Yvette Martínez

Interview by Elizabeth Sayre, November 15, 2020


[0:12] Elizabeth Sayre: Today is Sunday, November 15, 2020 and it’s my honor to be interviewing you, Yvette Martínez. My name’s Elizabeth Sayre, I’m in Oakland, California today. And thank you to Raíces for inviting us to be part of this Gender and Folkloric Expressions panel, and these interviews are part of that project. 

[0:39] So welcome Yvette, and would you- I also want to say thank you for the inspiration because over time, as a musician, I heard about ¡Retumba!, your project, and then met you and had a chance to work with you a little bit and you all- you know,, knowing that you all were out there was an inspiration and a touchstone and a, you know, a positive model to be aware of so it’s really, it’s a pleasure and it’s an honor to talk to you today. So would you please introduce yourself and tell me what forms of art and folkloric expression are you involved in?

[1:29] Yvette Martínez: Ok, thank you Elizabeth. That’s beautiful, you almost made me cry.

[1:32] Elizabeth: Awww.

[1:35] Yvette: So much. It’s such a pleasure to be able to just chat with you and be part of this great project and I just thank everyone involved and it’s just a real thrill to be here. But I’m involved in the Caribbean- the music and dance of the Caribbean and folkloric music. I’m director of ¡Retumba! And “retumba” means “resound” and we come resounding with our drums, our songs and our dance and it’s one of the things that we enjoy bringing community- to the communities- is music and dance of the African diaspora.

[2:29] We first- ¡Retumba! was formed in 1981. At that time we were called “Retumba con Pie”. That was the name of the company when we started. And “Retumba con Pie” meant “retumba with dance, resounding with dance”. “Dale con pies” is what we say in Puerto Rico when we’re telling somebody, “Yeah go ahead, improvise, dance, let me see you dance.” It’s like with hip-hop now.  So “Dale con pies” is “let me see what you can do and dance.” And for ten years we were using “Retumba con Pie”. People recognized us and I still have fans that when they call “‘Retumba con Piel’ is here” I know that they know us from the very beginning. But for ten years we were “Retumba con Pie” and for promotional purposes, and when we came out with a CD and music, we decided to shorten it to make it easier. For a long time we kept being introduced as “Retumba con ‘pie,’” For years. I kept saying I was going to educate everyone, “It’s ‘Retumba con pie’”, you know? And there was one year that we went to do the Hispanic- Black and Hispanic Caucus in New Jersey, it’s this big national conference they would have and they’re introducing us, it was a great show, but the woman, Latina, introduces us as “Retumba con ‘pie’” and I was like [GASPS]. It just- and I said after that, I said, “You know what”, we thought of accents, we thought of different things, and I said, “Well.” And then, in reality is, we sat with the members and some of the board members and said, “You know, let’s for promotional purposes.” And that’s how then we became ¡Retumba! with the exclamation points on either side. 

[4:28] Anyway with ¡Retumba! I’ve had the wonderful pleasure and journey to celebrate music and dance of the African diaspora. We started first with Cuba and Puerto Rico, we started with bomba and plena and we also did rumba and palo and- but we started with just six members and we were invited to do a presentation at El Museo del Barrio in 1981 to celebrate Women’s History Month and it was- it became a very- it was an important show for us. That was the beginning of ¡Retumba! We only, of the six women who first got together, we just wanted to present this one program and figured, “Let’s get together, let’s work on this program,” and never thought that six months later- we still didn’t have a name, we were just called “The Afro-Caribbean Group”. And six months down the line, we just kept getting called for one gig after another and we ended up doing- going on a tour of a lot of colleges and that really gave us a great beginning for ¡Retumba! and just really giving us work. The Association of Hispanic Arts, used to be called AHA, no longer exists, it was painful that couldn’t- they’re not around anymore, but they really supported us, and really would recommend us. Elba Cabrera was just somebody very important to the company, someone who’s been in the arts, the Latino arts, for many years, a supporter. And that really gave us a really wonderful opportunity to bring it to college students and we would, you know, it just brought us a lot of joy doing that and it’s something that we decided to stay together as a company. 

[6:38] And so this coming March, we’re going to be celebrating our 40th anniversary and wow. It’s an achievement that just was something, for me very- I’m very proud of and I’m so glad that I’ve been able to give women the opportunity to have a platform where they can perform and feel safe, in a safe environment, you know. And for- as members would come into ¡Retumba! They would bring their gifts, they would bring their culture and that’s how ¡Retumba!’s expanded our repertoire so we’ve been able to celebrate music from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean Islands, as well as South America, Mexico, music from Brazil, and expand into- we started with folklorico, folkloric music. We love just the stories and sharing the stories and music and the dance. And we also, we’ve expanded to also include contemporary because it’s- we just have such a vast array of music that is beautiful. And in doing, also ¡Retumba! Is one of the things that I love about the company is that we’re a multi-cultural company, women from different backgrounds, different languages. In ¡Retumba! we have like five different languages that are spoken and-

[8:23] Elizabeth: May I ask you, Yvette, who were your original members, your six originals?

[8:30] Yvette: Right, our six originals was Nancy Friedman and myself, Yvette Martínez, are the two originals still. We have Nydia “Liberty” Mata, who was also one of the co-founders of the company. Back- ¡Retumba!, when we started, it was a collective of six of us. And then Nina Jaffe, percussionist. And then we had Linda Delerme, a dancer, she’s now a reverend, and dances still, if she has to, but she is now a reverend. And we have Rosie García, a dancer. She’s in Puerto Rico and she’s in the hospitality business right now.

[9:36] But it started as a collective and everyone would bring, you know, in ideas and we’d rehearse and we’d try this out and try that out and we started putting it, bringing it together, presentations with a story and background. And it was just exciting to see the variety of the similarities that we all have in our cultures and how unique they all are and the beauty and that’s what I really enjoyed and it was such a great experience to learn about these other cultures and at the same time be able to share it and affirm how so much alike we all are.

[10:26] Elizabeth: And what are the five- I cut you off before- what are the five languages that are represented in the group nowadays?

[10:35] Yvette: In ¡Retumba! we have English and Spanish, Hebrew, Creole…Creole. Let’s see, French, we also have Portuguese. And it depended on who was in the company and when Erminia Apolinario, who I loved was in the company, she would in her music, her dance, we did a lot of music from Bahía. And so whoever came through the company, and we’ve had such a wonderful group of people come to through the company.

[11:32] And ¡Retumba! we started as an all women’s company, an all women’s, female company to celebrate Women’s History Month back in 1981, which was one day. And I’ve- we’re not exclusive, we have had men work in our company and I have men as subs, you know? There have been issues and it has to be men who are very comfortable with working with women as bosses. And, you know, we’ve had a few challenges, but, you know, we have always maintained ourselves, you know, to be strong. And in order to be in ¡Retumba! You’ve got to come with the right mind, spirit, and soul because it’s not just about the music. For me it’s, you know, we’re working with music of the soul, for me, and the heart and here we come together to celebrate, and celebrate music and each other and humanity, for me, because music and dance is in every culture around the world, you know. And I think it’s such a great way to bring people together so- 

[12:42] Elizabeth: So congratulations on your upcoming forty year anniversary. That’s an incredible- that’s an incredible achievement to have taken an idea that, you know, was pulled together for a performance and make it last and develop it and go through all these different evolutions, that’s really remarkable.

[13:05] Yvette: We had a lot of pushback. I mean I’ve- we’ve had people like, you know, just saying that it can’t be done, that women shouldn’t be playing drums, that “Oh that’s not womanly”, and, you know, we’ve had men in the company who you could feel and people would also would address the men who were in the company before addressing the directors of the company, you know, so that’s something that commonly happens in so many arenas, you know? But it- the one thing is that, you know, bringing us all together was the music, the dance, and being able to celebrate, you know? And see the beauty.

[13:55] And ten years down the road of ¡Retumba! being a company, we decided to create a non-profit organization, in order for us to continue doing the work that we were doing. We really enjoyed- one of our most joyful things we love doing is bringing programs to schools, and performances, and just seeing the joy in the eyes and just seeing how they feel, seeing them after a performance or after taking a workshop, you know? It’s very- it was very gratifying and we wanted to continue that and we started the One World Arts. And One World Arts is our non-profit organization and through that we’ve been able to apply for grants and get funding and support and it’s allowed us to bring a lot of the programs aside from just- ¡Retumba!’s the performance arm of One World Arts, but we also have been able to support other artists that have gone through One World Arts to continue doing their work. And it’s through One World Arts we’ve been able to- we present at schools all over New York City, in the tri-state area. We’ve traveled around the United States through One World Arts, bringing programs of diversity and community building. We’ve- through One World Arts we do seniors’ homes, we’re able to bring presentations to senior citizens, communities, and it’s just really been a real pleasure. 

[15:50] One of the things through One World Arts that we’re doing is developing a healing arts component to our organization, you know? As we come out of this and come out of Covid and we get through all these challenges that we’ve been going, healing is just going to be so important in all our- you know, from children to adults to our seniors, you know? Many of whom especially our first responders dealing with PTSD and all these issues of having to deal with all these tragedies that we’ve had that we found it important to focus our energy in creating this component of One World Arts. And also bringing in music and dance as a way of healing so that’s something that is really important to the organization.

[16:57] And we hope that it continues. I’m working right now on succession rights for some future young ones who are going to hopefully continue the work that we started. I hope that ¡Retumba! continues performing and expanding the repertoire and, you know, it’s something that- there are no one stars in ¡Retumba!- all of us together as a company, you know? So I’ve had challenges where it’d be you have some folks that are very diva and want to, and you know, it can’t work, you know, sometimes. Because we’re all together, a unit, and together as that’s where we’re our strongest.

[17:44] Elizabeth: Even so, would you, just for the purpose of the interview, and for people. Would you just tell me a little bit about your individual growth as an artist. You know, how did you start dancing? How did you start playing music? Who were some of your important teachers and what- you know, how did you develop yourself as an artist because I really appreciate what you’re saying about the group, the group identity being really important. Nobody’s the “star.”

[18:25] Yvette: Right.

[18:26] Elizabeth: Everybody’s working together to present a strong collective image, because these are collective and community based arts. And it doesn’t work, one person can’t do it, or two people can’t do it, you know? But I’d like to know, I think people would probably love to know just a little bit more about you as an individual. Could you just tell me about growing up and how you connected with music and dance in your life?

[18:54] Yvette: Ok, yeah, well, I was born in the South Bronx, and I was born and raised. My household, we heard music. My mother always used to love playing music and I grew up in a mostly Puerto Rican community, neighborhood. Spanish was my first language, even though I was born and raised here, so when I went to school, my first grade, English went right over my head. I was like a newly arrived immigrant, I didn’t know the language, and I learned it. It took me a long time.

[19:30] But music was something very important in our household, and my mother and my mother and father used to enjoy having company and family because both my parents were the eldest of each of their families. They both met in New York, they were from different parts of Puerto Rico, but they met in New York, and they were the first ones so of course, as family came, they always were- landed in our household. So family gatherings were always something very important, music, dancing. And my mom always used to talk about the wonderful memories and the wonderful- the music. She used love, every time we used to play “Mi Viejo San Juan”, it was like, “Oh”, always a tear jerker for all of us. 

[20:21] But it influenced me very much, my mom’s story. She- then she became a single mom and she really instilled family and honor and “remember, remember where you came from.” And I love where- the community I grew up in was mostly Puerto Rican and everybody looked out for each other.

[20:51] When I went to high school, that’s where I found I needed to reaffirm my cultural heritage. I went to an all white school. I went to parochial schools, so it was a big culture- and I was intrigued and never felt, but that’s where I started to feel, “Oh this is it…” and I knew of racism and I knew that color was- you know, it made you different and I would see it. I saw the riots and we grew up around that time so we knew what was happening but to really be in a, you know, school, and being on a team, being in a classroom and feeling it also from teachers, you know? So that kind of made me reaffirm, you know, who I was and what my cultural identity was, that kind of made me feel proud of who I was.

[21:45] And I joined Aspira. Aspira was a club that we had in high school, and I’m telling you, it’s- Aspira was also another, it’s an organization and I think Aspira is still around, I think it started in 1961. And it was about empowering students to further education, to become leaders. So it really created a space for young Latino students to network, to gather. Each school had their own club, we would have a borough center where students could meet, and Friday nights we used to come and hang and play music and a band was created so it gave us a community feeling. And we all were learning our cultural heritage because back then Aspira was mostly Puerto Rican students, and it was developed by, created by Antonia Pantoja and she saw such a need in the Puerto Rican young youth who were not going to college and not following further studies and she wanted to inspire them to, you know, follow, you know, further education, developing leaders, whatever it is that you wanted to do and out of that we have a lot of activists that have come out of it.

[23:19] As I became a president of Aspira when I was in my junior year and as a president you’re taken to Puerto Rico, as a group, with the other New York City “Aspirantesfrom all different schools and clubs, and we went and connected to other Aspira students there, we went to the museums, we studied, we took us on tours, it really gave us a great overview of all of Puerto Rico which I knew bits and pieces, you know, my mother would tell me things, but to really get it there and just do that was very inspiring and that’s another reason that I ended up loving the music, you know?

[24:02] But when I graduated from college, I was going to go into a medical lab technician. You know, my family felt that you’ve got to have something to fall back on, you know? I loved dancing, you couldn’t stop me dancing, I was always mimicking what I saw on TV. I would go and I- so they knew that I was just always a little performer, you know? And they were always, you know, spurring me on, so it was really easy, but I was very shy.

[24:37] But I did, I went into and I took electives of modern dance, and that’s really where I said, “Oh my goodness, I love modern dance.” And that was my first study of dance, was modern dance. I did start late and couldn’t afford to go to get professional dance. I took dance wherever free program had dance, I would take an after-school program. Back then we used to have the Casita María, we used to go to- and they had all these different types of programs. But I never was able to take professional dance as a child until I got to high school and then college and that’s when I decided I wanted to do it as a profession. Modern dance, was, I wanted to and I delved into it while I was still going to school to be a medical lab technician. 

[25:33] And I was discouraged. I was discouraged to- first, in high school, I was discouraged that- not to go into medical lab because it might be too hard. I should go into secretarial studies. But I went and pursued it anyway and I started to, but then I diverted when I started doing the dance class electives. I enjoyed that so much more and I really started to delve into it even more and study it and train. And when I approached a teacher that I wanted to do it professionally and I wanted to get started, they told me I was a little too old to get into the modern dance profession, which kind of devastated me. 

[26:23] By then I was a young mother and I was married. I was a young mom. And I was like, “No.” And I used to attend plays and go to dance performances, I loved it so much, and that devastated me. I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t want to go to any shows. I said, “No I can’t do this.” 

[26:43] But I got a scholarship to attend the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater’s training unit and I’m telling you, it was such a great- it was a great opportunity. I took music, theater, dance, improvisation, diction- they even had classes on diction and it just was such a great opportunity. It was like for two years, I did the training unit. And out of those classes, in the modern dance, I was doing modern dance, I was still heading into modern dance, one of the students was saying, “Hey, there’s a group from Hunter College starting a bomba and plena group. They’re looking for dancers.” 

[27:28] And I was like, “Ooh, yeah, bomba and plena, yeah I would love to.” That was something I definitely wanted to do was something from my cultural background and bomba was- in Puerto Rico, my mother wasn’t allowed to go see bomba because bomba was considered, you know- when they got together to dance bomba, they never knew, it was supposed to be something, you never know what happens in these places, you know? So bomba was- and back then, you know, my grandfather didn’t allow them, you know? And I was always curious as to why, you know? 

[28:09] And when I heard this, I said, “You know what, I think this is a great way.” And I said, “Yes, I’ll be there.” I went to the first rehearsal, kind of audition-rehearsal, and I ran into two old good friends who were also curious about it and that’s, I joined this group called Baile Boricua and it was like- I said, “Oh my god, this is absolutely.” 

[28:33] And that very first year, we were invited to come dance at El Festival de Loíza, in Loíza Aldea, which is one of the biggest festivals in Puerto Rico, and we were so super thrilled. There were sixteen of us, eight men and eight women in this particular group. And it was a group from Hunter so we performed in Hunter a few times, and then as we got the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico, it was just great, fabulous. 

[29:07] And the day we were performing, the group that was coming at the end. They put us in at the beginning of the show, they showed us as a young group, from New York. We were so- it was just a wonderful experience. Backstage was a group that was coming in, they were the elders. And I was just so fascinated with the drums, the costumes and they were- we were sharing stories and they were so happy that we were still keeping up the tradition and how lovely. And I, you know, we were just enthralled by them and we were talking and they had been doing it for years and one of the women was saying, “Yeah, you know, we’re bomba dancers and we’re going to die bomba dancers.” And the youngest person in the group was seveny-five years old and I was like, “What?” 

[30:01] And that’s when I decided, ok this is where I’m staying, in the folkloric music of Puerto Rico because you could be any size, any age, and all you need to do is to have the love, the music, and the dance and that’s how- what influenced me to get into bomba and plena and then it just- I resonated with bomba so much just because of the freedom of dance and expression. And especially the bomba de Loíza. The bomba de Loíza is the one that just, every time I would dance it, it would just, you know, it just made me feel so great.

[30:42] And I was shy at first because I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, but I, you know, I learned and would go to the festivals and years later I ended up- actually that year- I ended up meeting the Cepeda family and they were so happy that we were doing that. And I ended up taking a picture with Rafael and Julia. Julia was like five years old and it was just such a thrill. And then I- years later I would come to take workshops with Julia when they came to New York to do the program, Dos Alas.

[31:25] Elizabeth: Do you still have the picture? You should-

[31:29] Yvette: I will.

[31:30] Elizabeth: You have to scan it or you know- so it would be great to have it with your interview or with your materials on Raíces’ website, you know. I think that’s amazing.

[31:39] Yvette: Absolutely, I am going to dig that through. I have so much, so many connections with the different members of the family and to me, it was such an honor. And I did interview Rafael Cepeda a few times when we were doing our research, and he was so welcoming, you know? And it was just so nice for him to take the time and it was a real honor. 

[32:05] And that’s what really got me started. And after that we decided, “Ok, we’re going to stay together for sure,” and the company just kept working. And then we got approached in 1981. Linda Dererme, one of the dancers was approached to- they wanted to do a presentation at Museo del Barrio for Women’s History Month. And we considered taking the company of sixteen, but then when we went to see the space, we saw how little it was and it was like, “Ooh, we’re not going to be able to perform with sixteen dancers.” And we were trying to redesign the program. Then, one of the coordinators asked, “Is there any possibility we could keep it all women, it’s a women’s event, it’s Women’s History Month”, and that’s when the wheels started…And we said, “Yeah, well you know what, yeah.” And Linda knew two- two other percussionists, and Rosie and I, we were the dancers, and then we called a rehearsal together and that was in 1981, that’s when I first- in January. 

[33:17] And that’s when I met Nydia and Nancy and I had never seen women drummers before. I had heard about them, “well, yeah, sure sure,” and we talked. And so here we are in the first meeting, I was nervous as all heck. Just because I wasn’t all that sure of all my history also, so I had to kind of, we’re trying to develop a program that I’m still learning about and so we got there and so we talked about it, we had about an hour, we’re discussing back and forth and I say, “Ok, let’s try some rhythm.” And then I see the women, the three women, they get up and they sit on the conga drums, and I was like, “Holy smokes!” And then I started hearing them playing and I was like, “Ohhhh, wow!” It just really, it’s the first time I had seen and I- it just really, it impressed me very much and I said, “Wow, this is exciting.” 

[34:17] And it was just from there. Everybody was really interested in the work and in continuing it, and about, I think it was in 1982, we were approached by Pete and Toshi Seeger. Pete Seeger. They did a yearly festival called the Hudson River Revival and it was a wonderful festival. They bought- they had like maybe, I think it was like five stages and they would have outdoor. It was a big- it was a three day festival and, you know, they had performances, they had workshops, they had family things. It was in a big, in a big location, outdoor. So that, for us, was, for us, for the three dancers, because the other musicians had been performing professionally already, but for us that was the biggest professional gig for us. And we were getting paid! So it was a real boost to our- to ¡Retumba!, and from then, it just became something that, you know, we kept developing, working, bringing in new people. We’ve had some fabulous women being part of ¡Retumba!, I’m so proud of the women that have come. People have come and gone, the doors are always open. 

[35:52] And there’s- about two years ago, I had the opportunity to perform at Lancaster Music Festival, the Latin American Music Festival in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They have an annual festival which is fabulous because he brings groups from different music and dance of Latin America and he wanted us to come and present Puerto Rico and focus on that because there’s a large community of people from Puerto Rico. I said sure, and I started calling everybody together and it was- when I was introducing the members on stage- I was able to bring I think twelve people with us, which was- throughout the years has been very difficult. The group has ranged from six, it grew to ten, I’ve had up to fourteen. And it’s fabulous, I love it when I have the whole company. And then as time, funding, things get cut and the group went from here, here, different- and so we’ve always been creating different programs, different repertoires so we can stay active. 

[37:05] Anyway, getting back to the- we- as I was introducing the members at this festival, I was like, I got so emotional because I had members from every decade of ¡Retumba! on stage who have gone and come back or- And I was like, “Wow, from the beginning.” 

[37:26] Nydia was away- one of the cofounders, Nydia Mata- she was away for like twenty years, you know, and then came back. And she as at this festival. My bass player had been out with child, studying, getting her two masters and her- producing her own stuff, and it was just fabulous to have all of these, you know, people coming together and it’s something that I’m happy to, to have- that people have been with me for many years, you know? It’s a great-

[38:01] And we’ve also performed in great venues, you know, which has been really fabulous. We’ve- in a couple of theaters, at Lincoln Center, we’ve done Carnegie Hall. I did Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger as well as through the Carnegie Hall Foundation where they bring performances for the community. We’ve done NJPAC, the Apollo Theater, we just did last year which was a fabulous thrill. You know, Florida, Tampa Bay, The Disney Concert Hall in California. And it’s just been a really wonderful journey and I’m thrilled. It’s always started as something just to celebrate our music and it’s, it’s taken me, and I am so thankful every day that I had been able to continue to do the work and be able to support myself and the members of the company. 

[39:07] And a lot of it is through the Arts in Education programs that we bring to the schools, which is the- one of the reasons that I wanted to start, we started the One World Arts- is that bringing programs and educational, as cultural, educational, as well as entertaining programs to schools and communities has been a real thrill. And all our programs are interactive so that the audience gets involved either through singing, through clapping, through dancing, we always open the stage up for everybody- you know, people to come up and dance with us. It’s part of- if you don’t come up and dance with us, we can’t leave. That’s always been something I threaten, but I just find that it’s so much fun to share. And music and dance, I find that it breaks down barriers. It brings people to have fun and enjoy and so-

[40:10] Elizabeth: Yvette, tell me a little- just because that’s my special interest. Tell me a little bit about how you connected to- I know you mentioned meeting Nydia and Nancy prior to your foundational gig in 1981. Tell me how you connected to Cuban folklore, dance, and music. Just tell me a little bit about that journey too. Because I know that’s been a big part of your performance as well.

[40:39] Yvette: Absolutely. Yeah, back in the- well, for me, back when I started to really delve into our cultural background and I used to spend a lot of time in East Harlem, el Museo de Barrio, at the Centro, Hunter College, at  el Centro, este Puerto Rican studies and just constantly doing research and I would, we would, Pepe Castillo, is a cuatro player and we would- anytime they had workshops, I started with the Puerto Rico. Cuba came a little, I would say maybe about two years after ¡Retumba! started that I got involved with the Boys’ Harbor. Many of our musicians, I myself, we attended and took classes at the Boys’ Harbor Performing Arts School. They have a fabulous Latin Music component, I mean, performing arts center. And it was just fabulous, great teachers. And I became part of their folkloric group and Roberto Borrell, when he first came from- when he arrived here, they started a group called Kubatá, and they started looking for dancers and I was just really, really interested, and started taking workshops and Roberto invited me to come as a dancer and I was like, “Yeah, let’s just, let’s do it.” 

[42:16] And I just loved it and it just- what a wonderful teacher he is and a terrific choreographer. I learned so much from him and that clave boy he made sure you knew that clave in and out, no excuses- not being able to come in on the bombo, you know, which is really difficult to do. But it’s- was a wonderful teacher and I always think of him dearly because he was so patient and, you know, even with the company members, we came in and there’s three or four of us who were Nuyorquinas, you know, so we had a lot to learn in terms of the Cuban. Ooh man, the songs, it was just a vast amount of music and dance. It was like, “Wow.” It was just- it opened up another avenue of music and it’s so intense as well as so incredibly interesting. The rhythms, the music, the dance, from the folkloric to the religious to the contemporary. So it just- it was just a wonderful thing. 

[43:37] And the mambo, which is- it was the first dance I learned when I was five years old was the mambo. And just recently, I delved into, into teaching the proper mambo, which, you know, I have been afraid for a long time, people kept saying, “Only a Cuban can teach mambo, only a Cuban can teach mambo.” So I reluctantly would not do it. But people would ask and it was part of our music, part of our dance. And mambo is not the salsa that people know, but it was such a fascinating dance, and the history, that I ended up doing it just recently, last year, as a community engagement workshop here, where I live and it- people loved it. And just because of connection of swing and just bringing all of those elements of what influenced the mambo, it’s just fascinating. So yeah, that’s- 

[44:45] I’m still learning, I’m still a student of learning and also it’s something that I started maybe ten years ago maybe, also playing the okonkolo in the family of batá, which, you know, I would never would have thought of playing percussion, you know? And I do love- the güiro, I play the güiro, I love the panderetas, and clave, but drumming was not something- I love it- but it’s not something that I picked up, and this came so natural to me, and I think because of learning to dance and the songs. What I learned first was the songs and the dance and I was so fascinated, just by the movement, and the depth of history in the dance and music of the Orishas that- it was just fascinating. And I- the okonolo is almost like, I hear the rhythm, don’t tell me what I’m playing, but my hands, they know what to do. It’s because, of course, Roberto was such a great teacher that I know what I want to hear and I know when it’s not right. So it’s been a big joy for me to pick that part up, to pick up percussion and playing it as part of the ensemble, which has been a great- a lot of fun.

[46:20] Elizabeth: That’s, that’s wonderful. And Roberto is still at it, and he is my teacher as well. 

[46:30] Yvette: I love it. Oh my god. Give him a big hug for me when you see him.

[46:34] Elizabeth: For sure. Ok, let me- you’ve been talking about your educational work, that’s really an important part of ¡Retumba! and has been a big part of your work over your years. Tell me a little bit about your teaching. Do you consider yourself to be a traditional folkloric teacher? What are you like as a teacher when you go into a school and give a workshop, or give a- do a residency, and what’s important to you as a teacher?

[47:11] Yvette: Yeah, well, wow. That’s a great question because there’s so many- and it’s, you know, of course, throughout the years it’s evolved. Right now for me, the most important thing for me when I leave a student, whether I’ve done a year long residency where I’ve done maybe ten sessions, one sessions, two sessions, you know, three session segment, is that- leaving them with feeling good about themselves, and feeling that there is a lineage that we all come from. 

[47:53] All of us come from, you know, come from great an- our ancestors, who fought so hard to make such a better place for us that for me it’s important to honor, and to learn and to feel, you know? Study your legacy, study your history so that you know, gives you where to go, you know, what you need to do to inspire you to become the leader that they need to become. That is important to me, that they feel good about themselves. 

[48:30] Then of course is learning technique, you know? When we’re doing dance, having the proper technique is important. And then learning the history of the dance. And that’s my order of, when I am planning a residency or a workshop is to give as much information but also make it fun, interactive, and have it so they feel engaged so that after they’re finished, they feel like they’ve been on a journey, you know, through the music, through the movement, through the dance. So that’s always been, it’s my goal when I go into a school or a residency or also at a senior center or, you know, any location where there’s people who are eager to just learn.

[49:33] Elizabeth: Let’s see. I want to make sure I ask you some of the- some more of these great questions. 

[49:41] Yvette: One of the things that I love, I mean it’s just now because it’s been so many years, oh my god, I run into students, I run into people who have been to our show or- and it’s great. It’s great to hear that they remember, you know? And we were “Retumba con Pie” almost, you know, forty years ago, and for people to call when I’ll be somewhere and somebody will say, “Hey, ‘Retumba con Pie’.” It’s like oh my gosh, that’s somebody that’s come. 

[50:12] And then, you know, you see students, I run into students and they’ll be like, “Hey Ms. Martínez, do you remember me?” And I’m like- here, I usually do fourth, fifth, sixth. That’s my favorite age- four, five, six, and up through high school. Early childhood I love them and they’re so adorable, it just takes a whole different mindset, but for me I just, I enjoy that at that fourth, fifth and sixth, they’re willing to try. Then they start getting too shy about themselves and they don’t take as many risks. But it’s, it- where was I going with this, I’m sorry, but it- when I plan a residency, I always try to have an end product for them too, you know? That’s one thing that I love so that it’s something that they can talk about, it’s something that they can share with someone else, you know? So to me that’s just something that- important for us, that when you leave hanging out with us, that it’s like, “Wow, we had a great time,” and that it be memorable, you know?

[51:33] Elizabeth: Tell me- you’ve mentioned a few really key moments, memorable gigs. You’ve mentioned a few of those. Tell me about another achievement in your, with ¡Retumba! or your own personal achievement or both if you want to give me one personal thing and one thing about the group that you’re proud of.

[51:59] Yvette: Ohhh. Oh my god, there’s so many, so many wonderful moments that we’ve had. Ooh, one of the greatest experiences that I remember having is I did a- the performance I did at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger. It was a combination of diff- he was doing his music and he had- including using words so people could sing along. He had Ellen Uryevick on a folk harp, on a concert harp. He had Nydia “Liberty” Mata, a Cubana playing percussion. He had Madeleine Yaya Ondele Nelson, may she rest in peace, playing shekere. He- and Willie White playing percussion also. He had such an array of multicultural on stage and I danced bomba to an Irish jig. And I normally I go out to the audience and I dance and so sure he tells me, “ohhh yeah,” and you know, I went out to dance to the audience in my bomba dress and I’m dancing around and as he’s singing he says, “Ok Yvette, where are you? I can’t see you.” It was just a thrill, Carnegie Hall, it was just something that I’ll never forget.

[53:26] And then just recently we did the Apollo Theater which is such a legendary theater and just being backstage and seeing the old backstage and all the folks that have been through, you know, Carnegie Hall, and we did a fabulous show there. I worked with the Education Director of the Apollo and she really wanted us to- and I worked with her in developing the program that we brought to the Apollo and it was a program that we normally do, it’s called “Journey Through the Caribbean”, but we enhanced it with multimedia, background pictures, the music, the lighting, and the stories, and the costumes, and the kids were just, “ahhhhh, ohhh,” so it was a real thrill and I was just so thankful to have that opportunity.

[54:22] And I think the biggest thing for me is just being able to- the education part. I mean that to me is passing on our stories, passing on. And as years go on, I see more and more of our kids losing that connection to our ancestors. And for me, that’s always been a goal of, you know, making sure that we don’t forget. So and now, you know, there’s a lot of interest. There’s a lot now with Ancestry and with all these- so it’s wonderful that all of this is coming to light and people are getting more interested. 

[57:07] But, you know, when I would ask in our Q & A’s- that’s another thing I love when we do our programs at schools is have that Q & A because you really get to hear the great answers- I mean questions- that they have, and you see that our kids need to have that connection, more and more and more importantly. We’re forgetting our language, you know, some students are forgetting. 

[55:32] I would ask the kids, you know, “Hey, I would tell my mom la bendición, I would ask for the blessing,” and in our intro we do a piece “Fanga”, a welcoming dance and we give you blessing. And in Puerto Rico we give you “que Dios que bendiga, you know a blessing and I would ask, “How many of you would ask for la bendición?” which is a tradition. You want into a household, you ask for the blessing, you know, that was a sign of respect and it was something you always do when you present yourself or walk into a household of elders. And less and less, I’d see the kids, you know, they’re not- it’s not something that’s being taught anymore so it’s kind of- and that’s why we need to do what we need to do.

[56:18] And as ¡Retumba! keeps growing and going on, I got some folks who are going to take the charge and keep moving, you know, so I’m thrilled about that.

Yvette: One of the things that I’m really, really proud of too that I’ve been able to accomplish with One World Arts is to be able to bring a group of students from the Bronx to visit Sonia Sotomayor at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. It was something that she had asked me to do. I met her through the Bronx Children’s Museum. That she was a very important idea that she had many years ago to create a museum for children, you know, in the Bronx. 

And so every time they have their annual celebration, Sonia Sotomayor comes in and I would always run into her, meet her, and she even took a workshop of bomba with me. When we were doing our event and she came as an observer and it was just so wonderful. And she had asked me if I were ever able to organize a trip of children because she knows I work with so many students from the Bronx, to come and visit. And it took me almost five years to achieve it because of the scheduling and we were never able to find a right time with the school schedule and the Supreme Court schedule. And finally we did it and what an opportunity for the kids, it’s just- they were so thrilled. It was group of fifth and fourth- fifth graders- fifth and sixth graders who were about to graduate, to go to junior high school. And we had done a whole program on cultural studies of Puerto Rico and then different islands in the Caribbean.

And we had a great staff of teachers who worked with us. And they- we brought a select group of students to come up and meet and they had these wonderful questions. And Sonia Sotomayor was- she came into the meeting, they took pictures with her, and they also were able to ask her individual questions. And she was in the room, and they had us sitting down, like you know, in one of the courthouses, in the small rooms, and she would walk right up to the student and listen to their question and she would answer the question so beautifully like directly at the students and share her story and her upbringing and the challenges that she went through, and it was just a thrill to be able to provide that for a group of our students. It’s something they’d never- they’re never going to forget.

Elizabeth: Maybe we’re, I think we’re at about our hour now but I just want to ask you one more- I want to ask you two more questions. 

Yvette: Sure

Elizabeth: One is, how do you feel like things have evolved for your group as a female led, a woman led group, over time? How do you feel like that project is going, you know? How are things now compared to how they were when you started and also how they were in the middle of your project?

Yvette: Yeah, absolutely. Listen, we’ve had all kinds of challenges, especially from the beginning. First from my own community, you know, of how women playing drums, it’s like, you know, unseen. And even though I did bring workshops to the community- I was trying to get more women involved in playing percussion. And you know, they were- I don’t know- they didn’t want to mess up their- they didn’t want to get calluses, they didn’t want to mess up their fingernails, you know, and so I was- so I reached out and we tried to get more, and thankfully we’ve had so many women coming in, but in the beginning we got a lot of pushback. Certain gigs that I know we didn’t get. We were getting called because we were a women’s group, we were getting called for lingerie parties, yeah, lingerie parties. We were one time called, you know, “Sabado Gigante” which was a big, big show on Channel 47, I don’t know if it’s still going on. I kind of boycott, you know, I don’t like the image of women in these Spanish stations. And they called and my mother was always- my father, my mother would always encourage me. “Oh, you should go on. It’s Sabado Gigante, you should go, it’s a great show, they’re always featuring new groups,” and stuff like that.

I said, “ok, ok, you know, yeah yeah yeah.” 

And you know one year they did call, they did call me. And we were on the phone and I’m like, “Ok well let me see what the, you know, what con-”, we’re conversing and seeing what the group is about and wanted information. 

Then the person who called me is a guy, and then he’s asking me, “So as women, what kind of things do you do?” He started asking questions that were, I think, inappropriate, you know, because we were an all women’s group. 

And I said, “Well, you know what, yeah, I don’t think, you know, this is the kind of show that we want to be part of.” 

And you know, I’ve turned down gigs that I know would have been great for us, but no, I couldn’t compromise my integrity in that way and the rest of the company’s integrity, you know. So it’s been a challenge, and even organizations also, you know, who were not thrilled of the multicultural aspect of our company, you know? Some people had issues with white women playing drums, and people who were also- were purists, you know, in terms of the folkloric, in terms of the religion. And I know, you’ve had that issue yourself, and it’s, you know- so we’ve been able to go, but you know what, that even made us even stronger. And it’s like, “You know what, I’m going to do it.” 

And that’s- you know, it’s the same thing that happened to me when I started studying bomba and plena. I had a relative ask me why do I want to dance “el baile de los negros”, the dance of the Black people. I couldn’t believe it. Our complexion, our lips, our nose, our hair. You know, a lot of my family members have kinky hair, what are we talking about? And it was just, you know, that kind of pushback and things that people- and of course, going into the music and dance, it was also, “Ohhh, that’s not gonna- how can you support yourself?”

But you know? Thankfully, it’s just, it’s been a real, you know- we’ve had challenges, you know, that rollercoaster of funding and money not being, you know. But, you know, we always have been, you know, get through it and we’ve done some great work and, you know, it comes one way or another. I just have to keep reminding myself, “Trust”, and it does, it does.

Elizabeth: Well, also I wanted to ask, is there anything that we haven’t talked about that is important to you about your journey, about being a strong woman leader in your field, about gender, about representing the music and dance of the African diaspora, about the Caribbean, about what you see for the future, or any other topic that we haven’t touched on that you want to mention.

Yvette: Well, you know, what I foresee, and for me it’s like, it’s just my, on my mind right now and it’s where I want to go, in this direction, and that is, you know, bringing about healing to our communities, you know. The reason we started One World Arts is “one world arts”. We’re one human race, and only together we can work and make this happen because that’s the strength. And we can make changes just if we work together, respect one another. And you know, and understand each other, which people are afraid. And color really makes a difference in understanding and understanding and breaking down barriers is one of the things that we’ve always been wanting to do and it’s always been a disappointment when I feel it and I still see it. 

But with all of these issues happening now, it’s just brought everything to light, and I think now we’re going to start listening. As humanity we have to bring it together, we have to come together. Let’s just hope that, you know, we can get to a point where we can be civil to one another and understand. And you know what, there’s many more of us than they are, they just are really loud and noisy, and just bringing them around. But that’s, that’s, you know, as one world, one human race, together, let’s work as a- and minds, rise as a nation because we can do it. 

Elizabeth: Well, thank you so much Yvette, it’s a pleasure to hear about all of your different experience. I’m sure we could talk for many more hours.

Yvette: Absolutely, absolutely, we definitely will.

Elizabeth: So I’m going to turn the recording off. Thank you to you for sharing your time-

Yvette: Thank you.

Elizabeth: On this project. And thanks again to Raíces for inviting us to be part of this panel and have the opportunity to learn more about each other but also to share that learning with the audience that’s going to watch these interviews.

Yvette: Absolutely

Elizabeth: Ok, I’m going to turn off the recording.

Yvette: It’s been wonderful working with you, talking with you, what a pleasure it was, a real thrill. Thank you.

Elizabeth: Thank you

Project Support

This project is supported by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website or in our programs do not necessarily represent those of the NEH or the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.