Monday, July 15, 2013

Mercedes La Serneta: Part 2

Mercedes Fernández Vargas – La Serneta 1840-1912

Part 2

The Utrera Connection

During my research for a recent book concerning the family of El Pinini, I became acquainted with many of his living descendants, a privilege also bequeathed by the family of El Perrate de Utrera. 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 these highly regarded people 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 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. The three crucial names in this debate are those of Torres, Fernández and Vargas.

But we must first look at a few 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, but her exact date of birth is unknown: Pinini had married Josefa Vargas Torres in Utrera 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 1895.
After searching the archives of the churches of Santiago el Mayor and Santa Maria de la Mesa, 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 in Utrera 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, (and we have no reason to doubt that she was) 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 around 1895. 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, in recognition of 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?

It could have been because, as the family of El Pinini claim, Josefa Vargas Torres, (the wife of El Pinini) descended from the same family as La Serneta.

Josefa was born in the Calle Nueva in Utrera in 1864, and she was the daughter of Diego Vargas Vargas (Sanlucár de Barrameda C1840) and Luisa Torres Bohorquez[1] (Utrera C 1840).
Little is known of Josefa’s parents and so it has been virtually impossible to confirm her association with La Serneta; especially as the records of the Civil Registry in Utrera go back no further than 1870.
The name of Borhorquez is associated with nobility in Utrera and it caused some confusion amongst the Pinini family when I discovered that Josefa’s mother had this surname. [2]

An obvious link would come with her father’s surname of Vargas, because Vargas was also the surname of La Serneta’s maternal grandfather (Juan Vargas), but this families connections are entangled and twisted in every direction and the link may well lie within another of the numerous branches of this humungous tree.
When one considers that we are bequeathed four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great great-grandparents, it makes the possibility of making any connection virtually impossible, without the relevant certificates[3]. It is somewhat difficult to obtain birth, death, or marriage certificates for Andalusian gypsies when you go back this far, and so one is often left stabbing in the dark.

Josefa Vargas Torres was said to have also been the first cousin of Antonia Torres Vargas – La Gamba (Jerez 1860), the first wife of Manuel Torre. The connection here would appear to be obvious if this were true because of the surnames of Vargas and Torres, which would indicate that either of their parents could have been siblings. It is not clear as to how many brothers or sisters La Gamba had but she did have a niece called Fernanda ‘La Gamba’ Vargas. Fernanda’s son, Antonio Vargas, married Pepa de Benito[4] (Utrera 1937).

It is also claimed that La Gamba was a cousin of Rosario Torres Vargas[5]– Rosario la del Colorao, who in turn was declared to have been part of the same family as El Perrate’s mother.
These connections, if correct, are almost definitely via the name of Torres, which we find in El Perrate’s maternal and paternal lines.
It is interesting to note that there were many people that shared the surnames of Torres and Vargas during this period and this gives no end of possible connections between La Serneta, Josefa de Pinini, La Gamba, Rosario la del Colorao and the family of the Perrates.
The following includes some of the names that could link together this huge puzzle.

Frasca Torres Vargas, Utrera c1855 – Great-grandmother of El Perrate
Diego Torres Vargas, Utrera 1857 – Brother-in-law of La Serneta
Antonia Torres Vargas, Jerez 1860 – La Gamba
Josefa Vargas Torres, Utrera 1864 - Wife of El Pinini
Rosario Torres Vargas, Utrera 1869 – Rosario la del Colorao

The Perrate dynasty claim that La Serneta was almost definitely related to El Perrate’s paternal grandfather, although Tomás de Perrate informed me that there was no one alive today with in his family who could pinpoint La Serneta’s connection with his family; but they do believe that she is of the same cloth.
In an interview recorded in 1973[6], Maria La Perrata declared that La Serneta was “familiar de mi padre” (Fernández), although she offered no explanation as to how they were related.
I had previously thought that La Serneta’s brother Salvador was the link, but I have recently discovered this to be incorrect. It would also seem unlikely that the link can be found with any of La Serneta’s siblings. 

La Serneta had three other sisters. Mª Rosario, who had died at the age of eight-months, Micaela, who never married, and Tomasa: little is remembered of Tomasa other than that she was adopted. The story claims that she was abandoned on the steps of a church in Jerez and La Serneta’s parents took her in, although the names of her natural parents are unknown.

La Serneta’s eldest brother was Juan, who was born in 1838, although he married Maria Vargas Monje Valencia in 1861.
Her youngest brother was Adolfo, although he never married and therefore probably had no children.
Salvador Fernández Vargas was born in Jerez in 1851 and I believed that he may have married into the Perrrate family.
El Perrate’s paternal grand parents were José Fernandez Chaves and Luisa Jiménez Torres and I presumed that José was the son of Salvador: If this were correct, then La Serneta would have been El Perrate’s great-aunt.

After obtaining the birth certificate of El Perrate’s father from the civil registry in Utrera, I discovered that El Perrate’s great grandfather was Manuel Fernández Fernández: his great grandmother was Francisca Chaves Vargas, and they were both from Utrera. This obviously destroyed my previous theory and if the connection is to be found with El Perrate’s paternal lineage of Fernández, then it would appear to be as far back as La Serneta’s father or grandfather.
It seems more probable though, that the connection could come from La Serneta’s maternal line with the name of Vargas.
La Serneta’s mother was Mª Rosario Vargas Jiménez, and the surnames of Vargas and Jiménez are evident with the ancestors of El Perrate. His great grandparents were Gaspar Jiménez Santana, and Frasca Torres Vargas.[7]   

We must also consider the possibility that Frasca Torres Vargas was related to Rosario Torres Vargas: both were born in Utrera during the 1850s and `60s and this may endorse the theory that Rosario la del Colorao was from the same family as El Perrate. This however would be a paternal link and not, as Maria La Perrata claimed, a maternal one, although this small slipup would be just one more in a narration of discrepancies. 

In his book Gitanos de Utrera y otras temas afine, Manuel Morales Alvarez claims that Rosario la del Colorao was related to La Serneta, although he offers no explanation as to how.
He also states that it was La Serneta, El Pinini and Rosario la del Colorao who formed the triangle that was responsible for the Utrera school of cante.[8]
However, we must not forget Juaniquí de Lebrija.  Even though experts often disagree, they always attribute the bulk of La Fernanda de Utrera’s most characteristic repertoire to Juaniquí.
Fernanda de Utrera is said to have been the best interpreter of the soleares of La Serneta, yet it is obvious that her knowledge of them came from Joaniquin and La del Coloarao. La Fernanda would never have heard La Serneta sing because she had died eleven years before Fernanda was born.
Juaniqui is said to have heard La Serneta’s soleares in Utrera in approximately 1881 whilst serving his military service, but as with much of this history, this is yet another unconfirmed anecdote in this overwhelmingly complex debate[9].
Juaniqui was born in 1862, and although he was not from Utrera, he spent most of his life living in a hut close to the town: he is said to have become close friends with El Pinini and his family, and he lived with Pinini’s son Benito for a short period[10].

Although we must also consider the name of Acosta, which can be found in Utrera at the end of the 18th century, this seems to be the name that might have connected La Serneta to many of the great flamenco families of Jerez de la Frontera.

Rosa Acosta de Vargas (Utrera 1776) and Antonio Fernández Heredia (Utrera 1770) married in Utrera in 1796; the fruits from this union includes Tio Borrico, Tio Parrila, Sernita and El Terromoto de Jerez.

There is a strong possibility that Rosa Acosta de Vargas was the sister, or cousin, of La Serneta’s grandmother, Ana de Acosta.
If, as is often cited, La Serneta was related to Tio Borrico and Sernita, then it must surely be though this link.
Tio Borrico’s great-grandfather and La Serneta’s father were both born in Jerez de la Frontera in approximately 1810 and they shared an identical surname; suggesting that they were most probably cousins, because they could not have been brothers; a theory that has been previously suggested.
La Serneta’s father, Salvador Fernández Acosta was the son of Juan Fernández and of Ana de Acosta.
Tio Borrico’s great-grandfather was Fernando Fernández Acosta; the son of Antonio Fernández Heredia (Utrera 1770) and Rosa Acosta de Vargas (Utrera 1776).
Once again though, these are merely theories, and they have as many detractors as advocates   
One could be forgiven for believing that the pseudonyms Serneta and Sernita were too similar to be ignored; and one may believe that the difference was simply a misspelling. However, this is not the case.
The origins of the nickname La Serneta has caused some confusion, although La Serneta declared in an interview published in 1901, that she had received the nickname of Serneta from her mother when she was young because she had the physique of a nimble bird.
The Royal Academy of Spanish Language offers no explanation of either Serneta or Sernita and so it would appear that they were pet names based on andalusian or gypsy jargon.
Manuel Fernández Moreno – Sernita de Jerez, was the son of Tio Serna, and his pseudonym of Sernita comes from that of his father. 

Antonio Vargas Fernández – Frijones; (Jerez 1846) was purportedly the first-cousin of La Serneta, but again I could find no conclusive evidence to authenticate this[11]. Once again we can only guess how, or if, this was correct.
Frijones surname would indicate two possibilities to confirm this assumption. The first is that Frijones father (Vargas) was the brother of La Serneta’s mother. The second option is that Frijones mother (Fernández) was the sister of La Serneta’s father.
If La Serneta and Frijones were primo-hermanos - first-cousins, then it has to be because of one of these routes. If they were primos, a word that is used somewhat freely among gypsies to describe relatives; then the possibilities are innumerable.

All of this, however, does not affix la Serneta in Utrera at any specific time and we still cannot be sure of which year she had first arrived in Utrera and so the debate about the origins of her soleares is far from complete.
It would be relatively safe to agree with José Manuel Martin Barbadillo’s observation that the biography of La Serneta has been misleading and inconsistent.
However, he goes as far as to say that the soleares of La Serneta that have, for many years, been attributed to Utrera are in fact the soleares de Jerez.

There are many theories surrounding La Serneta and her association with Utrera; many of which have no real substantiation.
We must look at the meagre facts available, and balance them alongside the word of mouth beliefs in order to try to evaluate the truth, because there is little chance of anyone producing anything legitimate in order to prove further premises.
Researchers have been investigating the life of La Serneta for many decades and if any relevant documents existed that would finally put this matter to rest; I believe they would have been discovered by now.

There seems to be little testimony concerning La Serneta’s life in Jerez de la Frontera between 1863 – 1882; if, as is argued, she was living there at this time.
There is though, plenty of declaration concerning her association with Utrera; although the likes of Fernando el de Triana and many others of his era confused us with erroneous birth dates and inaccurate birthplace.           
Nobody can doubt that she was born in Jerez de la Frontera in 1840, but it does seem improbable that all of the testimony concerning her life in Utrera is utter fabrication.

I lean towards the theory that La Serneta first arrived in the Utrera during the 1860s: whether she did spend some time living there may never be confirmed, but I believe that she had some considerable contact with Utrera at this time. I believe that after a long period in Madrid, La Serneta returned to Utrera around 1895 and this is where she resided until she died in 1912.
This theory is also believed by many people in Utrera whose parents and grandparents have adhered to the version that says that La Serneta first went to Utrera in the 1860s.
Why on earth would the people of Utrera continue to adhere to the belief that La Serneta had in fact lived in their town for some considerably amount of years if she had only arrived in Utrera in the last stages of her life?

The people of Utrera have plenty to be proud of where the history of flamenco is concerned, as do the people of Jerez de la Frontera, yet they seem unperturbed by all the fuss and the denial; whilst the latter seem intent on continuing it.

This debate will continue for eternity because the details surrounding the life of La Serneta, and the location of her soleares, is an issue that raises considerable passion; albeit mainly outside of Utrera.
It would appear that any evidence of her existence in Utrera before 1910 has long since vanished, or never existed in the first place, but in the eyes of most people who have an interest in this wonderful art, La Serneta and her soleares will always be synonymous with Utrera; as the following copla may demonstrate.

Dos Virgens tiene Utrera
santas de mi devocion
son Mercedes La Serneta
y la de la Consolacion

[1] Certificado de nacimiento de Antonia Peña Vargas: folio 332/tomo 22 Registro civil de Utrera.
[2] The name Borhorquez can be found in Utrera as far back as the 16th century and appears to be associated with an illustious and noble family. Francisco Alvárez de Bohorquez founded the convent that once stood on the site of the present Convent de La Immaculate Conception. Fernando Alvárez de Borhorquez was a celebrated rejoneo who earned considerable fame for fighting bulls on horse-back.
[3] The amount of ancestors is doubled with each generation and so the further back you go, the more forefathers you will have.
[4] Pepa de Benito is one of the only surviving grandchildren of El Pinini

[5] Some confusion has been created concerning the surname of Rosario la del Colorao. There are certain publications that have stated her name to be Rosario Torres Vidal, but it is commonly believed that her surname was that of Torres Vargas.
[6] Rito y geografía del cante flamenco Vol IX – In this same interview La Perrata also claimed Rosario la del Colorao was from the same family as her mother.
[7] La Serneta’s brother-in-law, Diego Torres Vargas, shared the same surname as El Perrates great grandmother, and as they were both born in Utrera, and of similar age; it is feasable that they were of the same family. However, the names of Torres/Vargas are widespread in Utrera and there may of course be no connection at all. Even if Diego and Frasca were siblings,  this cannot be considered as a direct link between La Serneta and the family of El Perrate. (Frasca Torres Vargas was also the great-grandmother to La Fernanda de Utrera and  to Bambino) 
[8] Antonio Mairena (whose grandfather, Antonio Cruz Reyes, was from Utrera) claimed it was Rosario who transmitted La Serneta’s soleares to La Fernanda de Utrera.

[9] El Candil Flamenco  18/12/2006
[10] Benito Peña Vargas was born in Utrera towards the end of the 1880s and so if Joaniquin lived in Benito’s house, it would probably have been in the first quater of the 20th century;, the latter part of Juaniqiun’s life: he died in Sanlucár de Barremeda in 1946.
[11] De Jerez y sus cantes - José Ma. Castaño,

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