Classical pianist Teresita Gómez celebrates Colombian composers Teresita Gómez learned piano in secret at the exclusive fine arts school where her parents worked. She's now a celebrated classical pianist and a longtime promoter of music by Colombian composers.

At 3 she snuck in to play piano, at nearly 80, she's a Colombian classical legend

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Teresita Gomez may be the most renowned pianist in Colombia. She was recently honored at the country's leading festival of classical music in Cartagena. That's where Betto Arcos talked with her about her remarkable life story.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: When pianist Teresita Gomez came out for an unexpected solo encore at the Getsemani Auditorium, she completely stole the show with a piece by her favorite European composer, Frederic Chopin. One morning, during a rehearsal, Gomez told me why she identified so deeply with Chopin. He was an expat who lived in France and always felt displaced.

TERESITA GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) He was a person who suffered a very strong uprooting. He was a very lonely person, even though he was surrounded by some of the great musicians of his time. That's not easy.

ARCOS: It's never been easy for Gomez, either. She was given up for adoption a few days after she was born.

GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) I was born in 1943.

ARCOS: Her adoptive parents were a couple working as custodians.

GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) And it wasn't that easy for the Black daughter of custodians who were white.

ARCOS: Her white adoptive parents were working and living at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an exclusive fine arts school in the city of Medellin.

GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) It wasn't easy for a person like me to enter that world, the world of white people.

ARCOS: When Gomez was only 3 years old, one of the teachers allowed her to watch from a distance while she was teaching the little white girls. Gomez paid careful attention to where the students put their hands. At night, when her father walked around doing his rounds, she went along with him, playing on all the classroom pianos.


GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) I did all of these in hiding. My mom was so worried they would catch us and throw us out.

ARCOS: One day, she was caught. A piano teacher walked in while Teresita Gomez was playing this song.


GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) She opened the door and screamed so loud - I can still hear it - the Black girl is playing piano. I started crying. I thought they were going to beat me. I had no idea what was going on.

ARCOS: But the piano teacher lifted the little girl up in her arms and told her, I'm going to teach you in secret every Tuesday. Eventually, the teacher got Gomez a scholarship to the school, and soon after, the star pupil was getting encores at recitals.


ARCOS: Music critic Juan Carlos Garay works with the Cartagena Music Festival.

JUAN CARLOS GARAY: She's probably the most important female piano player because of her story, because of her background, what she represents, apart from, of course, she's a great performer.

ARCOS: Teresita Gomez debuted professionally at age 12 at Bogota's Teatro Colon, the country's equivalent of Carnegie Hall. After graduating from the country's top conservatory, she became both a professor and a pianist.


ARCOS: In the early 1980s, Gomez did something revolutionary. She began to study and perform the music of Colombian classical composers.

GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) I thought it was important that we shouldn't be embarrassed to play Colombian music. I wanted to get rid of that shame.

ANA MARIA ORDUZ: She was amazingly brave because she started to play Colombian music, even though people started criticizing her, like, thinking that, oh, man, she cannot play, you know, the big composers, so she has to play Colombian music. What happened with her?

ARCOS: That's pianist Ana Maria Orduz. She's a music professor at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin. Orduz says, when Gomez started playing Colombian composers, their music was looked upon as having less value than European classical music.

ORDUZ: I think that thanks to her, 40 or 50 years after she started doing that, we Colombian musicians can play our repertoire with pride.


ARCOS: Teresita Gomez turns 80 this year. She's toured the world, recorded multiple albums, and last August, she performed during the inauguration of President Gustavo Petro. Especially significant was the presence of the first female Afro-Colombian vice president who, like Gomez, comes from a working class background.

GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) She understands the people she calls the nobodies, the people nobody sees.

ARCOS: This year, Gomez is adding a book of memoirs to her list of accomplishments, making sure that people like her continue to be seen and heard. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

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