Over Her Dead Body
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."
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.
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.
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.
Two hours later, after the hearse drives away carrying Celia's casket to Gesu Church, a handful of disappointed fans lingers outside the Freedom Tower in the fading light, picking flowers from the extravagant arrangements that flank the front door, now unguarded. Alan Paul and Bonny Thompson sit on the wall just outside the entrance to the Freedom Tower, dangling their legs and watching the flower pickers. Thompson, a slim Bahamian who lives in Broward, is quiet beneath her straw hat. Paul, a burly African-American firefighter who drove down for the wake from Jacksonville, marvels at what has just transpired. "To see white Cubans do this for people of color is incredible," he says. "White Americans don't do this for black people. Black people don't do this for black people." He shakes his head. "For every black American not to be here today is really sad."
To cheer himself up, he goads Thompson, "C'mon, say it!"
Thompson blushes, then growls: "Azucar!" Satisfied, Paul pronounces: "This is history in the making."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.