Black History: Special Delivery!!
Sylvia Del Villard (1928 – 1990) was an Afro-Puerto Rican dancer, singer, choreographer, activist, and orator. She took great pride in her dark skin and Afro-Puerto Rican heritage. del Villard was hailed as a champion of Afro-Puerto Rican arts and culture. Del Villard completed her elementary, junior high and high school education in Santurce, PR. Her mother Marcolina Guilbert, was Puerto Rican and her father, Agustin Villard was African. After completing high school, she received a scholarship from the Puerto Rican government to attend Fisk University in Tennessee, where she studied social work and anthropology. After being subjected to racism and discrimination in the Southern U.S., she returned home and enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico and completed her studies there.
She continued her studies at the City College of New York, where her passion for African culture was ignited. While there she joined a dancing and singing troop, “Africa House”. Through Africa House, she was able to trace her African roots within the Yoruba and Igbo tribes of Nigeria. In New York, she also studied with Sonya Rudenka and Leo Braun to improve her vocal skills. del Villard launched her career in entertainment in Puerto Rico in 1963 at the Ocho Puertas night club in Old San Juan. Active in theater she started in productions of, “La cuarterona,” “El casorio,” “Ay, papá, pobre papá, en el closet te enganchó mamá y que pena me da,” “La muerte,” “La tempestad,” “El reto,” “Gri Gri,” “Las ventanas,” “Let My People Go,” the zarzuela “Cecilia Valdés,” “Aquelarre tambó,” the theatrical version of the poems of Victorio Llanos, and “El baquiné” by Abelardo Díaz Alfaro.
Her television performances included: “The Time We Lost” and “The Americans Came Playing The Violin”. She was also featured in “Los Traidores de San Angel” which was filmed in Puerto Rico. A skilled dancer and budding choreographer, she was featured in performances of, “Valley Without Echo”, “Witches of Salem”, “The Boyfriend”, “Kwamina”, “The Crucible”, in the United States. In Puerto Rico, she had roles in “Afro-Boricua Ballet”, “Palesinana”, “Aquelarre” and “Palesianisima” as well as other African and Afro-Puerto Rican dance productions. del Villard started the Teatro Afro Boricua El Coqui Company in 1968. The company was recognized as one of the greatest examples of Afro-Puerto Rican and Antillean culture by the Festival of The New World. As such, the company was offered a contract to perform at various North American universities.
In the 1970s del Villard opened Luis Pales Matos Theater School in Old San Juan. There she hosted a variety of artistic projects. The theater would eventually close due to problems with its neighbors. The closure of the theater left a tremendous void. During this time, she continued to speak out against the discrimination and racism faced by Black Puerto Ricans. She also called for the end of racist and discriminatory casting practices in television and advocated against the ongoing use of blackface. Del Villard returned to New York after closing the theater and founded the Soninke Company. The group performed on numerous occasions at the New York Museum of Natural History. In 1981 she was appointed by the Instituto de Cultura as the first and only director of the office of Afro Puerto Rican Affairs.
Check out this youtube video which features a performance by Sylvia del Villard along with some history on her life and accomplishments.
She continued performing and advocating for Afro Puerto Rican artists until the day of her death on February 28, 1990, from lung cancer. At the time of her death, she was developing a cultural project called Puerto Africa.