Celia Cruz Is
“ Whether watching her on a presentation, or a dance, you really enjoyed the fact that she was happy to have you there having a blast with her. ”
Cruz came into my life in 1974 as the release Celia & Johnny was the point of origin for a life-long following of her career. Teamed with Johnny Pacheco, her impeccable singing enraptured audiences previously unfamiliarized with Cruz. If you were a Hispanic under 30 years old at the time, it was highly unlikely that Cruz’s previous work –whether with Tito Puente, La Sonora Matancera or the Mexican Memo Salamanca releases– had any true import in your social or aural life. Cruz’s association with Pacheco , on the other hand, proved classic, profitable and decisive in establishing her as one of the most dominant Latin American female singers ever, if not the most important one. The Cruz-Pacheco merger, however, owed much to Larry Harlow’s addition of Celia Cruz in the 1973 Latin Opera Hommy . Her role as Gracia Divina, or Divine Grace, both in the recording and the Carnegie Hall presentation, launched Cruz into wide-reaching stardom and cultural iconic standing. The song “Gracia divina,” written specifically for her, sounds both regal and swinging. Even so, Harlow was never to produce any of her albums.
A Sonora Matancera sound and style update, under Pacheco’s production in Celia & Johnny and Tremendo caché, proved to be an all around godsend. Both albums still sell and feature hit songs such as “Quimbara,” “Lo tuyo es mental,” “Toro mata,” “Cúcala,” and “Canto a la Habana.” After those albums, Celia’s infectious swing always carried our adolescent salsero dancing feet to the house garage parties, as well as the record stores. Sales among Puerto Ricans –at the time the most important market for Salsa– reflected the widespread impact of the successful Cruz and Pacheco formula. In many ways, it was never quite surpassed in spite of the superb labor of most of the producers she had the opportunity to work with.
Still, this is a posteriori thinking. For everyone I knew at the time –or since– age, social class or ethnicity notwithstanding, Cruz was simply a bad assed vocal improviser and singer that could hang with the period’s best musicians. Period. By then, no one that mattered in any human terms would mind Celia’s physical and artistic Blackness, evolving exotic on-stage persona, or gender. She got you shaking the moneymaker ‘round with her distinctive sabor and infectious happiness. Of course, in time one would find out that she had been doing that all along an already somewhat notorious career. What many of us didn’t realize at the time was that most Salsa stars were already middle aged during that period. That fact didn’t matter one bit among the younger salseros, nonetheless, and it sure didn’t hurt those artists among older audiences. Chronological maturity aside, Cruz came to age as a front liner thanks to the Salsa generation as all her previous achievements were under someone else’s banner and didn’t afford her a wide-reaching following. It was also during the Salsa heydays that her financially successful catalogue started to develop in earnest with her various projects with Ray Barretto, La Sonora Ponceña, Willie Colón, and the Fania All Stars. I, of course, tagged alone through it all listening, learning, dancing and enjoying her presentations as much as possible given the reigning circumstances of my life at the time. Most of the opportunities to see her live where in Miami, however, and that certainly dampened appreciation for what Cruz could do with better ensembles than the ones she commonly performed with at the aforementioned musically overrated city. Even so, she could rise beyond any band’s limitations.
It wasn’t until signed by Ralph Mercado for his former label Ritmo Mundo Musical –or RMM– that our paths finally crossed. The RMM office in Miami was located in Coral Gables at the time and in comes Cruz without make-up, no skyscraper heels, lacking artificial hair and looking very tired. She treated me with such gentleness, cariño and grace that all I could think was: “Check that shit out, she’s treating me as if I were her!” I guess I should not have been surprised as she always had the genuine capacity to make one feel welcomed while on stage. Whether watching her on a presentation, or a dance, you really enjoyed the fact that she was happy to have you there having a blast with her. No wonder amateurish broadcasters from Telemundo and Univision spent so much time with inane and long-winded anecdotic mythologizing on their rare meetings with Cruz during the broadcast of her funerals. Once you met her, you couldn’t avoid liking her even more.
Her death was a worldwide news event. Her funerals, with a public viewing at the Freedom Tower followed by a mass at the nearby GESU Catholic Church in downtown Miami, as well as ceremonies at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and another public viewing in New York, were a true event. The Miami televised Hispanic coverage of those events, however, left a lot to be desired. Even a nobody such as myself knew that Celia’s health was floundering last Fall, why were they so unprepared? The broadcasters of both Telemundo and Univision were quite sloppy and with little in the way of a prepared script. At their hands, Celia’s life was whitewashed while controversial issues such as the Andy Montañez incident –where she allegedly put her foot in her mouth stating publicly that Puerto Ricans didn’t quite understand the plight of exiled Cubans– as well as her condemnation of Montañez’s show of friendship towards composer, singer, poet and Fidel Castro’s premiere artistic pawn Silvio Rodríguez.
At the time, Rodríguez was photographed embracing Montañez before a presentation of his in Puerto Rico and Cruz later accused the latter of fabricating an issue out of it. Here is what she had to say about that incident, taken from an interview by Nestor Louis : “That was gossip which was started by Andy Montañez. Gossip that I would not like to discuss. I would love for this rumor to be resolved in an honest and truthful way. To speak of a man that claims I spoke ill of him and his country, and can't exactly repeat what he claims I said, does not deserve a statement from me. If he tells me ‘Celia, you said this about Puerto Rico,’ or produces the tape where I've said anything negative about him or his country, then he would've earned an apology. But until that happens, I have nothing to say about him, or that issue. I love Puerto Rico and its people. Ok granted there was that incident in Puerto Rico with the Fania All Stars, but the people in Puerto Rico were just reacting to gossiped words and were not aware of the truth. I can't blame them for what happened that day. This is the only blemish in my long career and it shouldn't have happened with a gossip that someone created. I am not about gossip or controversy. I've lived my life and carried my career cleanly; it doesn't make any sense for me to further address that situation. As El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico says, ‘No hay cama pa' tanta gente (There isn’t enough room for so many people).’”
The Fania All Stars incident mentioned in the preceding quote refers to the fact that she was constantly booed while singing in Puerto Rico at the height of said hullabaloo. If any reader, however, can find a reliable source of information that can disprove Cruz’s claim, please send e-mail on it. Montañez, on the other hand, traveled recently to Panama to honor Cruz alongside other Puerto Rican musicians. As we write these lines, Montañez is about to repeat the concert in Puerto Rico. It is also interesting to note that Cruz wasn’t even buried yet and there were already clips on the Telemundo broadcast of Luis “Perico” Ortiz in a Puerto Rican studio recording a Casa de los Tapes production honoring Cruz with Papo Lucca, Tito Allen, Roberto Rohena, Bobby Valentín, Jerry Medina, Wichy Camacho and others. Montañez, it should be mentioned, profited quite well from this issue as he sued the Kiwanis Club in Miami, after they cancelled his scheduled presentation at the Calle Ocho Festival at the time, and won.
Celia, also allegedly refused to share a stage with Cuban singer Isaac Delgado in New York, but that incident –real or not– was inconsequential for either one’s career. It is also said that she refused to share the stage with a Cuban group in a Colombian show in the late 70s. Of more importance, and largely ignored by the Hispanic and Latin America media during her televised funerals, was the fact that Cruz overcame Cuban racism from the outset of her career on sheer fortitude, singular talent, nary a hint of cultural or racial victimization and no scapegoating. She owned her dignity and no one would take it away from “esa negra.” No one ever did.
In Miami, musical experts, musicians, producers and composers were widely ignored as reliable sources of information or on air commentaries during the broadcasts. Although Víctor Daniel, the Argentinean composer that penned “La vida es un carnaval” from Celia’s 1998 release Mi vida es cantar and Willy Chirino –who produced one her most recent recordings– appeared occasionally on both of the previously mentioned networks, the former added little of substance and the latter was ridiculously hyperbolic. Neither one was of much importance to Cruz’s career as any number of other figures were. Why wouldn’t the Miami based networks use people like Nat Chediak, Cristobal Díaz Ayala, Ralph Mercado, Willie Colón, Johnny Pacheco or the endless array of musicians that could’ve expounded much on Cruz’s craft, life and personality? In addition, where were the famed Colombian experts on the Sonora Matancera?
The slipshod broadcasters also managed to do all of the following and more:
1. Reveal a blatantly uninformed anti-Caucasian prejudice as both networks –Univisión in particular– in their desire to mythologize Celia’s career, wondered aloud, in various ways, as if saying “Why was Celia popular among rhythmically dead White people?” Anyone with even the most basic understanding of how Cuban music has developed would laugh and cry at such idiocies. Similar racist and musicologically insulting off the cuff remarks uttered wonderment during the Univisión coverage at some Japanese singer’s admiration for Celia during one of the Premios lo Nuestro so-called awards show. The broadcasters couldn’t identify the band, or the singer, and concentrated on the “surprising” fact that even the Japanese were into Salsa and Celia Cruz. Well, Japanese people have been into Latin music since before all of the talking heads in Telemundo and Univisión were born! The Japanese singer in question is Nora and the group was Orquesta de la Luz. Since they toured around the world for a two to three years and had platinum albums, one must wonder how could ignorance of the group could be tolerated in such an international television broadcast, let alone the idea that the Orquesta de La Luz was some sort of pony show, or that the Japanese were incapable of relating, performing, dance, create or even supersede Latin music of any kind.
2. Much was made of the fact that Cruz never intended to crossover to the “Anglo” market and that she stuck with the Spanish language. Well, when your English is mediocre, success is met at middle age and you don’t look like an aging Playboy bunny, thoughts of crossing over to other linguistic and cultural markets would be quite laughable. She didn’t need to cross over to other markets as they crossed over to her, and she would’ve been the first to spouse learning English well, contrary to the misguided cultural piety of the network presenters.
3. Their collective amazement at the crowd’s orderliness in Miami reveals well-founded self-prejudices against Hispanics that, if pointed out to the broadcasters themselves, they would probably disavow. Even people in line under the hot sun of Miami were quoted on camera commenting on how surprisingly nice and orderly people were. Well, I better leave this one alone as it speaks for itself and not the way that most would readily think of...
4. It was astounding to see broadcasters engage in so much psychobabble and speculation on the mindset and condition of Pedro Knight, Cruz’s husband of more than 40 years. Judging from their comments, Knight was on the verge of “realizing” Cruz’s death and who knows how and when he would react to her demise. Knight knew her death was forthcoming and he’s quite active hawking Cruz’s last recording Regalo del alma. Unlike the Hispanic networks, Knight was prepared for his wife’s death.
5. Unbeknownst to the broadcasters, their reports showed that in Miami, the local power welders related to these activities were not in the government. They were media executives and Cuban local organizations mostly linked with the aging and rapidly disappearing most rabid margins of the anti-Castro forces in Miami, who receive undue credit for many social, political and economic developments in South Florida. Astute observers wouldn’t be too lost in space if they were to wonder how such arrangements play themselves out in Miami’s political backstage. It is very likely, however, that the picture differs greatly from the commonly held view that garrisoned minded ultra-right wingers and Emilio Estefan control Dade County. Most, nonetheless, would be better off confirming themselves into such a lie than confronting other truths, as they would prove both unbelievable and quite uncomfortable. If you are one of those, keep telling yourself that...
Illustrative enough? Let’s move into more politics, shall we?
Cruz’s death was deliberately and openly politicized. There’s a willfully credulous group of people that act as if human life could be easily segmented into neatly defined boundaries whereupon, for example, the political wouldn’t “intrude” into the musical. Such illusory tendencies would be crushed at once in anything having to do with Celia Cruz, in particular, or Latin music in general. Historically, popular music in Spanish-speaking populations throughout the world is both subject and object of politics. It is within the last 10-15 years, for example, that the influences of political matters in Latin danceable music have waned to the point of endangerment. That pattern, of course, responds to sociological developments among the fading audience in Salsa markets that can’t be accounted for here. It is safe to state, however, that the Salsa markets do not support politicized danceable music, as no politicized group, composer, interpreter or label has been able to forge ahead in any significant way.
Cruz and her family were quite fine with the politization of her funerals, however, as it responded to her final wishes. Ever since Castro’s dictatorship began in 1959, one of its most vividly dim-witted moves was to prevent Cruz from attending her mother’s funeral in Cuba. She then became a low-keyed avowed enemy of the autocrat’s regime. Because of that, Cruz had the proverbial last laugh at Castro’s expense. His regime was forced by international public opinion to allow Cruz’s sister to attend her funerals in the USA. Several European and Latin countries openly criticized Castro’s handling of Cruz’s death, as well as her life. No matter how hard Castro tried to suppress Celia Cruz in the island, it couldn’t. Even after erasing every tape they could get their hands on, banning her from scholarship or any communication organ other than the state repressed media in the island, Cubans in the island managed to keep her music going in the island. Even then, as a government press release authored in Havana by M.H. Lagarde illustrated so well, the Castro repressive news agencies couldn’t but echo opinionated lies from a so-called journalist called Max Lesnik, who allegedly faulted the Mas Canosa family for using Cruz’s cadaver at will for their political purposes. Truth is, Cruz got what she wanted. The Mas Canosas of Miami, or anywhere else for that matter, didn’t determine the political scope of her burial. Celia did that. Otherwise, the same ideologically damaged press release was forced by the unavoidable facts to echo truths and essentials on Celia Cruz. This was done under the guise of criticizing some interlocutors from the Dade County political arena who wield power in Washington, D.C. against the over-ripened dictator. A favorable quote on Cruz’s life and work from said politicians would be preceded by some inane leftoid comment, only to cite the enemies of Castro directly, hence unwittingly voicing their factual takes on Cruz. Perhaps Lagarde is veiling his praise for Cruz under the parameters of Castro’s lunacy as so many human groups do under repressive conditions, but that might also be hoping against all hope. There’s no doubt, nonetheless, that other than cheap shots, lies and being forced by international political public opinion to allow one of its “free” citizens to travel to the USA, the Castro regime couldn’t but unwillingly acknowledge what a Black gusana of humble origins did achieve in spite of anything the Castroid apparatchik said or did.
If one were to think that such deranged politicking was limited to Castro’s ham-fisted public relations, one would be wrong. Armando Benedetti Jimeno, an embarrassment as a journalist and former Communications Minister of the suspect Colombian presidency of Ernesto Samper, published a hysterical stomach-churning screed in El Tiempo . In it, he sullies himself in public lying, making false claims and performing echo services for those that, for one reason or the other, despise the Cuban exile. Here are some of the pervasive lies, innuendos and outright false claims one finds Jimeno engaged in:
1. He knowingly lies when saying that Celia’s funerals were staged by “the Miami exile.” If he has evidence to the contrary, let him state so. Otherwise, there are no reasons to believe him over the late singer’s family, who by all accounts, were the ones involved in the fulfillment of Cruz’s wishes.
2. He calculatingly misrepresents well-established truths in Cruz’s career, such as the preeminent importance of Salsa in the development of a worldwide following for her interpretations, as well as sales figures and the ever increasing amount of live work demanded of her since the mid 70s until her passing. If that is not enough evidence for this blabbering ideologue of the endemic relations there are between Salsa and Cruz’s success... Then again, neither Castro, nor his sympathizers such as Jimeno are known for their capacity for reason or objectivity.
3. He makes dubious claims and relays anecdotal tales, without quoting any sources whatsoever, on Cruz’s personal and professional life.
4. His impersonation of a musicologist leaves much to be desired as he unwarrantedly measures her against his originality barometer. In other words, Celia didn’t invent something radically original in Latin music. No, she didn’t, nor has anyone ever claimed she did. Which –or whose– strawman is he following here? Talking about fecundity and originality, can anyone questioning Celia’s rareness be taken seriously?
In fairness, Jimeno does strain himself into admitting the obvious here and there, even offering scant acknowledgements on the reality of Cruz’s dominance and panache, as well as a surprising critique of Castro’s inhumane refusal to let Celia attend her mother’s funeral. Sanity, however, requires movement away from the type of ideological lunacy exhibited by him and his breed...
Fortitude betrays me and won’t support my desire to comment on the theologies exhibited during the homilies and their self-appointed role as political attachés of God, the historical revisionisms and omissions on Cruz’s life and career in all media, the blatant linkage of Cruz in the Miami media to the Cuban American National Foundation when she wasn’t such a hard liner, the issue of her age at the time of her passing, the fascinating aspects of the Latin death cultures, the immaturity of us all when it comes to issues of ethnicity, the unwarranted “divinization” of Miami in Celia’s career, the entertaining gossiping on all the celebrities attending her funerals (there must be a God as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton didn’t leech off Celia!) and Patti Labelle’s Ave María at St. Patrick’s Cathedral... Celia is dead and her remains lie in the same cemetery as Machito and Tito Puente.
The composer of “La vida es un carnaval” related an anecdote on Celia’s trip to the Guantánamo U.S. naval installation where she allegedly took a handful of dirt from the outer fence of the base to take back with her. It then dawned on her that she would be taking captive territory. She couldn’t take land that wasn’t free from the island that refused her entrance upon her mother’s death. She cried much during her only return to the land privileged by her birth. The tears were wiped and Celia Cruz eventually returned to die at home where she wasn’t banned, where she was free and where she achieved immortality.