Doña Fela: Forever Mayor, Forever Fabulous
A woman far ahead of her time, a trailblazer, a boss, a leader, a mayor. These are just some of the words used to describe Felisa Rincón de Gautier, Doña Fela, Puerto Rico’s first female mayor and one of the most powerful women in the American continent back then. There are fond stories of her time as mayor of San Juan and her splendid presence that impacted millions. I know I have one: once, my mom got stuck in an elevator with her! She told me how calm and collected Doña Fela was, and how her radiating positive energy remained with my mom for years to come. Her presence as a prominent female role model undoubtedly made her an icon that is still widely recognized. As a Girl Scout it seemed fitting to explore her legacy.
Felisa Rincón was born on January 9, 1897, in Ceiba, a municipality on the east coast of Puerto Rico. She was the daughter of a schoolteacher and a lawyer, which shaped her character, values of leadership and education. Tragically, her mother died when she was still a child. This fate left her without formal schooling and the role of a mom to her eight siblings. In her teenage years, though, she would put her talents to use in the fashion industry. Felisa would occupy herself in the art of clothes, even moving to New York City to study design and acquire business skills. In San Juan, she opened Felisa’s Style Shop, which began an era of extravagant dresses, updo hairstyles (which would sometimes be replaced by wigs to save time), red lipstick and nail polish, and downright elegance. Most notably, she would carry a ubiquitous handheld fan throughout her life and could be spotted a mile away because of it. Her collection showcases interesting glimpses of the world.
Even at a relatively young age, she was already solidifying her public work. A crucial part of this was championing women's right to vote. In 1929, Puerto Rico granted women the right to vote, despite the United States granting this nine years prior. However, the right was limited to women who could read and write. That lack of general accessibility to voting drove Felisa to campaign for women suffrage until her call became a reality in 1935. She was one of the first women on the island to exercise the right to vote. Thanks to her work she would meet hundreds of other women, many in poverty. She was saddened by the situation but inspired to work bettering their quality of life, which was prominent in her tenure. It is no coincidence Doña Fela would go on to be mayor: her achievements and loud and proud voice were commanding--and heard. She had founded the Popular Democratic Party (PPD in Spanish) in 1938 alongside her close friend, future Governor and namesake of Puerto Rico’s main airport, Luis Muñoz Marín. That experience was a push to become mayor as her accumulated leadership as San Juan Chair of the party since 1940 left her more than prepared for the job. In that same year, Doña Fela married attorney Jenaro A. Gautier.
Her career as mayor lasted from 1947 to 1968, and the impact was felt all over the island and the world. She was the first female mayor on the American continent! She was most known for her dedication and grit when contributing and bettering San Juan through her multiple projects. Doña Fela had to work especially hard since the capital city mushroomed in population from just under 200,000 to half a million residents during her tenure. Nevertheless, she prioritized personal connections and would open City Hall each week so people could talk with her. In 1950, the San Juan Municipal Association, was the first center on the island to earn full accreditation by the School of Medicine. She also founded the first elderly assistance centers in San Juan and legal services for underserved communities. Some other undertakings include the Centro Médico Hospital, the Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the Tapia Theater, and becoming a Goodwill ambassador on behalf of the United States. This role as ambassador would allow her to meet with world leaders from all over and have Puerto Rico and its democratic values known in the process. She won the "Woman of the Americas" prize for her work in this ambassadorship in 1954.
Felisa would create preschool centers in Puerto Rico, and be the first to do so in the Western Hemisphere. Called Escuelas Maternales, or Maternal Schools, they would prove to be so helpful to support pregnant women, new mom's and small kids. It was President Lyndon B. Johnson would use this system for Operation Head Start. Head Start was a campaign for accessible preschool and childcare in the 1960s to combat poverty in the United States. Talking about kids, one of, if not, the most remembered of her projects took place between 1952-1954: Doña Fela brought in an Eastern Airlines airplane snow from the east coast of the United States. Puerto Rican kids and adults alike enjoyed “snowfalls” in Puerto Rico! This is a great example of her warm and fun spirit.
Doña Fela dedicated herself to maintaining San Juan’s history and culture through the Historical Monument Commission, which preserved Old San Juan and its structures. This would win her the “All American City Award” from the National Civic League in 1959. It is noteworthy that she had a name for these efforts linked to serving those in need through education and other works. At one point, Doña Fela met with Lady Olave Baden-Powell Chief Guide of the Girl Guides. She also met people like Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cellist, Dr. Antonia Coello-Novello, former surgeon-general of the United States, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
She has the Doña Fela Foundation in her honor, which was created in 1985 to champion education, quality of life, and public health in Puerto Rico. For example, they would host a yearly Health Fair that would offer blood tests, glucose screenings, and raise consciousness of several prevalent illnesses. In addition, the Public Service Award honors a courageous, hard-working woman in any sector of work with a dedication to serving her community in Doña Fela’s honor since 1990. The Foundation also offers the Industrial School for Women, which grants services in computer technology, emotional management for life ventures, and psycho-dance, emphasizing the control and expression of emotions through dance. In the spirit of accessible education, the Foundation grants scholarships to 10 deserving and motivated students pursuing a degree in Administration or History at each of the University of Puerto Rico, Ana G. Méndez University, and the Interamerican University.
Lastly, the Doña Fela House-Museum was opened in 1987 to honor and celebrate her life in her own home, displaying her numerous awards, pieces of wardrobe, bedrooms, and part of the information used here! It is located in Old San Juan and is a must-visit. However, be careful to have a keen eye, as there is much to see. Everything from a plaque from the Nebraska military to homages from theater groups in Puerto Rico...she really did it all. The museum truly is a hidden gem, as it is small but packed with memories of her fruitful work. When I visited, I was amazed at the walls upon walls covered in plaques and awards given to her. I felt transported in time looking at the impeccable house rooms. Since I had just studied US history, you can imagine how surprised I was when the guides told me Project Head Start was inspired by her! Another surprise was seeing Doña Fela's cabezudo. I must admit I laughed a bit when I saw this figure with the large papier-mâchée bobble head used in festivals and parties in Puerto Rico to represent well-known and celebrated people.
After finishing her role as mayor, Doña Fela would continue her job in politics as a delegate to DNC conventions, her last as a 95-year-old. Doña Fela died an accomplished and honored woman on September 16, 1994, but you know that is not the end. Her example as a leader set the precedent for more women to join the political realm, notably Sila M. Calderón, Puerto Rico’s first female governor, in the early 2000s. Her innumerable connections to world leaders, successful campaigns, and warmth and dedication brought to San Juan make her one for the ages. Let us all honor her legacy and emulate the leadership skills she fervently shared. Especially you, fellow Girl Scouts! Very much like Juliette Gordon Low, Doña Fela always worked for the girl.
Sources: Casa Museo Doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier exhibits. All pictures taken by Puerto Rico Global GS. Credits for the charcoal portrait go to Antonio Martorell.
Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
“Biography: Felisa Rincón de Gautier (Doña Fela).” Biography: Felisa Rincón de Gautier (Doña Fela), https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/felisa-rincon-de-gautier dona-fela. Accessed 14 June 2021.
Fundación Felisa Rincón de Gautier Casa Museo San Juan Puerto Rico. http://www.museofelisarincon.com/english.htm. Accessed 14 June 2021.