Estrellas Tropicales started 30 years ago when founder Felicita Ryola took her two granddaughters and a friend to the Puerto Rican Day Parade in the South End to march and twirl. The girls had been born in Puerto Rico, where nearly every city has a baton-twirling group.
With Estrellas Tropicales, Oyola, accompanied by many family members, would teach children about Puerto Rico through the medium of art. Among other forms, they were known for cultivating skills in areas that were specific to their home country, like baton-twirling and folkloric dance. She would coordinate her troops’ appearances in competitions, events, and parades. This eventually earned her the neighborhood title, "The Queen of Mapeye." Mapeyé is a type of traditional, folkloric music from the mountains of Puerto Rico, and Oyola was known for sometimes improvising the rhymes and verses of songs as she played them on the Cuatro, a mandolin-like string instrument.
"I was in the group, my daughter was in the group and now her daughter is in the group," explained a Jamaica Plain woman, wiping a tear from her eye. "We’re grateful to [Oyola] on so many levels. She was one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met, always putting the interests of others ahead of hers and never stopping her work to strengthen our community. It was pretty beautiful."
Still in existence today, Estrellas Tropicales has guided a notably diverse group of more than 5,000 children into adulthood. A lineage, which could be counted out to at least four generations now, has reinforced Puerto Rico’s traditions in Boston in an artfully interesting way - Oyola’s original intention all along.