Playing the Puerto Rican cuatro makes Isamary Medina proud.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Medina has built a special connection to her homeland through music.
The 15-year-old Jones College Prep freshman, who now resides on the North Side of Chicago in the North Center neighborhood, is grateful her mother introduced her to the cuatro eight years ago.
“She took me to this place and the first thing I told my mom was that I already play guitar,” Medina explains. “But as soon as I picked up the cuatro I fell in love with the way the fingers move.”
Medina describes the cuatro as the instrument you would get if a guitar and violin had a baby, but the sound is much more like a mandolin that has 10 strings.
“The instrument is originally from Puerto Rico and used a lot in Ibero music,” Medina says. “It’s used for traditional and party music and is just an overall instrument in Puerto Rican music.”
Medina initially started learning the guitar because her father played. From there, she decided to try out the cuatro, which she now plays as a member of an ensemble at the Puerto Rican Art Alliance.
The Alliance was created by Carlos Hernandez as a program where children could learn the violin, guitar and cuatro. Medina is part of the Alliance’s main ensemble.
“Our mission is to find music from other backgrounds and give a little Latin twist to it,” Medina says. “I used to practice with my ensemble twice a week, but now because of COVID it’s down to once a week.”
The coronavirus pandemic has created several challenges for Medina as a musician.
“It is really hard to be six feet apart and wearing masks,” Medina explains. “You can’t make jokes the same way because people are so scattered. It’s not great, but at least I get to see [the ensemble] and that’s all I care about.”
Medina’s fellow musicians have become family to her throughout the years, offering her social and emotional support in addition to the space she needs to freely express herself through her craft. This encouragement has helped her stay motivated during COVID-19.
In addition to her Alliance family, Medina’s mother is her biggest supporter. “She is always in the crowd and cheering me on,” she says.
Medina recalls one of her most memorable moments performing with her mother in the audience watching.
“It was a couple of years ago when Puerto Rico went through some pretty high-category hurricanes,” Medina says. “It was the kickoff to the National Cuatro Festival and I had to sing the song called En Vivo San Juan, and I remember singing and having to choke back on the words. I had to push through and I saw my mom give me a face. It was the first time I genuinely felt what I was signing.”
Medina’s experiences in Chicago have also inspired her music.
“We have such a rich history of music, and when I think about performing in places like Millennium Park, I just think, wow, I get to do what I love in the place I live,” Medina says.
The teen musician wants younger musicians, especially in Chicago, to be aware of this as well — and to keep practicing no matter what.
“If I had to give advice to younger kids, I would say you just have to do it,” Medina explains. “Your fingers are going to hurt. It’s going to be terrible at first and you are going to want to cry because you can’t learn a song. But as long as you love it, it doesn’t matter how much time it takes because it’s going to be great either way.”
She hopes to take this approach and attitude and apply it throughout her ongoing musical journey.
“My dreams of being a musician in the future is what I do with the ensemble now,” Medina says. “I want to be able to take any song and just give it a little Latin twist. I want to eventually be able to teach my children that this [cuatro] is our instrument, this is our culture and this is what we have to embrace.”
Francesca Gattuso is a writer for the Sun-Times marketing department.