In the Bronx, Honoring a Virtuoso of Latin Music


For all of his accomplishments and his renown in Latin American music, Yomo Toro never allowed his fame to take away from his authenticity.

Mr. Toro is credited with the resurgence of a traditional Puerto Rican string instrument called the cuatro, and for making it known around the world as he traveled and performed with the Fania All-Stars, an ensemble that showcased the musicians of Fania Records, once the largest record company for Cuban-based music. Mr. Toro also played with artists like Paul Simon, Marc Anthony and Gloria Estefan.

But right through the day he died last year, Mr. Toro remained a modest man who stayed true to his roots, his relatives and friends said, noting that he refused to move out of his Bronx home, on West 162nd Street between Ogden and Summit Avenues, in a neighborhood that his fame and wealth could have outgrown.

On Saturday, the city renamed a section of West 162nd Street at Ogden Avenue in Mr. Toro’s honor, and the northwest corner now carries a new sign: Yomo Toro Place.

“Today, I am happy,” said Denise Toro, Mr. Toro’s daughter, who initiated the effort to name the street after her father. “It’s my birthday gift to him.”

The inauguration of the new street sign took place one day after what would have been Mr. Toro’s 80th birthday. And with the help of close friends, Ms. Toro, 55, organized a daylong street festival in remembrance of her father.

“It’s a way of documenting the accomplishments of a community through the work of individuals,” said City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat whose district, once based in East Harlem, now includes an equal portion of the South Bronx. “He represents a continuation of our history and a validation of our culture, which is a validation of ourselves.”

The challenge of preserving cultural identity, shared by different immigrant communities, highlights the underlying struggle between the past and the changing needs of the present and future, especially as the ethnic makeup of neighborhoods continues to shift and change.

Chauncy Young, a 38-year-old community organizer who runs an after-school program to educate students on the history of the Highbridge neighborhood, said that while this specific part of the Bronx was once dominated by Puerto Ricans and African-Americans, there is now a growing Dominican population mixing with others from Central and South America and West Africa. Mr. Young, who is married to a Puerto Rican, brought his 10- year-old daughter to Saturday’s ceremony. But apart from her and a few other children who came in the company of their parents, the crowd was mostly an older one.

Mr. Toro’s music and character are largely associated with the traditional values of the jíbaro, Puerto Rico’s inland mountain dwellers. He mastered many string instruments, including the traditional guitar, but he is most renowned for playing the cuatro, which is smaller and has five sets of double strings, producing a more melodic sound.

“Yomo was the connection to our identity,” said Bobby Sanabria, who played the drums alongside Mr. Toro and co-produced one of his last albums. “He didn’t read music, but he had deep knowledge of the music traditions of the island of Puerto Rico and he had what we call in music ‘big ears.’ Somebody would play an advanced bebop melody and Yomo would be able to reproduce it.”

Aurora Flores, a writer and musician who knew Mr. Toro for many years, noted that “he traveled the world, demanded a top-notch salary, and when you walked into his apartment, he had no luxuries, nothing special, like every other Puerto Rican.” The only distinct feature, she added, was a couch, where she was never allowed to sit because there were three guitars and two cuatros resting on it.

Minerva Toro, Mr. Toro’s second wife, who had been married to him for 31 years when he died, said it was the cuatro he loved most in life, and that he had used it as a form of therapy and as a way to bring joy to others. She also said that in keeping with his traditional values, Mr. Toro did not let her work.

“That’s how Puerto Rican men are. They want their wives to stay home,” said Ms. Toro, 52, who fell in love with Mr. Toro and asked him if they could be married when she was only 20. “I knew he was going to be the man of my life, and he is the man of my life.”

On Saturday, Ms. Toro the wife and Ms. Toro the daughter stood beneath the light pole that would bear Mr. Toro’s street sign. They took hold of a thin rope that was attached to the wrapping around the sign. They took a deep breath and pulled, uncovering the sign before a crowd of about 200 friends, musicians, fans and bystanders.

Then the party started.

The air became infused with the rhythm of the bass, congas and maracas, and everyone on the block appeared to be consumed by the music. Some of the older listeners, who sat on plastic chairs along the curb, tapped their hands against their bodies and rocked their heads to the beat. The more reserved danced in their places, while the less inhibited spread their arms full out into the air, shook their shoulders, and looked down and watched as their feet took off to the sound of the salsa.

“My flag takes me, my flag brings me back, my flag takes me to the island of happiness,” the vocalists sang.

Sitting on the stage along with all the instruments was a large picture of Mr. Toro. He wore a dark jacket and a black felt hat. His left arm was wrapped around a cuatro, his fingers striking a chord. He faced the stoop of his South Bronx building with a deep smile drawn across his face.

–Courtesy of New York Times

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