The World Through Music and Culture

Forever CELIA, Fifteen Years After Her Death

By: Maria Bakkalapulo for Songlines Magazine

Visiting the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay in 1990, Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso walked down the aircraft’s steps onto the tarmac, dropped down to her knees and kissed the ground. It was thirty years since she had been on Cuban soil. She yearned for the island. ”I have kissed the earth in the name of all the Cubans in exile,” she said. Widely known as the ‘Queen of Salsa’ she was there to perform for American sailors, and it proved to be the closest she’d ever get to a homecoming. Cruz grabbed a handful of Cuban soil and put it in a bag to take with her. When she died in 2003 after succumbing to cancer at the age of 77, she was buried along with that handful of soil in the Bronx. Her story remains symbolic of Cubans forever exiled from their country. 

Fifteen years since her death, her life is being celebrated anew, in an exhibit at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami. Opened on October 18, Forever CELIA, is the largest and most intimate exhibit of Cruz’s’s six-decade long career. What many think of when they think of Celia Cruz is her stage presence and her fashion sense. The exhibit features a huge collection of her exquisite dresses she wore on stage. She was so precious about her outfits that she would cover herself with a kimono type wrap when she dashed from her dressing room to the stage so no one would see her outfit before the show. Some of her magnificent wigs are here too, in various colors and styles. There is also a makeup table with her eyelashes, brushes and lip gloss in drawers for visitors to view. She wasn’t afraid of color or wild hairstyles. The exhibit includes sheet music she sang from, a beautifully printed invitation to a party at her house and her passport, stamped for the last time, when she left Cuba to go to Mexico on at tour in 1960, never to return.

Cruz’s estate trustee Omer Pardillo-Cid, himself a Cuban exile, chose says a majority of the items in Forever CELIA have not been exhibited before. Cruz’s fans felt a deep affinity with her, as her life was a reflection of their own journeys. “The life of Celia Cruz is the life of every Cuban forced to flee. People see their parents journey, or their grandparents journey in her,” says Ileana Fuentes, the museum’s founding director. “The trials and tribulations, her tenacity, she was like no other.”

Raised at 47 Serrano Street in Havana’s Santos Suarez neighborhood, Cruz came from a modest background, and was a devotee of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity. The 1950’s saw a 22-year-old Cruz take the stage at the Tropicana, Havana’s world famous Art Deco nightclub where the likes of Nat King Cole had performed before the Cuban Revolution. She opposed Fidel Castro’s Communist regime, and suffered immensely not being able to go back. In 1962, Cruz’s mother died, and her request for a visa to attend the funeral was denied by Fidel Castro. Her music was also banned by the government also.

Cruz did, however, find shelter and a glittering career in the United States. New York City welcomed her with open arms. One of the rooms recreated in the exhibit is her office in her New York home that she shared with her Cuban husband Pedro Knight. “You see an old painting from the Mambo Kings movie, a gift from the director.”describes Omer Pardillo-Cid. “This was her very special place, her Grammys and her Emmys, over 300 awards. Nothing here is duplicated, all of it is original and used to be in her house.” Pardillo-Cid met Cruz in New York when he was only 17, interning for her with Ralph Mercado’s label RMM, later becoming her manager.

The musical atmosphere in NYC during the 1960’s and 1970’s was nothing short of seismic. Exiles from Cuba incubated the movement called “salsa” with greats like Willy Colon and Tito Puente. Cruz was at the centre of the scene. Johnny Pacheco, one of the most influential figures in Latin music and creator of the Fania All-Stars and Fania Records, helped her as she became famous. Together they made one of most popular songs,“Quimbará,” from the album Celia y Johnny, “She was a working woman who made it in a world dominated by males,” Pardillo-Cid describes.

Cruz’s African heritage was very important to her. In 1974, at the height of her fame, she travelled to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Zaire 74 was a three-day live music festival in Kinshasa, running alongside the championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ The performers included Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba and more. It is the first time the dress from this concert has been displayed. “This trip marked a great time in her career,” describes Pardillo. “She would say my career was before and after this trip, going back to her African roots.” 

Even though she was mixing with the rich and famous, she was that person you think you knew. “She carried the flag for Cubans outside the island, and yet never lost authenticity,” describes Miami-based film maker Joe Cardona. “Celia was never anglicized, she remained as Afro-Cuban as can be.” Cardona & Mario de Varona followed the superstar for a few years before her death, telling her life story in their 2008 documentary, Celia the Queen. “For Cubans, it was more then music. It was almost like mother’s milk to us,” Cardona describes, “because it was a connection to something that was lost, a need that we had to satisfy the soul.”

When Celia died in 2003, her body was flown down to Florida for a special wake at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the South.” When the Castro regime came to power, political refugees flooded South Florida. The building was dedicated to provide services to the immigrants, and has since symbolized their transition to America. The day Celia Cruz lay in state, thousands of people stood in the hot sun for hours waiting to pay their respects. “It was a pouring of love and paying their respects to someone who had offered joy for so many years, a kind of maternal soothing comfort,” describes Cardona, his voice breaking with emotion.

Ultimately, Celia Cruz was a great singer with a deep humanity. She gave us so much – ”La Vida Es Un Carnival,” “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” and, of course, her famous catch phrase: ¡Azúcar! The songs were brought back to the spotlight in the recent Miami premier of Celia: The Musical, which celebrated her life and amazing repertoire of music. The bold, powerful voice of Cuban singer Lucricia, who played Cruz, was given added gravity by the friendship they shared, touring together in Mexico. “She made you feel like she was yours,” describes Steve Roistein, a former arranger for Celia Cruz.” Finding someone so gifted like that and at the same time so humble is a rare thing.” There are plans for the exhibit and the musical to tour in cities like London and New York next year. Forever CELIA runs in Miami until October 25, 2019.

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