Review: Celia: My Life by Celia Cruz

Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso was called the Queen of Salsa. You may know her as Celia Cruz. A lifetime secret, 1925 was her birth year. She lived for 77 years; 42 of those years outside her beloved Cuba. In 1960 Celia Cruz left Cuba for a gig in Mexico and never returned to Havana. Today she is admired worldwide for her fantastic voice and her embodiment of Cuban music. My favorite quirks of hers were daring wigs (several were blue!), her custom heels for comfort, and her tendency to yell, ¡Azúcar! (Sugar!)

I was curious to learn more about this Diva Cubana. Last week I challenged myself to read Celia: Mi vida, una autobiografía in Spanish (Celia: My Life, an Autobiography). Her memoir was written from tapes of over 500 hours of interviews by Ana Cristina Reymundo. The cadence is undeniably her voice and style of speaking; authentic Celia Cruz.

In the early chapters Celia Cruz talks about how we know to follow our heart and become an artist. Her father worked manual labor for the railroad. He did not want his daughter to pursue a career in music, as she dearly wanted to do. So she went to school to become a teacher, in order to please him. When she was about to graduate, she asked her favorite teacher to help find her a teaching position. Her teacher told her that she should not become an educator because her talents lay elsewhere, as a singer. That support was critical in Celia Cruz’ plans for her future.

Celia Cruz at 32 Photo: Ibrahim Arce

Ms. Cruz got her start in radio singing contests, which she often won. She traveled to Venezuela for the first time with la Orquesta Anacoana in the 40s. Later she was a singer performing with a group of dancers, Las mulatas de fuego. She sang background for radio programs and commercial jingles as well. From there, Celia was lucky enough to be asked to join a famous established Cuban band, Sonora Matancera in 1950.

After the Cuban revolution, Sonora Matancera performed in Mexico. They decided not to return to the island, because of the political situation there. After growing up in a two bedroom one bathroom home housing 14 people, Celia Cruz wanted to keep her earnings, not give them to the State.

Ms. Cruz had strong opinions on Cuban politics. She was extremely conservative and made several asides during the text to criticize Castro and post-revolution Cuba. These opinions make her unpopular in some parts of Latin America where people hold more socialist views. Celia Cruz strongly disliked seeing her country ruled by a communist dictator. The previous dictator Batista she didn’t mind. In the early 1950s he met him at a party where she was singing and asked for his help with the builders for her mother’s house who were dragging out the process, and to her great satisfaction he complied. On two occasions before 1960, she refused to meet Fidel Castro during a party or at a concert. She despised him and his politics that vehemently. Finally, she and Sonora Matancera left Cuba for good, with her mother’s blessings although her Mamá was ill with cancer.

One of the worst periods of living in exile for Celia Cruz was when she lost both her father and mother soon after leaving Cuba. She was particularly close to her mother and grieved not being able to return to be at her bedside for her last days. The singer lost herself in her work to console herself. She spent all her time practicing, touring and playing music with the band. One of the men became her best friend. In time, they realized they were in love. She and Pedro married in 1962 and lived in Mexico. Later they made their home base New York. They were married for over forty years, until her death in 2003.

One point that Latina superstars Linda Ronstadt and Celia Cruz have in common is neither became a mother. Considering the amount of time traveling that an international star must spend, that may be part of their success. It is difficult to be a woman with children and live on the road. Celia Cruz says she wanted to become a mother and tried fertility treatments, but she and Pedro never conceived a child. Instead, she doted on her nieces and nephews and several godchildren, while she jet set around the world, partying and performing all night. Over her lifetime, she sang with Tito Puente, Luciano Pavarotti, Johnny Pacheco, Willy Colón, Dionne Warwick, Gloria Estefan, Marc Antony, Paulina Rubio, Olga Tañón and Ana Gabriel to name a portion of the list.

The number of awards Celia Cruz won would fill several screens. The highlights are: 4 Grammy Awards, Star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, Star on Calle 8 in Miami, Star in Mexico City, and 1987 World record for largest concert in a plaza for 250,000 people in Tenerife Spain.

Doctors diagnosed Celia Cruz with breast cancer in 2003. The cancer spread to her brain, and despite surgery it ended her life July 16, 2003. She was buried with the handful of Cuban soil she took from Guantanamo.

Celia Cruz was a lively storyteller. Her book reads like a thank you letter to her friends, family and fans. She was quite humble despite her enormous accomplishments. I learned several stories about her that gave me a better idea about her personality and background. I’d recommend the book to any Latin music fan. The book is available in Spanish, English and French.

¡Olé! –Rebecca

Neon Celia Image: Telemundo
Rebecca Cuningham

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