Who was Isabel Luberza Oppenheimer, more commonly known as “Isabel la Negra”? As brothel madam and generous philanthropist, in life she was a study in contrasts – both scorned and admired. In death she remains an enigma.
Isabel was born in 1901 in Ponce, Puerto Rico and died in January 1974 -caught in the crossfire of a gunfight in one of her bordellos. While much has been written and speculated about her role as Puerto Rico’s most famous, and infamous madam, little is known of her early life, and most of that consists of conflicting versions circulated by the madam herself. What appears to be fact is that her family was descended from slaves owned by a wealthy German family, the Oppenheimers. After the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, Isabel’s family adopted Oppenheimer as a second last name. Variations of the story hint that Isabel may have been a biological descendent of the Oppenheimers.
From the late 1930’s to the 60’s “Isabel la Negra” owned and operated a brothel, “Elizabeth’s Dancing Club”, in the municipality of Ponce. A film called “Life of Sin” (1979), directed by Efraín López Neris dramatizes her life. Two short stories and a novel titled Nuestra Señora de la Noche (2006) by Mayra Santos-Febres have been published and there is also a street – Calle Isabel La Negra – named after her in Ponce.
Rosario Ferré’s short story “When Women Love Men” with its confusing and conflicting portrayal of two women, lover and wife of Ambrosio offers an interesting study in the duality of Isabel la Negra as both woman and prostitute. While many discuss the story from the perspective that Ferré is writing of two women who love the same man, the story is peppered by elements of magical realism and hints that the narrative could be the story of one woman struggling with the duality of her life. When one considers that in life Isabel la Negra was a powerful and wealthy woman, that perspective is quite plausible. Although her origins were humble, Isabel reaped huge profits from her brothels and died a wealthy woman.
Regardless of the “truth” of her life, Isabel la Negra was a remarkable woman for her time and in gratitude for the many people who benefited from her charity, she deserves our respect.