time, yet no one seems to be able to provide the exact date that she had arrived in the town or for how long she had stayed.
One thing for certain is that La Serneta, who is a flamenco legend, was laid to rest in the Patio de San Francisco of the provincial cemetery in Utrera, Andalucia and the timeworn plaque on her tomb bears the virtually illegible words – DEPA Doña Mercedes Fernández Vargas. Falleció el 18 Junio 1912 a los 72 años de edad – Recuerdos de su sobrinos
Her arrival date ranges from 1863, when she is said to have gone to Utrera in her youth to be with her lover; thus developing her soleares in Utrera and not in Jerez. 1882 is another year that has been cited; the reason being that her father had died and so she went to Utrera to live with her sister who had married a local man and settled in the town. Another date suggested is 1903, which is probably one of the most accepted; although there is reason to believe that it may have actually been earlier than this.
However, others state her arrival to be as late as January 1911, when it is said that, unable to sing because of failing health, she went to Utrera to be cared for by relatives until she died in June 1912.
Much importance has been placed on a statement made during an episode of Rito y Goegrafia del Cante Flamenco, where La Fernanda de Utrera says that La Serneta did in fact arrive in Utrera when she was “muy chiquitia” (very young). She continues with – “Mercedes was an artiste, she was always in Madrid, she sang in Madrid for many years, Mercedes was an old woman when she came to Utrera” (Tuvo muchas años en Madrid, cuando se vino a Utrera era una mujer de edad)
But the statement has been twisted and melded in every way possible by certain factors who claim that this declaration is enough to prove that La Serneta did not arrive in Utrera until the very end of her life. The dispute is based on whether the verb “venir” is truly not the same thing as “volver”; did she “come” to Utrera for the first time as an old woman, or “return” as an old woman?
One may wonder how such a few mere words can be deemed as conclusive evidence with regards to La Serneta’s life, and one may believe that far too much importance has been attached to this interpretation. We must consider the age of Fernanda la Vieja who (84 years of age at the time) claimed in the same interview that her father, El Pinini, had only ever sang alegrias and nothing else! La Serneta could, of course, have been in Utrera before Fernanda la Vieja’s birth (1888), but this is only hearsay; something which abounds in this whole issue.
One interesting theory, put forward by Daniel Pineda Novo, claims that La Serneta allegedly had a love affair with Joaquin Álvarez Hazañas, father of the popular playwrights Serafin and Joaquin Álvarez Quintero. (The Guia del Flamenco de Andaluica, published by the Junta de Andaluica claims that she had actually married him!). She had allegedly met Joaquin in the cafe Burrero in Seville in 1863, after which she had gone to live with him in Utrera at the age of twenty-three: This however, has been sternly rejected by the anti-Utrera factor because the pardon (census) shows that at this time she was still resident in Jerez de la Frontera and also because the cafe Burrero was not opened until 1881.
Joaquin is said to have taken Mercedes to Madrid, where she mixed with nobility and it was supposedly through his connections that she gave guitar lessons to some of Madrid’s aristocracy. Mercedes definitely spent some considerable time in Madrid and it is generally perceived that she did indeed offer guitar lessons in order to subsidize her earnings as a singer; although any interaction with the father of the Quintero brothers has been branded as “invented nonsense”. If the affair did actually exist, or to what extent, shall never be known, but there are those who declare that it could never have happened because Joaquin was the Mayor of Utrera (albeit a post he held for just eight months) and he lived in the town with his wife and family.
Would such an important member of the community engage in an affair with a woman, who was one of the most famous singers on the flamenco scene, and expect it to go unnoticed’?
In actual fact, this affair could quite possibly have occurred, especially during an era in traditional Spain where the custom was that the wives turned a blind eye in order to keep up appearances and preserve the family. It was also considered a demonstration of a man’s ‘red-bloodedness’ if he kept a mistress or lover; an attitude still evident in Spain today. Therefore it is a possibility that the two were friends or indeed lovers, but as with the rest of her life, this is something that will never be truly established.
La Serneta was born in Calle Don Juan in the San Pedro district of Jerez de la Frontera and christened in the Church of San Miguel, and the padrón ascertains that she had lived at numerous different abodes in Jerez between the years of 1840 and 1881. The pardon also proclaims that La Serneta left the district of San Miguel in 1860 and went to live in the Santiago neighbourhood of Jerez, supposedly until 1881. If the information on the pardon is accepted as undeniable evidence, then it would challenge the circumstances surrounding the supposed affair; a matter fiercely disputed by José Manuel Martin Barbadillo; and he is purportedly a leading authority on the life of La Serneta.
He has spent numerous years researching the mysteries surrounding the life of this flamenco legend and much of his findings are based on the padron; which he declares proves that La Serneta was still living in Jerez de la Frontera with her father Salvador and her two siblings, Adolfo and Micaela in 1881. Unfortunately, the padrón cannot be considered as indisputable confirmation because, although her name may well have been on the document, it does not necessarily prove that she was actually residing there at that time. There are many people today in the 21st century who, for whatever reason, are recorded on a padrón at one address, whilst residing somewhere different. I would imagine that in this time, almost one-hundred and fifty years ago, people would worry little about the padrón, especially the gypsies who would most often live wherever their work took them.
Another popular theory is that La Serneta went to Utrera after the death of her father, who is believed to have died in Jerez in 1882; ten years after her mother had passed away. La Serneta’s sister Josefa had married Diego Torres Vargas in the Santiago church in Jerez in 1878, and they went to live in Utrera around 1880. Many will accept that La Serneta did indeed leave Jerez around this time, although not to go to live in Utrera; in their minds she went to Seville and then Madrid in order to fulfil singing contracts.
There were as many as three thriving cafés cantantes in Utrera during this period, so it is logical to think Serneta would have worked at them on a regular basis.
It is known that La Serneta did perform in the Café Silverios and also the Café Burreo in Seville during the 1880s. One anecdote tells of a time when La Serneta had to pull out of a performance in a Seville cafe due to ill health and apparently it was El Pinini whom she had persuaded to sing in her place. Although she was said to have been one of the most popular flamenco singers of that time, by 1895 she had fallen on hard times and her friend and admirer Antonio Chacon, the renowned flamenco singer, organised a benefit concert in Madrid on her behalf.
Is it possible (if she was not already living there at the time) that La Serneta, who may have been in need of support due to her financial predicament, went to Utrera soon after this? Her sister, Micaela, appeared on the civil register for the first time in Utrera in 1903, when she is recorded as living with Josefa. La Serneta does not appear on the register for another seven years, although some of the volumes of the registrar from this period are unaccounted for. The Civil register confirms that in 1903 Josefa and Diego lived in Utrera with their two children, Juan (Utrera 1880) and Salvador (Utrera 1882), and also Josefa’s older sister Micaela. Josefa died in 1904, Micaela in 1906, and Diego in 1908 and this is when La Serneta is believed to have gone to live with her nephews in the Plaza de Constitution in Utrera.
The first time that La Serneta appeared on the civil register in Utrera was in 1910, when she was recorded as living in the Plaza de Constitution; along with Salvador, Juan and his wife Dolores, and another woman by the name of Matilda Roman Rozas. Therefore it would seem to be some-what difficult to situate Mercedes La Serneta in Utrera pre 1910, and there is of course the possibility that she was never resident in the town until then; but is it possible that an entire town would conspire to pretend that La Serneta lived there for longer, when in actual fact she did not?
I’m afraid to say that there are those who claim that the entire town of Utrera did indeed conspire to pretend that La Serneta had lived in Utrera for many years, which, as I’m sure most would agree, is insane. One must remember that not many people cared too much for flamenco during this time as it was considered to be low-life music; its performers were certainly not superstars or idols. How, or why, would the people of Utrera collude to support such a farce?
The most intriguing thing is that numerous flamencos in Jerez insistently refute her association with the town, while people in Utrera seem not to care and just continue to consider La Serneta as one of their own
During my research for my book, A Time Defying Heritage concerning the family of Fernando Peña Soto – El Pinini, I became acquainted with many of El Pinini’s descendants, and although these people could offer no concrete evidence as to her presence in the town, some of my theories concerning La Serneta have been based on information I obtained from them. Many of this family have become personal friends and I have often been in their company when the conversation has turned to La Serneta. These people are not liars or conspirers and I have no reason to doubt what they say and believe about this matter. They are simply retelling stories that have been passed from their fathers by word of mouth and I fail to see why these virtuous people would continue such a farce if they believed it not to be true.
In order to try and ascertain whether La Serneta had lived in Utrera for more than just a few years, it will be of much interest to discuss her genealogical line. We must first look at a few facts, or conceptions, in order to make a judgment based on the minimal evidence that is available to us.
One thing of interest is the fact that Luis El Marquesito and his brother Diego are convinced that La Serneta acted as god-mother to their grandmother Mercedes.
Mercedes Peña Vargas was one of Pinini’s daughters and her exact date of birth is unknown, but Pinini had married Josefa Vargas Torres in 1881 and Mercedes was their seventh child, so on a ratio of one child every two years, this would put Mercedes date of birth at around 1893/4. After searching the archives of the parroquia de Santiago el Mayor and also the Santa Maria de la Mesa in Utrera, and with the help of many people connected with these two churches, I was unable to obtain a copy of the relevant baptism certificate to endorse this claim. El Marquesito believed that his grandmother was baptized in the Santiago church but there was no record of this having taken place there. The priest of the Santiago church (Cura Manuel Cuna) directed me to the sister church, Santa Maria de la Mesa, as this was the only other church that would have performed baptisms during this period, but a search of this register also failed.
If La Serneta had been the godmother to Mercedes, it does not necessarily prove that she was actually residing in Utrera at that time, but it could possibly have indicated that she was intimately associated with Utrera. It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion, although without substantiation, that Pinini and Josefa had in fact named their daughter Mercedes after La Serneta.
If however, as is often claimed, La Serneta’s only association with Utrera was to fulfil occasional singing contracts; why would she have been chosen as godmother to El Pinini’s daughter?
END OF PART 1
Much of the information in this article is a result of the many years I have endured researching and writing about the history of the flamenco tradition of Utrera. Many hours have been spent searching through old documentation in the archives of churches and the civil register in Utrera, whilst other documents were made available to me by the family of El Pinini and El Perrate. Considerable research concerning this subject has been undertaken by several other people over the years, some of which has aided me in my own work, but nearly all of this evidence is conflicting and so it is hard to decide if any of it has any bearing on the truth.
Some of my own opinions have no factual endorsements, they are simply based on the evidence that was available to me at the time, but other beliefs and theories have been formed from conversations and discussions that I have had with people who are more knowledgeable than most in this field.
One such person is Estela Zatania; a woman who has been battling against the odds, for numerous years, in order to demonstrate that La Serneta had in fact lived in Utrera for far more years than many people are willing to accept..
Estela’s valuation and comments concerning the life of La Serneta were of great importance to me and because we share similar opinions concerning the great Serneta debate, her help and contributions were incalculable. Estela combined stringency and proficiency to a rare degree throughout and for this I am truly grateful.