Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte still chokes up when he talks about his fifteen year friendship with La Reina de la Salsa,Celia Cruz
. "Celia was an inspiration for me, she was the light. Watching Celia perform live was a gift," the New York-based photographer whispers after pausing to catch his breath.
Rodriguez-Duarte first met the late doyenne of Cuban music back when he and his partner and now husband, fashion stylist, Tico Torres, where starving artists and were literally surviving on a diet of "bread and mayonnaise sandwiches," he says.
"It was 1988 and we were living in London, and exiting an underground tube station one day, we noticed a huge poster that announced Celia Cruz in Concert! My first thought was, "Celia Cruz? Who in London would go see Celia Cruz?"
Homesick, the Cuban-born couple who had met in Miami looked up the hotel where the Grammy Award-winning diva was preparing for her concert at the Hammersmith Palais the next day.
They were both left tongue-tied when Cruz answered their call and invited them up for tea and cake, embracing them both as long lost friends. She also left them two VIP tickets at the box office window the next day.
"Siempre Viviré: Photographic Portraits of Celia Cruz by Alexis Rodriguez - Duarte," are on view at the Hispanic Branch Library and reflect the unprecedented access to the Queen of Salsa enjoyed by the artist during the last fifteen years of the legendary singer's life.
The series of black and white snaps form a selection from Rodriguez-Duarte's 2004 book Presenting Celia consisting of private, backstage settings and onstage performances before rapturous live audiences and the show's title is partly based on her 2000 album by the same name.
The longtime friend and personal photographer is also celebrating the mega-star in another photographic exhibition opening this weekend at Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education in New York.
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"I'll never forget her smile and her amazing energy. The biggest thing about Celia is that she never knew how great she truly was. She always made me feel so proud to be Cuban," Rodriguez-Duarte beams.
"Siempre Viviré: Photographic Portraits of Celia Cruz by Alexis Rodriguez - Duarte," Hispanic Branch Library (1398 SW 1st Street, Miami) Through March 2012. Library hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Wednesday noon to 8:00 p.m. Free to the Public. Call 305-643-8574 or visit mdpls.org.