La Petenera

La Petenera

Last year I heard “La Petenera” for the first time. La Petenera is a song with its origins in Spain; it is sung in the flamenco style. There are actually many Peteneras, and they make up a specific category of flamenco song with a “palo” of a strong twelve-beat meter. The ever-popular “Sevillanas” are in the same family as “Peteneras”:

The Palos of Flamenco
The many, many “palos” of flamenco!

But back to “La Petenera”. This is a heavy song. Countless theories, verses, versions and superstitions surround it. I’ll try to keep this description fairly simple, and if you want to really go down the “rabbit hole,” see some of the links I share at the end of this post!

The song’s dark, melancholic lyrics tell the story of a woman who brings heartache and bad luck to the men she seduces. One version tells of her funeral, in which the streets are so crowded with her former lovers that one cannot move. To this day, some performers refuse to play or sing Peteneras because they believe that doing so will bring bad luck – or even death.

There are three theories as to how this song came to be.

One theory is that the name of the song refers to a “cantadora” (a woman singer) called “La Petenera” who was born in Paterna de Rivera, a town in the province of Cádiz in Andalucía, Southern Spain. She was seductive yet cold-hearted, and known to be the “damnation of men”. The name “Petenera” would have been derived over time from “Paternera”, a woman from the town of Paterna:

Quien te puso Petenera                                  
no supo ponerte nombre                               
que te debían de haber puesto                      
la perdición de los hombres.

Whoever called you Petenera                                  
did not know how to name you                               
and should have called you                      
the damnation of men.

Monument to La Petenera in Paterna de Rivera, Cádiz province

A second theory is that this song was sung by the Sephardic Jews who came to Spain from the Balkans generations ago. It’s said that some Sephardim of the Middle East still sing this song. In one version, the lyrics refer to a beautiful Jewish woman who is going to the synagogue in search of “Rebeco,” assumed to be an antiquated version of the name “Rebecca”:

¿Adónde vas, bella judía                                  
tan compuesta y a deshora?                           
Voy en busca de Rebeco                                   
que está en la sinagoga.                                  

Where are you going, beautiful Jewish woman?
so dressed up and at this late hour?
I’m going in search of Rebeco
who is in the synagogue.

Peteneras (Mariano Tomás)
La Petenera with her men on strings.

The third theory is that the song originated in the Americas and then made its way to the Iberian Peninsula when conquistadors returned to Spain and Portugal. Or, perhaps, conquistadors brought the tradition of this song with them and it changed over the years after being brought to the Americas. Some historians believe that the name of the song is a nod to the region of Petén, Guatemala. In fact, we do find versions of the song in Latin America.

An old bingo card (lotería) from La Huatesca, a region along the Gulf of Mexico: “In a traveling boat/crossing the blue sea/she arrived from a strange land/keeping in a trunk/her song La Petenera.”

No matter what theory one stands behind, this is without a doubt an entrancing and soulful song. Here are two Peteneras. One is sung by Ana Mochón and Antonio de la Luz and the other is by Curro Malena and Juan Habichuela.

For further info about La Petenera, visit these sites:

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons, Almanaque, Iniciación al Flamenco, Cosas de Andalucia


Published by Alison Trujillo

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