Isabel la Negra Luberza Oppenheimer was a legend in Puerto Rico due to her exclusive and successful brothel.
Heartbreak can be one of the most painful and difficult things we experience in life. Many of us process it in a bad way by sinking in our pain, waiting for things to get better, while others just take all that sorrow and use it as a tool to reinvent themselves. Without a doubt, Isabel Luberza Oppenheimer (best known as “Isabel La Negra”) took the latter alternative to the next level when she became one of the most powerful women in her hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico. How did she do it? She decided to create an exclusive brothel where the most prominent men in the country became frequent customers. Let’s take a look at the life of a woman who decided that no man was better than her and proved it by entering and ruling a man’s game.
Isabel was born in 1901 in San Antón, a barrio in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Little is known about her early life, so there are many stories out there. In all of them, it’s agreed that she was born to a poor family; her ancestors had been slaves working in a German household. When slavery was abolished in the country, in 1873, they took their former owner's last name, Oppenheimer. Now, in some versions it’s said that she ran away from her home when she was a teenager to live with an older man; in others, it’s claimed that she was actually married to an American man. However, most people agree that she fell madly in love with a wealthy young lawyer, son of the family her mother worked for as a housemaid.
As the story goes, the young lawyer returned Isabel’s feelings and even bought her a house for them to meet. She moved in and loved to throw parties for her lover's wealthy friends and acquaintances; this was the perfect life she had always dreamed of. Sadly, that dream life would end up abruptly in the form of deceit and heartbreak. One day, while she was walking through the streets of Ponce’s downtown, a wedding caravan passed by. Isabel was shocked to see that the groom was no other than the love of her life. He had married a woman from his social circle and had been lying to her all along.
As you might have guessed already, she wasn’t going to cry for this unworthy person for the rest of her life, so, according to the story, she just told her cousin, who was with her at that terrible moment, that if that man wanted to enter her house again he would literally have to pay. She decided to open a brothel, where she and only she had the power to make decisions. Back then, prostitution was tolerated, and by 1932 Isabel opened her famous and legendary brothel “Elizabeth’s Dancing Club.” Soon, it became the favorite spot for prominent and influential Puerto Rican men, making it one of the most profitable businesses in Puerto Rico’s night scene. In addition, she implemented a sexual health policy that didn't only made it appealing for customers, but also protected her workers, something that unusual at the time.
It was around this time when she was given the nickname of “Isabel La Negra” and she declared herself as the Madame of her exclusive house. Though she became a very powerful and wealthy woman thanks to her controversial business, she's also remembered in Puerto Rico for her charitable actions and desire to help others. It’s said that she gave lots of money to the Catholic church to help those in need (though many claims that the church never accepted the money coming from a sinful business), and she would also organize events to help poor children and their families with food or other resources. This was something she did until the end of her life, when she was brutally shot dead in 1974 at the age of 72.
No one really knows why she was shot. Some claim that she was an innocent bystander, who was accidentally hit during a random drug-related quarrel. Others believe she was trying to protect one of her girls when she was shot, and another version says she was murdered by one of her main competitors. Either way, in 1976, three men were arrested and accused of the murder, but since the case was really weak and there was barely any evidence against them, they were released.
At the time of her death, a ceremony was organized at the Ponce Cathedral. However, the church's leaders refused her body’s entrance since she had devoted all her life to the worst sin of all: pleasure. In any case, the people she had helped and those who admired her for her charitable work as well as her bold and independent life, attended her funeral. It’s estimated that around 13,000 gathered to bid farewell to Isabel “La Negra,” a woman who decided to make a living for herself and not depend on anybody else. She was a woman who turned one of the worst moments in her life into a profitable business. In more than one way, she made herself a living legend.
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