July 22, 2003

LETTER FROM MIAMI (Glenn Dryfoos, 7/21/03)

We had an amazing day on Saturday. We were invited to the public viewing and mass for Celia Cruz. There was somewhere around 100,000 people who began lining up the night before for the viewing. We went first to Bongo's, which is a Cuban restaurant inside the American Airlines Area (owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan). The place was filled with a who's who of politics, charity work, entertainment and Cuban community in Miami. We were taken by bus over the the viewing, which was held in the Freedom Tower, an old landmark building which is the "Ellis Island" of Miami, where over 500,000 Cuban immigrants were processed by the INS back in the early 60's. We were brought in to the front of the line for the viewing (my wife and I felt bad about this, but, realistically, had we gotten on line with la gente, we would have never gotten in.) I've never been to a viewing before. The casket was open, and she looked like she was sleeping. The casket was surrounded by flowers and pictures of Celia and her husband. Celia's music played over loud speakers. From time to time, the somber procession of mourners would begin to shout "Azucar!" or "Celia, Celia" and start clapping to the music. Then, after a few minutes, the respectful silence would return. It was very moving...although I didn't know Celia well, you only had to be with her for a few moments to feel the force of her personality and her warmth. Also, as we passed by the casket, I became very sad because I realized that I didn't have the chance to say goodbye to Benny Carter (who I've known for so long) in the same way.

After the viewing we were bought into a room to pay respects to her husband and family. I was introduced to 2 of the legends of Afro-Cuban music/salsa/latin jazz, Johnny Pacheco and Israel Lopez (aka Cachao) and actually had a nice conversation with them in Spanish.

We then left the viewing for a walking procession (behind the hearse) to the church where the Mass was to be held. This led to the scariest moment of the day. The procession was supposed to be for the invited guests, but the police did not have barricades all along the way, and many of the spectators started pushing into the line, causing some people to trip and fall and creating a "soccer riot is about to start here" concern. The problem wasn't the people who merely wanted to join in the walk, but the people jostling with cameras and note books, trying to get pictures and autographs of the various celebrities in line. I was concerned about my wife , but she trooped through the whole thing fine... After about 3 blocks of the crush, the Miami police restored order and we continued easily to the church.

This was only the third mass I had ever attended. (The other 2 were both funerals....I've now heard 1 in English and 2 in Spanish). The priest was Padre Alberto (who used to have a talk show on Telemundo). He's a young guy, very dynamic speaker...and, facially, a dead ringer for the rabbi who did our wedding. He gave a beautiful eulogy, talking about Celia's humility and charitable works. Everything he said rang absolutely true with everyone who knew her. He also talked about her love for Cuba and her importance as a symbol of Cuban culture and identity (like politicians in Florida, priests have also got to be on the right side of the Castro issue). He told a story I didn't know: Whenever Celia visited Miami, she would go to a hospital where she had done a lot of charity work, and visit a large, glass-enclosed room there that faced south across the Straights of Florida. She would stay there for awhile looking towards her homeland and saying a prayer for her parents (whose graves Castro would never let her visit) and for her family left behind. When her body was flown in to Miami on Friday night, per her wishes, the first place the casket was taken was to that room, so she could have one last look.

Of course, a number of dignitaries and entertainers spoke, including Mel Martinez, the Secretary of Housing, who read a letter from the the President. The whole day (and night...we didn't get home until after 11) had the feeling of a state funeral...I'm told by people who have lived here for a long time that it was one of the most important days in the history of Miami. Either today or tomorrow, they are repeating the viewing, procession (down 5th Avenue) and mass (St. Patrick's) in NYC [ed. note: it was today], followed by a burial.

Thanks to Glenn for letting us reprint this. The passage about Ms Cruz looking out the window had my hair standing on end, so I asked if we could share it.

-Glenn adds: If anyone wants to check out her music, Amazon is offering a special on 2 CD's: a collection of her early work with Sonora Mantacera (the Cuban band with which she first came to fame in the 50's); and a live recording of a 1999 concert with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco and other guests....a great way to sample the early and late periods of her career.

-Emotions Rise as Fans Pay Tribute to Queen of Salsa (ANDREA ELLIOTT, July 22, 2003, NY Times)
They crammed the quiet block along East 81st Street with the fervor of a pilgrimage thousands strong, waving flags and white roses - her favorite - and chanting the verses of her songs like a Pan-American anthem.

Alternately dancing, weeping and bickering about who was first in a line that began forming at 10 the night before, Ecuadoreans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Jamaicans, Cubans and others claimed Celia Cruz as their own. They swarmed yesterday at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home to bid her goodbye.

But as they passed through the doors to her open coffin, a hush fell. The Cuban queen of salsa lay in a swirl of cream velvet, her head crowned by a golden-blond wig. Her eyelids shimmered with silver shadow, her hot-pink lips were tweaked in a faint smile. [...]

It was the final farewell for Ms. Cruz, who died at 77 last Wednesday, at her home in Fort Lee, N.J. In a postmortem tour, her body was flown first to Miami over the weekend for a wake that drew thousands of mourners, and then back to New York.

-Celia Cruz, Petite Powerhouse of Latin Music, Dies at 77 (JON PARELES, July 17, 2003, NY Times)
Onstage, Ms. Cruz was a petite woman who wore tight, glittering dresses and towering wigs, dancing in high heels and belting songs that she punctuated with shouts of "Azucar!" ("Sugar!"). She was a vocal powerhouse, with a tough, raspy voice that could ride the percussive attack of a rumba or bring hard-won emotion to a lovelorn Cuban son.

"When people hear me sing," she said in an interview with The New York Times, "I want them to be happy, happy, happy. I don't want them thinking about when there's not any money, or when there's fighting at home. My message is always felicidad - happiness." [...]

Ms. Cruz was born in Havana to a poor family, and she regularly sang her brothers and sisters to sleep. She won a radio talent contest after a cousin took her to the radio station Garcia Serra; first prize was a cake. She went on to study at the Havana Conservatory and to sing on radio programs. In 1950, she joined La Sonora Matancera, Cuba's most popular band. "I wanted to be a mother, a teacher and a housewife," she told The New York Times. "But when I began to sing with La Sonora Matancera, I thought, `This is my chance, and I'm going to do it.' "

She toured with the group constantly, sometimes singing five sets a day; they were also headliners at Havana's most celebrated nightclub, the Tropicana, and performed on radio and television. But in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, she was touring Mexico with La Sonora Matancera and decided not to return to Cuba. Years later, Cuba refused permission for her to attend her father's funeral.
Posted by Glenn Dryfoos at July 22, 2003 7:50 PM
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