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

Only toward the end of her life did her music overtly reflect her experience of Cuban exile. In 1994 she released an album produced by prominent exile performer Willy Chirino for RMM Records (a now-defunct label founded by Fania Records' Ralph Mercado) that included the song "Cuando Cuba Se Acabe de Liberar," which was about the big concert that will be held in Havana to celebrate "Right After Cuba is Liberated." Then in 2000 with Sony Discos, she released the beautiful exile ballad written by Estefan with Willy's daughter Angie Chirino, "Por Si Acaso No Regreso" ("In Case I Don't Return"). Cruz performed the song at the inauguration of the Freedom Tower in May 2001.

Still Cruz's mass appeal came from pan-Latin dance hits with strong African influences like her last smash, "La Negra Tiene Tumbao" ("The Black Woman Has Tumbao"). Written by Miami songwriter Fernando Osorio and produced by New York hitmaker Sergio George, "Tumbao" mines Jamaican dancehall beats, African-American rap, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. For the music video, director Ernesto Fundora hired a stunning Afro-Guatemalan model to prance naked across the screen as Celia's alter ego: the gorgeous black soul underneath the aging star's outrageous costumes and wigs.

Cruz's ancestors survived the Atlantic slave trade, forced out of Africa into an exile more terrible than that of the Castro dictatorship. She always preserved the African culture in her music, from the early Sonora hit "Yerbero Moderno" to the Fania classics "Quimbara" and "Bemba Colorao" to "La Negra Tiene Tumbao." Even her signature exclamation, "¡Azucar!" -- traced in an oft-repeated anecdote to an exchange with a waiter who wanted to know if Celia wanted sugar in her coffee -- refers in a broader sense to the backbreaking labor of harvesting sugar cane on Cuban plantations. Even if the enormous Cuban flag draped over the Freedom Tower and the smaller flag draped over Celia's coffin seem to hide her African and pan-Latin identity behind the curtain of Cuban-exile politics, the tens of thousands of fans who come to say goodbye see something else.

Steve Satterwhite
Steve Satterwhite


On the second floor of the Freedom Tower, mourners crane over shoulders to see this beautiful black woman as they wend slowly around the barriers borrowed from the American Airlines Arena across Biscayne Boulevard. Each fan will spend only a fraction of a second in front of the coffin. At an average speed of 40 mourners per minute, it will be a stretch to funnel the anticipated 45,000 fans past the casket during the viewing hours from 10:00 a.m. through 7:00 p.m. Fifty CANF volunteers and a smaller contingent from the Cuban American Veterans Association provide security and speed the mourners along. "Please keep moving," commands CANF field director Tony Cobo in Spanish whenever a gap opens in the line. Cobo holds out a wicker basket for people at the front to deposit flowers and recordatorios -- strips of paper covered with messages for Celia, including blanks for the writer's name, address, and telephone number -- so that no one will hold up the line by stooping to lay mementos beside the deceased. When mourners do pause in front of the casket, they are urged along with a firm hand against the back. If they actually stop to kneel, hastily making the sign of the cross, they are gently tugged up before their knees hit the ground. Quick as a rabbit, a chubby boy about five years old eludes the minders, snatches his family's flower out of the basket, and places it in front of the Queen himself.

The pace slows slightly as "Por Si Acaso No Regreso" plays over the sound system. When the song ends, an elderly white Cuban woman yells the inevitable "Azucar!" Next a family in black T-shirts and jeans files by, each holding a different Celia Cruz CD and a small Venezuelan flag. A mother and daughter rush by with the flag of El Salvador. When Celia's voice twinkles sweetly to "Yerbero Moderno," the whole crowd sings along. A Colombian man shouts, "Viva Celia Cruz." The waiting crowd responds: "¡Que viva!"

There are at least 45,000 more fans on the sidewalk in a line that stretches from Biscayne Boulevard and Sixth Street to Miami Avenue and Thirteenth Street, some waiting in the hot sun and intermittent rain for as long as five hours. They nestle newspapers with photos of Celia in their arms. Whenever a helicopter passes overhead, the fans shout and wave flags like victims of a shipwreck. Just outside the Park West Metrorail, a group of Afro-Cubans set up a descarga. A dark-skinned man in his early twenties, dressed in a red and black Dirty South jersey, dances a lightning-fast rumba. He is pushed out of the circle by an elder dressed all in white, who outdoes his fancy footwork to loud applause.

North of Miami Avenue on Tenth Street five young men in tattered T-shirts go about their mysterious business among abandoned warehouses, ignoring the crowd. Meanwhile an unemployed Overtown resident named Craig, who says he never heard of Celia Cruz before she passed, stands on the corner surveying the horde. His eyes wide with wonder, he observes, "She must really have been loved." For impoverished African Americans like Craig, separated from Miami's affluent Cuban-American community as effectively as if there were American Airlines Arena barriers between them, any connection with Celia Cruz is distant at best.

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