The cuatro is a type of Latin American guitar. Similar instruments originated from across the Atlantic in Spain and Portugal. Their influence have spread throughout Mexico, South America, West Indies, and the Caribbean. There are many variants to the cuatro instrument. Some are tiny like a ukulele and others are small and shaped like a viola. It’s incorrect to associate the instrument’s name with the amount of strings. Some cuatros have as many as ten strings, like the one in my painting. “Cuatro” refers to how the musical notes are spaced out in relationship to each other and within the context of musical theory. A cuatro’s notes are spaced out in fourths.
On December 25th, 2018 my grandfather, Luciano Berrios Sr. passed. He was ninety years old. As a young adult and in search of opportunity and a different lifestyle he had moved his family from Puerto Rico to New York City. In his marriage it was typical for family decisions to come from the husband. Everyone in the family was expected to obey. It is because of his decision to move his immediate family to NYC that I have had the fortune of growing up a New Yorker.
I had asked my grandfather how he ended up making guitars for a living. He told me that in Puerto Rico as a child he was running through the neighbor’s farm and tripped over something. He said that he dusted himself off and turned to see what he had caught his foot on and saw a fallen branch. Being a child and playful he picked up the branch and pretended to play a guitar with it all the way home. He told me that his family was poor and the thought of buying an instrument never even occurred to him. What did occur to him was crafting his own. His childhood imagination and ambitions slowly manifested into he being a self-taught Luthier.
My grandfather settled in Queens, NY where he was the super of a multi-family building. This gave him access to the building’s basement which he converted into a wood shop. Most of my childhood memories are of him crafting cuatros, tiples and bordonuas. I don’t know who bought his instruments. In Spanish he would only say that, “The Korean is expecting (this many) this month”. Sure enough, every month an Asian man would show up to my grandfather’s wood shop, hand over an envelope and leave with several wrapped guitars. My grandfather wasn’t certified, licensed or well known for his crafting skill but he earned enough to keep doing it until he was 83 years old. I remember the day he called my dad over at that age and asked him to take his tools because he could no longer work them. To me, my grandfather as I had known him, passed that day.
Currently, all his children own one of his instruments. They divided what was left behind amongst themselves. The one in my painting belongs to my aunt Judith Bascetta. After my grandfather passed, as a gift one of my aunt’s coworkers photoshopped a photo of my grandfather’s cuatro and my grandmother’s sewing machine onto one image. The image hangs framed on my aunt’s bedroom wall. My aunt showed me the gift and asked if I would paint a copy of the picture for her. This question hit me on many levels. One was the obvious feeling of gratitude that she would want a painting from me. Another was that at that instant I realized she did not own any paintings, drawings or sculpture. That she had framed this computer print of of her father’s craftwork. How could I not oblige? I explained to her that the process and the result would be more meaningful if I could borrow the cuatro and paint it as a still life setup as opposed to copying a photo. My aunt allowed me to borrow the instrument and this painting and this post are the result.