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Celia Cruz, a Cuban biography

On Friday, July 15, 1960, Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso flew from Havana to Mexico City to satisfy one in all the numerous artistic commitments she used to have. At 35 years old, as a recognized soloist and feminine voice of La Sonora Matancera (one in all the most important Cuban orchestras of that point), Celia Cruz was already a star; a star that will be born again.

It ended being a one-way trip, from which the musicographer Rosa Marquetti Torres begins her story in Celia en Cuba (1935-1962), her recently published biographical book dedicated to a fundamental and little-known a part of the lifetime of «La Guarachera de Cuba».

It’s a story that spans from the time she got here into the world because the daughter of Ollita and Simon, until she saw for the last time «the sun of Cuba shine in that sky,» as Celia herself would tell in her memoirs.

«That day closed the unique cycle of some of the relevant and successful careers that a Cuban singer has ever had,» writes Marquetti Torres in the primary pages of the book, available on Amazon under the Desmemoriados Project label.

Throughout the following yr and a half since her departure from Cuba, Celia Cruz would see that her music and her art could grow in the USA; she would immediately be invited to present live shows on vital stages of the Union, with enormous success.

A fantastic door opened there, while Cuba, where the Revolution had just triumphed, represented many latest uncertainties for many who made cabarets and dance halls’ nights shine.

The ultimate final result of this era was with none doubt her mother’s passing in Havana and the impossibility of her returning to Cuba to be along with her, something Marquetti Torres investigated. These events ended up deciding Celia’s fate.

The «Queen of Salsa», this woman born in Santos Suarez (Havana) and veiled in an apotheosis of affection at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Recent York, trained to be a teacher and owner of probably the most recognized female voice of Cuban music in the remaining of the world, stays, nevertheless, an undiscovered reference for a lot of Cubans on the island. We’re still removed from Celia.

The political dispute marked her life and ours. In her epilogue, Marquetti Torres acknowledges that being «on the mercy of probably the most intransigent thoughts and tendencies of the 2 contending forces within the Cuban national conflict, her great internal struggle would lead her, on the one hand, to specific, in the easiest way she knew, her patriotism, her sense of belonging and love for Cuba (…). Alternatively, she tried to weather one of the best she could —not all the time with success, not all the time effectively and I’d dare to say not all the time sincerely— the intolerance of those on each shores who were moved by political interests».

Adding up her two lives, inside and out of doors her beloved homeland, Celia became «a universal reference for Cuban music and an inspiration for Latin American and Afro-descendant women, as a perfect of self-improvement, effort and triumph.»

Celia Cruz in La Sonora Matancera.
Celia Cruz in La Sonora Matancera.

When and why did you begin this research? What convinced you that you need to do a book like this about Celia in these times we live in?

You understand my line of labor from my blog Desmemoriados – Historias de la Música Cubanawhat I pursue is to beat oblivion and leave information and assessments as correct as possible in a digital space, which several generations already recognize as their most important source of reference.

Although there are several books about Celia, none is signed by a Cuban creator, none is published in Cuba, which could also be a debt to crucial and universally transcendent female figure in Cuban music.

Our gaze as Cubans was needed; and it was and is obligatory to beat the ostracism to which Celia has been condemned in her birth country. That’s why in January 2018 I started this investigation.

Why did you select to cover only her period in Cuba?

It’s the least known in his profession, the least studied, the least written about. The explanations are various. Celia herself avoided delving into her years in Cuba, and limited to essentially emphasizing her work with La Sonora Matancera. But it surely was obligatory to dive into her formative period, where it began, developed and consolidated some of the impressive careers that a Cuban singer or musician ever had.

It was obligatory not only to show, but additionally to dismantle the mantras that flow into based on which Celia Cruz was made by Johnny Pacheco and Fania Records. I wanted to show and display that when Celia arrived in Recent York she was already some of the complete, famous and revered singers; she was a prophet in her land.

In your book, you explain two facets of Celia Cruz’s life that strange Cubans ignore or out of which now we have a distorted image: the primary is Celia’s rise in her profession in Cuba and the way she was already a star before leaving the country, together with all that it meant for a young black woman in a male-dominated environment.

The concept of skilled triumph and its materialization in Celia Cruz has a remarkable meaning as a legacy. There aren’t many examples of black women emerging from probably the most impoverished social strata and, on their very own, winning recognition and respect in a deeply patriarchal and class-oriented society.

Beyond her innate talent and friendliness, Celia’s personality traits equivalent to perseverance, discipline, sagacity and a way of opportunity come together and develop. She had in her favor the proven fact that her family support —from her mother Ollita and her aunt Ana— instilled a robust self-confidence in her, and the understanding that, through talent and perseverance, acceptance and triumph were possible.

She needed to cope with many demons: within the Nineteen Forties, when she debuted as an expert, the genres she assumed were mostly carried out by male singers.

In preserved records from those years you’ll be able to sense a robust influence of singers as Orlando Guerra «Cascarita» or Miguelito Valdés within the phrasing, improvisations, textual appoggiaturas, etc. But Celia found the technique to quickly overcome that within the search of her own style.

Actually, the atmosphere of the bands was so manly that Seeco Records’ owner himself refused to record Celia for business purposes, arguing that girls couldn’t sell records. Only the strong defense of Celia by Rogelio Martínez, director of La Sonora Matancera, made it possible for the American to alter his mind.

Within the live performances in the course of the first weeks of her debut with La Sonora Matancera, Celia was rejected by the general public, who preferred her Puerto Rican —and white— predecessor Myrta Silva. Nothing daunted her. She continued her path of improvement and perseverance and in a short while the general public got here to adore her.

Upon arriving in the USA, she already had a triumphant profession in Cuba, well known. It was in Cuba where that technique of personal and artistic growth and consolidation of values ​​took place.

I feel a second finding for readers will probably be knowing and understanding the context by which Celia leaves Cuba, for reasons that weren’t strictly political, contrary to what is generally thought…

Politics is in every part, it influences every part. But yes, it have to be said that when Celia went on that flight with the opposite members of La Sonora Matancera to Mexico on July 15, 1960, she was not consciously and deliberately going «to stay outside» or «into exile.»

Neither she nor almost anyone in 1960 thought of leaving Cuba perpetually; the concept they wouldn’t ever return didn’t cross their minds. Lots of us still living can recall that back then it was common to listen to amongst those affected by the brand new Revolution’s policies, that «the Americans wouldn’t allow a government like that in Cuba for much time.»

I used to be concerned about addressing this moment within the book, the fast escalation of the belligerence between Cuba and the USA; the impact of the primary policies of the revolutionary government and the explanations for the panic that led 1000’s of people that worked in entertainment and show business to depart Cuba or not return to it. It was an industry supported by gambling and run by the Italian-American mafia and it was being dismantled and alienated from its conception and essence.

In Celia, the choice to stay out of Cuba and go into exile got here shortly after her departure. Like many figures of assorted levels within the Cuban music scene, she couldn’t understand the measures of the brand new government, nor their consequences.

Celia Cruz in 1957.
Celia Cruz in 1957.


As you say, Celia Cruz is probably the most universal of Cuban performers; an icon that accomplished itself out of Cuba and that, nevertheless, represents Cubans a lot… How do you explain that such a Cuban essence in her could proceed to grow and expand despites being outside the island? Many musicians have said at times that without the Cuban public around they may not have created their work…

Authenticity is the one possible explanation. The pure sense of belonging that crystallizes in art, in a song, a rhythm, a musical genre, a way of singing and dancing, is something that, in my view, doesn’t occur in the identical way in later generations, more exposed to other influences and to the consequences of living in a globalized world with everlasting access to the biggest information spectrum ever seen.

Alternatively, sometimes we expect that the Cuban public is just on the island, and it just isn’t so. Celia lived to see how her public grew and the way it was filled increasingly more by latest generations of Cubans who decided to live —and a few were born— in other countries. Celia —and that is how I highlight it within the book— sang more to Cuba within the years that she lived outside of it.

For those who study her repertoire, you might conclude that she felt the necessity to reaffirm her Cubanhood, her pride in her roots; it’s something she claimed on every stage by which she sang.

Hardworking, constant, tenacious, consecrated… I feel these traits characterize Celia’s personality. For what other reasons is that this woman (whom you might have come to know like few others) admirable?

I interviewed many individuals who knew her, several women who were her friends and her colleagues. All, with none exception, expressed feelings of admiration and deep affection for her. This caught my attention, specifically, knowing how competitive the artistic field is and the mixed feelings that the success of others can provoke.

All of them made reference to her simplicity, a trait that the celebrity and the cash earnt didn’t change in any respect; her capability for solidarity; her unrestricted support for her family, wherever she was.

Celia was a teacher who graduated from the Normal School for Teachers in Havana. There she developed her intelligence and her attachment to reading.

She was nice, witty, with a really Cuban humorousness, but refined.

Lots of those that knew her affirm that she because the artist on the stage was just that: the one on the stage. Although each were authentic, the on a regular basis Celia exhibited intelligence, strict discipline, punctuality, depth of study, practicality, and professionalism as essential traits for her success.

Throughout her profession, Celia interpreted songs that could possibly be described as bearing a reactive feminism. Oftentimes she inverts or deactivates commonplaces of popular music, of masculine, patriarchal roots. How did this occur? Was it a process? What examples can illustrate this facet of Celia Cruz? What were her reasons?

I don’t think it was a premeditated process. It’s true that from her own experience, Celia embodies that feminist struggle for recognition and respect for the non-public and skilled individuality of ladies.

She favored (and this can be a remarkable fact) the presence of female composers in her repertoire with La Sonora Matancera, and even before with other formations, equivalent to Gloria Matancera. That wasn’t a quite common practice in orchestras and ensembles either.

Along with her fame, she helped those composers turn into known and their work became income from copyright.

But perhaps probably the most eloquent example of this reactive feminism is her interpretation of the guaracha «La Sopa en Botella», composed by a person, the good composer Senén Suárez, who was inspired by a guaguancó, «El vivebien», a hymn to machismo and the exploitation of ladies that had turn into highly regarded on the time.

Suárez decided to write down a response —completely feminist— and «La Sopa en Botella» got here out, designed —as he said back within the day— for Celia’s voice. Upon proposing it, Celia immediately accepted it and made it one in all her hottest singles.

Having witnessed your work, I’d dare to say that this has been one in all your most laborious and sophisticated endeavors. You confessed to me that sometimes if you were writing you felt near Celia, strengthened by her. I imagined it as a communion between women who protect and help one another. Has it been like this?

I feel so. I feel that those energies of hers have reached me or, at the least, I feel that the releasing of the book, seeing it in print, is her recognition of the honesty and dedication with which I approached the research and writing.

Celia’s example, because the image of a successful woman on a cosmopolitan scale based on her self-improvement and her commitment to her birth country’s musical culture, could be very strong and provoking. And that inspiration goes beyond our borders: it radiates to several generations of ladies, especially Cubans and Latin Americans.

This also connects with women’s struggles and aspirations and that goes beyond confluences or political differences. There isn’t any censorship to that.

It was precisely this sense that united us, the 4 women involved within the book: Tania Cordero, editor; Pilar Fernandez Melo; diagrammer and designer and Marietta González, collaborating on cover design and the concept of promotional elements. And —just like the feminism that I wish to practice and support— along with two essential men: Abel Ferro, designer of that lovely cover, and Omer Pardillo Cid, head of the Celia Cruz Foundation, who believed in my project and gave me all of the support to access Celia’s files in addition to his own memories and experiences as her last manager, friend, almost son and executor of her legacy, which he honors along with his actions.

* This interview was originally published in Matria, it’s reproduced with the express authorization of its creator.

Milena Recio

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