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There are few celebrity figures so peerless, few personalities so much larger than life, few faces so recognizable they transcend cultures. American history boasts some: Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe. Latinos who fit that steep bill? There aren't many. Santana. Julio Iglesias. Dezi Arnaz, perhaps. And, of course, the Queen of Salsa: Celia Cruz.
The late Cruz has long been a symbol of not only Cuban culture but also what it means to be Latino in general. And she was a symbol the world embraced with arms opened effortlessly by her joyous persona. To see her onstage was to feel like you'd known her forever, and the zeal with which she performed was the same with which she approached life. Indeed, she was a tremendous performer and, by all accounts, an incredible person, warm and friendly, with a gift for making others happy.
As such, her name graces a star in Little Havana as well as one on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But probably the most important memorial comes from Cuban-American filmmakers Joe Cardona and Mario de Varona (Café con Leche and The Flight of Pedro Pan), in the form of their new feature-length documentary, Celia the Queen.
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"They had an access to Celia's life that nobody's ever had," says Cruz's former manager, Omer Pardillo-Cid. "She allowed a crew into her house and to follow her around, because of her confianza with Joe and Mario."
The film is the realization of a project ten years in the making, from the time Pardillo introduced the duo to Cruz. But to the directors, it also stands for something deeper: the appreciation of her impact on their lives.
"It began as a very personal thing, where we wanted to show the world what we found in the greatness of Celia Cruz and what she meant to us," Cardona says.
Originally slated to be a 50-minute PBS special, it saw countless complications that delayed production. And with Cruz's passing in 2003, the project was shelved out of respect.
"For the world, it was the loss of a great star," Cardona says. "And anytime a voice like Celia's is silenced, it's a sad day."
After that, networks wanting the material made Cardona offers. He declined, not knowing if the project would ever be completed. But time passed, and when the Smithsonian approached him in 2005 for a display about Cruz, he decided the time was right to finish telling the story. After a call to de Varona, with whom Cardona had lost touch, and the serendipitous arrival via Andy Garcia of a Spanish investor named Antonio Jijón, the project once again had legs. Celia the Queen was at last completed, and it premiered in 2008 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The film lays bare Cruz's private life like none seen before. Interviews comprise individuals from all walks of life who have been influenced by the singer, from living legends such as Quincy Jones and Johnny Pacheco, of Fania fame, to Tato, a tow truck driver living in Hialeah. Celia the Queen promises to touch fans the way Cruz did — with candor and honesty. After sold-out screenings in New York, Rio de Janeiro, and Vancouver, Celia the Queen finally comes to Miami, a place La Reina called her second home. The last of four screenings will take place this Sunday at Regal Cinemas South Beach.