While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Teresa Palomo Acosta
María Belen Ortega
Photograph, María Belen Ortega, 1991. Image courtesy of William McEwen photography. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

ORTEGA, MARÍA BELEN (1914–2005). Known as the “Nightingale of the Americas,” soprano María Belen Ortega was born on December 21, 1914, in Cerritos, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, to Epitacio and Mercedes Ortega. She arrived with her parents in the United States during the Mexican Revolution.

Ortega’s musical abilities were apparent in her childhood, and she received her first scholarship in piano when she was nine years old. She came to the attention of Feodore Gontzoff, the Russian baritone, with whom she studied voice; later, she also studied with soprano Maria Kurenko, also Russian, who performed with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. As a high school senior, Ortega received the T. G. Terry Scholarship in music, which allowed her to study at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. In addition to her work in voice there, she undertook instrumental studies in piano and classical guitar. Ortega graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music from SMU in 1960. She also pursued “folkloric studies” at the Universidad Nacional de Mexico and at the Music Conservatory in Mexico City. After completing college, Ortega embarked on a thirty-year career as an interpreter of the folk songs of Spain, Mexico, and South America.

Ortega became known for her faithful and inspiring renditions of the masters of Spanish-language folkloric music. Among the composers whose work she sang were Manuel Ponce, Alberto Ginastera, and Juan León Mariscal. In her stage appearances, she honored her cultural roots by donning the costumes of the countries whose music she performed. Ortega typically enhanced each piece she presented with “delightful short anecdotes, comments and legends.” 

During her three-decades-long career, the soprano appeared at Radio City in New York, the Trocadero in Hollywood, the Samovar in Montreal, and El Patio in Mexico. Ortega, who became known for her outstanding encores, was praised by music critics who attended her concerts. Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune noted that Ortega’s “voice…has the indefinable quality of personality.” The Associated Newspapers in New York rhapsodied that Ortega “sings with a liquid voice, resonant and of rare enchantment.” In addition to her work on the musical stage, Ortega appeared on radio and television and worked with Alfredo Antonini at CBS and with Joseph Stopak at NBC. During her concert tour of Spain, she also recorded for RCA Victor.

In addition to her career as a musical performer, Ortega worked as a music educator. After she obtained a master’s degree in music education from Texas Woman’s University in 1971, she taught for Mexico City College, St. Mark’s School in Dallas, and Dallas public schools. In later years, she gave private voice lessons. In 1989 Ortega endowed a $50,000 scholarship at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts to ensure that Hispanic students pursued music as a career. The scholarship, awarded to a first-year student, was the first voice scholarship at the school established by a living individual.

Ortega also served as the arts columnist for El Sol de Texas, a Spanish-language newspaper. She was active in Amigos de Mexico, the Spirit of Dallas, and the Dallas Opera Guild. For her outstanding community service, she was recognized as one of a select group of Mexican-American women “trailblazers” in 1993 by Dallas City Council member Chris Luna. In a presentation ceremony at Pike Park in the Little Mexico neighborhood in Dallas, Luna honored Ortega as one of the “women that allowed me to be where I am today—the ones that were active in the community, the ones that fought, the ones that did not take no for an answer and persevered.”

Ortega Grave
Photograph, Maria Belen Ortega grave site at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas, Texas. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

María Belen Ortega ultimately moved to the Lewisville Estates in Lewisville, Texas. She died there on August 17, 2005, at the age of ninety. She was buried at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas. Her endowed scholarship at SMU has continued to support voice students.


Dallas Morning News, October 7, 1989; September 11, 1993; August 19, 2005. Vertical File, Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University.

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Teresa Palomo Acosta, "ORTEGA, MARÍA BELEN," accessed July 05, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/for16.

Uploaded on November 19, 2015. Modified on May 26, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...