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In Memory of Nellie Tanco

In Memory of 

Nelly Tanco

Nellie Tanco, Central Park Festival, 1992 Photograph by Martha Cooper

We recently lost one of the premier voices of the Puerto Rican plena tradition. Nellie Tanco Ramos (1947-2024) embodied the soul and spirit of Los Pleneros de la 21, Nueva York’s premiere bomba y plena ensemble. 

Nellie grew up in Santurce, a San Juan neighborhood rich in traditional music, dance, and holiday festivities.  She began singing and drumming at local parties and Christmas fiestas with her older brother, pleneros legend Sammy Tanco. She followed Sammy to New York in 1970 where the two become mainstays in the Lower East Side Latin music scene, singing at local clubs, restaurants, informal street gatherings, and the Fiesta de Loiza Aldea. She was eventually recruited by poet Tato Laviera to perform in two of his musical plays, Here We Come and Piñones (honoring Roberto Clemente).

In 1984 Sammy introduced Nellie to two of his fellow pleneros, Marcial Reyes Arvelo and Pablo “Gallito” Ortiz, who in turn invited her to an LP 21rehearsal in East Harlem. Once he heard her sing and play pandereta, group leader Juan Gutiérrez immediately recruited her. Recalling that moment years later in an interview with folklorist Elena Martinez and me she reminisced “For me, being invited by Juan to join Los Pleneros was such an honor. I learned so much from those people, the elders: dancers Eugenia Ramos, Tito Cepeda, and Paquito Rivera; and of course, the great singer Gallito.” 

For twenty-five years Nellie was the featured female singer for LP21, wowing audiences with her impassioned lead vocals while anchoring the coro. Take a listen for yourself. Her soulful reinterpretation of the traditional bomba chant “Campo” is nothing less than spellbinding ( Her jubilant voice propels “Somos Boricuas,” Juan Gutiérrez’s joyful ode to Puerto Rican migrant pride ( When Nellie proclaims “Somos Boricuas/De aqui a la luna” (“We are Boricuas/From here to the moon”) you know she is Boricua to the bone. 

Nellie helped LP 21 move from neighborhood social clubs, street festivals, and casitas (little houses that served as social clubs) to the formal stages of Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. She globe trotted with them as a cultural ambassador to Russia, Cuba, Mexico, Australia, Hawaii and finally back to Puerto Rico. In 1993 she was part of LP 21’s triumphant return to Puerto Rico as part of a City Lore sponsored program organized by folklorist Roberta Singer. That event was an unforgettable experience for her: “It was such an honor going back home to Puerto Rico to perform in San Juan, Ponce, Peñuelas, and the smaller pueblos.  I had left my country, but I came back, bringing the music that I left behind, meaning my roots. No matter where I go, I carry them. And when I went back to New York or to another country I bring them with me.”

In addition to her role on stage, Nellie was a dedicated educator and administrator. She helped Juan Gutiérrez organize the first Children’s Community Workshops, a program that became the foundation of the group’s efforts to bring their music and dance traditions to a young generation of New York-born Puerto Ricans. She oversaw the administration of programs for apprenticeships and public-school performances throughout the city and in New Jersey. 

At a 1992 gathering of pleneros at the South Bronx’s legendary casita Rincon Criollo, Nellie explained to NY Times reporter David Gonzalez that the plena was Puerto Rico’s “sung newspaper,” before the days of telephones and televisions. At Rincon Criollo, she exclaimed, “Puerto Rico is still with us because we maintain our traditions with our music.”

Indeed, maintaining traditions with her music was a lifelong mission for Nellie Tanco. Her powerful voice, boundless energy, and alluring charisma will be missed by fans and friends alike. But plena lovers can take solace in knowing that she helped pass the tradition on to new generations of Boricuas in Nueva York and back on the Island. Que en paz descanse!  

Ray Allen , June 2024


The Founding Director of City Lore along with guest bloggers find poetry and meaning in nooks and crannies of daily life. 

Steve Zeitlin is the Founding Director of City Lore.


By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.


Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

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