Over Her Dead Body

When tens of thousands turn out to say goodbye to Celia Cruz, Miami's Cuban-American elite is reminded that it's La Negra who's got political clout

Beneath the vaulted white ceilings and elaborate Corinthian columns on the second floor of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, Celia Cruz rests. She wears a honey-blond wig swept high atop her head, more subdued than the Technicolor pink, yellow, and blue 'dos the Queen of Salsa took to wearing late in life, but still glamorous enough for a star of her stature to make an entrance into the next world. The 78-year-old guarachera del mundo -- the world's greatest Latin singer -- never stopped performing, even while battling the brain cancer that would claim her life at her New Jersey home on July 16. The public viewing on Saturday, July 19, is not so much a wake as one last show.

"She wanted all of her fans to be able to see her when she died," explains the singer's long-time friend and erstwhile producer, Emilio Estefan, Jr. It was Estefan who suggested a Miami viewing at the Freedom Tower. "She liked the idea," says the impresario. "The Freedom Tower is a symbol of liberty and a symbol of the Cuban people."

In the 72 hours after Celia passed away, Estefan pulled off something of a logistical miracle. Although the music mogul first approached the Freedom Tower's current owners, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), about two months ago, concrete planning for the event did not begin until a week before she died. The city and county governments did not get on board until July 17, coming together in rare harmony with a host of civic organizations to put together a massive public event in less than two days. CANF agreed to donate use of the building as well as support staff and volunteers. The City of Miami agreed to cover the cost of security. Miami-Dade County chipped in by offering free transportation on the Metrorail to and from the wake. Father Alberto Cutié offered use of the Gesu Catholic Church for a mass. Other costs -- from the sound system that broadcast the mass to fans on the street outside to the cleanup and decoration of the usually empty Freedom Tower -- were either donated or covered by Cruz's family. "Nobody said no," reports Estefan. "Because of who Celia is, everyone agreed to help."

Steve Satterwhite
Steve Satterwhite

For the white Cuban-American elite who organized the public viewing, Celia Cruz is the perfect symbol of exile politics. "You gotta understand, she's indicative of all that's right with the exile community," insists CANF executive director Joe Garcia. "Here's a figure who was at the top of her career in her country. Basically she called Fidel Castro a thug and for that wasn't able to return; he took away her public and she went out and conquered the world. She would never give credibility to the regime."

Eager to earn credibility by association with the popular star, Cuban-American politicians swarmed the event. Typically, U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart seized on Cruz's anti-Castro sentiment as her most salient characteristic. "In Cuba, for Cubans, there can't be whites or blacks," he told a Telemundo news crew on Saturday afternoon. "Celia is the maximum symbol of the Cuban race, of the Cuban nationality."

County Mayor Alex Penelas, on the other hand, was more than happy to acknowledge that Celia was Cuban and black. For Penelas, courting African-American voters as he sets his sights on the U.S. Senate, the opportunity to celebrate a beloved Afro-Cuban woman couldn't have come at a better time. Just after the mayor apologized to the NAACP last week for the county's snub of South African president Nelson Mandela thirteen years ago, he was able to extend an invitation to the county's official sendoff for one of the brightest black stars of all time.

So why exactly would the county pitch in for the public viewing of a celebrity who never actually lived in Miami? "That's not the right way to look at it," corrects Juan Mendieta, the county's director of media relations and point man on special projects like this one. "She was so close to this community. She was close to all of the people whether they were Hispanic, Anglo, or African American. She transcended ethnic affiliation."

Estefan echoes the point. "She was an idol who was able to unite the Latin people, whether from Argentina or Peru or the Dominican Republic," he says. "She was loved all around the world. She was able to cross over without changing her music."

Over the course of her half-century career, Cruz did, indeed, unite Latin Americans and U.S. Latinos like no other star -- and achieved unprecedented crossover success worldwide without compromising her sound. From 1950, when she joined Cuba's premier dance orchestra La Sonora Matancera, through the 1959 revolution, Cruz rode the Latin dance craze of the Fifties as a demure girl singer in an evening gown and straightened hair with a sweet but powerful voice.

After leaving Cuba forever in 1961, Cruz found herself among the massive Puerto Rican migration to Nueva York. By the Seventies, she had joined the New York-based Fania All-Stars. The youthful sweetness of her voice mellowed into a mature marimacho punch and she adopted a power-to-el-pueblo look to go along with the Afrocentric barrio fusion of Cuban son and urban funk that would be called salsa. The Fania All-Stars spoke not just to the harsh urban realities of the Bronx but to San Juan and Caracas and Santo Domingo and Cali. The Queen of Salsa was born.

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