Considered a local celebrity in the Washington, D.C., Latino community and master of Afro-Cuban music and dance, Francisco Rigores touched the lives of many in the barrio. In recognition of the cultural legacy he bestowed on all of us who have crossed his path, the 2019 Día de los Muertos celebration held annually in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, also considered the heart of the Latino barrio, featured a concert in his honor. Maestro Rigores, resplendent in his silvery-white suit, joined them with the clave and his voice. To our great sadness, a month later, he suffered a heart attack and died on December 1, 2019.
Francisco Rigores was born in Matanzas, Cuba, on October 4, 1940. He arrived in the barrio September 3, 1980, as part of a mass Cuban migration known as the Mariel boatlift, which departed from Mariel Harbor and landed in Miami. The mass migration between April 15 and October 31 that year was initially organized by Cuban Americans with the agreement of Cuban President Fidel Castro. After the arrival of thousands of Marielitos, as these immigrants became known, the United States declared an open-arms policy, meaning they would receive legal status as Cuban refugees. This caused great discontent in the D.C. Latino barrio, which was also experiencing massive migrations of Salvadorans fleeing their war-torn country. However, the Salvadorans did not receive the same refugee recognition or government assistance.
Smithsonian Folkways curator and director emeritus Daniel Sheehy met Rigores early on and played a role in his arrival to the barrio and his career as a musician.
“Francisco Rigores was the real deal, an excellent street rumbero and Abakwá devotee,” Sheehy wrote. “I played a small part in getting him and his musician colleagues settled. He was an enthusiastic ‘audience participant’ in the 1989 Folklife Festival program featuring Cuba and Puerto Rico.”
Olivia Cadaval, curator of the Caribbean program at the Festival that year, also experienced Rigores’ eagerness to adopt himself to the program.
“Whenever Rigores and I crossed paths in the Parque de las Palomas in the barrio, he would ask me when he would be performing next at the Folklife Festival,” she remembers. “He did participate in the 2000 Washington, D.C.: It’s Our Home Folklife Festival program as a carpenter.”
Maestro Rigores readily made the D.C. barrio his home. Black D.C. cultural activist, artist, and scholar Michelle Banks gives us a quick snapshot of Rigores “at home” in the barrio in a poem first performed with cultural activist, artist, and poet Quique Avilés at the 2000 Folklife Festival program and again at the 2017 On the Move Festival program. “Rigores performed with us at the Festival,” she says. “After the poem, he would sing.”
Don Francisco goes nowhere without his claves
you can always find him in 4/4 time
Conducting Sunday afternoon rumbas at Malcolm X Park
white guayabera, white patent leather shoes shined to a high gloss
On sunny days, at his open-air office at Parque de las Palomas,
there are negocios, chismes,and a mouthful of well-rehearsed piropos:
“Oye mi negra…
¿Dónde vas mulata? ¿Dónde vas?”
Or at parties
an impromptu guaguanco,
waiting to be set free,
stuffed in his pockets
“Cargado de ilusiones y música”—charged with dreams and music, as described by Nellie Carrión in a 2007 Washington Hispanic article—Rigores made contact with the musicians in the D.C. area shortly after arriving. He formed the rumbero group Cubanakan and released one self-titled album. After Cubanakan broke up, he formed Los Invasores del 80. He was also a regular performer with various Cuban, Latin, and jazz groups in the D.C. area and could be seen every Sunday at Malcolm X Park singing, playing, and dancing rumba at the Afro-Cuban drum circle.
Cultural policy activist James Early underscores Rigores’ impact on the cultural scene in D.C.: “Rigores arrived in Washington during an important—perhaps further research will suggest—influx of Afro-Cuban musical and religious tradition bearers whose general racial and class backgrounds in Cuba enriched and challenged D.C. social, music, and general cultural arts and cultural institutions. Rigores, among several other notable Cuban musicians, were quite proactive in engaging arts and cultural institutional support.”
Rigores had many faces. At his memorial at the GALA Hispanic Theatre on January 19, community organizer Casilda Luna remembered him as a great leader, musician, and social worker. “Un gran líder – un músico y un trabajador social. A todos los cubanos los ayudaba y cuando no podía, llamaba a Casilda,” she said. “He helped all the Cubans whenever he could, and when he couldn’t, he called Casilda.”
He was also a practitioner of Santería and an Abakwá initiate. He made the Washington Post headlines in 1987 when he challenged the city for disrupting Santería traditions of ritual animal sacrifice, which were later (in a separate case) ruled to be constitutionally protected by the Supreme Court.
In the 1980s, Cadaval was one of the fieldwork instructors at the Latin American Youth Center oral history project and brought a group of students, including Banks, to interview Rigores about his Abakwá practice. Banks vividly recalls the trip to his apartment building where several other Marielitos lived.
“That visit to el malificio [nickname for the building] is burned into my brain. It kind of changed my life. It was his saint’s day, and the altar was huge. As a Southern Baptist, I’d never seen anything like that in my life. Performance, interview, ritual? All of the above? He handed me his claves and clapped out the rhythm. He opened a world I didn’t know existed.”
In her article in the Washington Hispanic, Carrión quoted Rigores on the challenges of living as a musician: “Aquí no se puede vivir solo de la música, quien así piensa se lo puede comer un león, el terreno es muy pequeño para tanto talento musical; en la actualidad no hay muchos sitios donde tocar, así es que hay que trabajar en otras cosas.” Translation: “Here you cannot live on music alone; if that’s what you think, a lion may eat you. The field is very small for so much musical talent. Today there are not many places to play, so you have to work on other things.”
A skilled carpenter, he taught carpentry to young people at the Latin American Youth Center. He also taught music at the bilingual Bell Middle School (now part of the Columbia Heights Educational Campus), where many immigrant Latino musicians taught, including the great Salvadoran master Alfredo Mojica, and many more Latino musicians today had their beginnings.
Quique Avilés muses on Rigores’ impact on him, on the Salvadoran community in D.C., and on barrio:
For me, Rigores was a teacher of the street—una catedra de la calle. I was about sixteen and newly arrived from El Salvador. I came to the Yunais [United States] as a young leftist, an admirer of Fidel Castro. Rigores came in reverse; people from communist countries were given entry on the spot. Rigores was deported by his own government because it no longer wanted them. They were called scum in Cuba, and worms here.
In time, I began to get to know the Latino barrio on Columbia and Eighteenth, as well as Mount Pleasant. It was on these streets that I met Rigores. Later, maybe the ’90s, the term of the refusniks was introduced. It was a term that was given to the dissidents of the Soviet Union, but Salvadorans without a visa and Cubans with an immediate green card or citizenship both became refusniks.
There was a heyday of music with a very sad background. Abandoned buildings. A fight of the poor against the rich. It was in these Fourteenth Street neighborhoods, Manplesan and Columbia (terms that are still used to indicate our origins), that Rigores and his Cuban gang changed the tempo. The rumba: a musical style that for us, the half-breeds of Central America, was unknown territory. Rigores and his fleet are one of the true “invaders” of the Sunday drumming circle at Malcolm X Park. Here, in this park, the first collision with the clave took place.
I learned to play clave, tambora, tumba, conga drums, the güiro, the bell. You name it. Rigores, I believe, died happy that he left something with all of us. La clave y la voz de vieja—the clave and that old lady’s voice.
Click to view slideshow from memorial
Musicians celebrating the life of Francisco Rigores at his memorial more than confirmed his legacy as a master and as a teacher. They all agreed: “No hay músico en DC que no haya experimentado la enseñanza de Francisco Rigores.” There’s not a musician in D.C. who has not experienced the teachings of Francisco Rigores.” La rumba la trajo Rigores—he brought the rumba.
The memorial was well attended by musicians, dancers, community members, city officials, organization leaders, and many more friends. Local photographers—including Nancy Shia, Robert Klug, and Rick Reinhard—contributed to a photo display in the theater’s lobby. The program featured a wide range of artists including rumba, salsa, jazz, and social justice musicians, singers and dancers, community leaders, and video documentaries by Cele León and Eddie Becker. Jackie Reyes, director of the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs, read a message of condolence from Mayor Muriel Bowser.
All dressed in white, Juan Roberto y los Rumberos set a celebratory mood with their opening number. It was great to see our barrio dentist Dr. Oswaldo Cameron drumming in the back. Social justice advocates and singers Lilo González and Luci Murphy followed. Murphy reminded us that Rigores’ tradition was la rueda—the participatory circle—which is inclusive of everyone. Pepe González y su Jazz Trio, the Malcolm X Drummers and Dancers led by Doc Powell, Quique Avilés, and Grupo Sin Miedo performed as well. The audience joined in dancing.
Murphy read a moving eulogy:
Francisco Rigores Varcarcel was born in Matanzas, Cuba, on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I recall the last line of the Prayer of St. Francis: ‘In giving, we receive, in forgiving others, we are forgiven, and in dying we are born to eternal life.’ Although I didn’t know it, Francisco was preparing himself for the long journey—the journey to eternity.
Since the ’80s, the whole time he lived in Washington, we were neighbors. And for many of those years, I invited him to join me in the Buddhist chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. He declined my invitation until this last year when he asked me to teach him.
We chanted every weekday. When we finished, he would offer me a breakfast that he knew would please this vegetarian: plantains or cassava with olive oil and Cuban coffee. He remembered his mom, and he prepared the coffee the way she did. He told me many stories about his life. He carried a lot of difficult memories, and he shared them with me.
Why did he trust me with this personal history?
I was an interpreter for La Clínica del Pueblo, and for the last seven years, I accompanied him to his medical appointments. Maybe he saw that I interpreted everything he told the doctor without judging. He also saw that outside of the doctor’s office, I did not talk about what patients told me.
Thank you for being my friend and sharing your life and music with me. Best wishes on your journey, and I send you abundant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
The program closed with Moyugba Flow. It was an extraordinary event, which Avilés described as “delicious.”
“This is what happens when the community gets together.”
¡Hasta siempre el rumbero! A rumbero to the end, Francisco Rigores!
This article was a collaboration al alimón between Quique Avilés, Michelle Banks, Hilary Binder-Avilés, Olivia Cadaval, Nelly Carrión, Daniel del Pielago, James Early, Meredith Holmgren, Luci Murphy, Patrick Scallen, Daniel Sheehy, and many more. Al Alimón is a tradition among authors of writing a story in collaboration. The term is a bullfighting expression where two bullfighters fight one bull.
We thank Rafael Cepeda, Manuel Méndez, Tony Montes, and the DC AfroLatino Caucus for their work organizing the memorial celebration.