July 21, 2003

The Miami Herald

Posted on Sun, Jul. 20, 2003 in The Miami Herald

A long goodbye

With songs to soothe sad hearts, thousands pay their last respects

By Lydia Martin, Daniel Chang and Susannah Nesmith.

Celia Cruz's biggest dream was to be buried in her beloved Cuba. In the end, she resigned herself to a resting place in the Bronx. But not before visiting Miami, her second hometown, one last time.

On Saturday, Miami fulfilled La Guarachera de Cuba's last wishes as only Miami could.

Thousands and thousands strong, carrying Cuban flags, chanting her name and bursting into renditions of Guantanamera and the Cuban national anthem, the city offered her the final Cuban embrace she had so yearned for.

After a teary, song-filled viewing that drew tens of thousands of mourners to the Cuban-flag-draped Freedom Tower, a procession started toward Gesú Catholic Church, where Mass was celebrated three days after Celia's death from brain cancer on Wednesday.

Led by police on horseback, a small group of friends and family members -- Andy Garcia, Don Francisco, Willie Chirino, Carlos Vives, Israel ''Cachao'' López and Gloria and Emilio Estefan among them -- walked slowly alongside the hearse. They were followed by thousands on the walk to the church.

At the church waited Celia's oldest sister -- Dolores Rodriguez, 86, the one Celia called La Niña growing up in Havana. Celia left home in 1960; her sister remained in Havana. She arrived in Miami just in time for the funeral, her visa having been granted Saturday morning.

Celia's younger sister, Gladys Bequer, 67, of New York, said: "I am thrilled that my sister is here, but I haven't seen her in so many years. I just want some time alone so that we can talk about everything.''

As the procession reached the church, those waiting in crowds more than 10 deep pushed aside barricades, reaching out to family members and friends, blocking the entrance to the church. At least three dozen people with badges identifying them as family or friends were delayed in entering. In the end, just 300 of the thousands who wanted to be inside made it; 500 of the 800 seats were reserved for family members and friends.

The Rev. Alberto Cutié, head of the Archdiocese of Miami's Radio Peace and Radio Paz, quickly drew applause from those at the church: 'When I was walking on the streets of Miami, everyone stopped me and said, 'Father, give Pedro a hug for me,' '' he said, approaching Pedro Knight, Celia's husband of 41 years. "Young people, old people, from all the people, I give you a hug.''

Later in the service, Knight offered his thanks: "I want to thank you with all my heart for all the sacrifices that the people of this community have made for my wife.''

Cutié imagined Celia already in heaven, named director of the heavenly choirs by St. Peter. ''But for St. Peter, the problems have started because the angels are accustomed to singing Gregorian chants,'' he said.

Cutié imitated Gregorian chanting, then broke into a salsa rhythm, as Celia-inspired angels might sing.

The Rev. Martín Añorga, a Presbyterian minister, spoke about Celia's patriotism.

'People, when they would talk about Celia, said, 'Imagine, she never returned to Cuba.' But I always said, 'She had no reason to return. Cuba lived within her.'

"Probably those who aren't exiled Cubans can't understand that. There are many Cubans that may never return to Cuba, but we hold it inside us.''

Some who were left outside the church said organizers should have held the Mass at a stadium. ''Celia Cruz doesn't attract just 500 people. She brings the whole town,'' said Sonia Vallejo of Miami, who had waited outside the church since noon.

Rayza Cordero, who waited for hours, said she had attended many of Celia's concerts. She recalled bringing her the Cuban flag at a concert in Houston.

'After the concert she wanted to give it back to us. We told her to keep it, but she said, 'Take it and take it back to a free Cuba one day and I'll meet you there.' ''

Cordero brought the flag back to Celia on Saturday.

''She means Cuba to me. She was what every person should be. Even though she got all that fame, she never forgot her roots,'' Cordero said.


By noon Saturday, under a sweltering sun, the line of mourners who had waited to get into the Freedom Tower on Biscayne Boulevard for a glimpse of Celia's coffin snaked for more than a dozen blocks. They had started lining up the night before, hours before the 10 a.m. viewing.

The Freedom Tower, Miami's greatest landmark to Cuban exiles, processed thousands of refugees as they started their lives anew. Thousands gathered there in 2001 to hear Celia perform during a fundraiser to turn the Freedom Tower into a museum.

This time, Celia's body was lying in state, flanked by the Cuban and American flags and watched over by the bejeweled statue of La Virgen de La Caridad, patron saint of Cuba and an exile herself (the statue, which resides at the Shrine to Our Lady of Charity in Coconut Grove, was smuggled out of Cuba in a suitcase in 1961).

Celia wore a tall blonde wig and white silk gown, her hands folded over a white rosary. A bed of pale lavender roses and white hydrangeas lay in front of the copper-colored coffin, which was draped in the Cuban flag. Under it rested a crystal bowl of Cuban soil, handed to relatives by a fan filing by.

Celia's music echoed through the columned hall as fans approached her body. They cried, they knelt before her, they blew her kisses, they crossed themselves. And as some of her catchiest tunes played, they couldn't help but sing and dance.

''You're not supposed to dance in front of somebody's coffin,'' said Delia Abrahantes, 67, of Kendall. "But this is Celia. . . . She's still making us dance, even when we're heartbroken.''

''We are not mourners,'' said 78-year-old Arejelia Prado, even as her voice cracked. ''We have to be happy. That's what she would have wanted.'' Eyes watering, she smiled, raised her flag, and began a soft salsa shuffle toward the coffin.


Just before 11 a.m., Celia's husband entered the hall looking faded and drawn. He stood like a sentry before his wife's coffin for several minutes before being led to a back room where family and close friends gathered.

Many of them watched in awe as the crowd flowed through the Freedom Tower. ''I love to see how much her pueblo felt her,'' said bandleader Johnny Pacheco. "She didn't die in Cuba. But she died with Cuba.''

It wasn't just the red, white and blue of Cuba's flag that waved. Celia was just as meaningful to the Colombians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Mexicans, Panamanians and Haitians who also turned out with their flags.

''I am not Cuban. I am from Spain. But Celia moved the entire world,'' said Rosa Lopez, a frail 83-year-old who took a bus from Miami Beach, then waited in line alone for hours to pay respects to Celia.

Thousands stood in line for three, four, even five hours to see the woman they simply referred to as Celia.

''Miami has never seen anything like this and never will,'' said Yolanda Almanzar, waving a Cuban flag. "Or maybe when Fidel falls. . . . How sad that Celia died before him. Not that she would have gone back, but she would have died happy.''

By the time the doors of the Freedom Tower closed at 6:30 p.m., tens of thousands had passed by the beloved singer's body. Thousands wouldn't, however. They'd lined up too late.

''I've been here since 1 in the afternoon. They'll let me in,'' said Miriam Prieto, 60, a Colombian tourist who was within a half block when the doors closed. Even as people abandoned the line in front of her, Prieto remained. ''I just want to say good-bye to her,'' she said, beginning to cry.

Celia's death was especially shattering to older Cubans who, like Celia until her end, are pining to see their homeland free. Many who couldn't make it Saturday have marched the streets of Miami dozens of times, carrying the flag in protest of Castro. But age has caught up with them; their kids took the trip downtown instead. Several were heard on cellphones as they passed Celia's body.

''Mom? I just saw her,'' said one teary woman.

''We're here because we had to do it for our mother, who is disabled, and our father, who died 13 years ago,'' said Barbara Hernandez, 34, who stood in line with her brother Julio Olano, 36.

Herald reporters Tere Figueras, Elaine de Valle, Sofia Santana and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

Joyful force of Celia Cruz will never be forgotten

By Enrique Fernandez.

''You're five minutes late, Fernández,'' said Celia Cruz to the novice reporter, whom she would always call by his last name. The latter had just started working the New York salsa beat, where punctuality was a joke at best. One famous salsero, the late Hector Lavoe, called himself The King of Punctuality, and in his songs he poked fun at his notorious unreliability, caused by the partying that eventually took his life.

Not Celia. Punctual as a Swiss watch. And no partying. The woman who onstage seemed to see life as a carnival, as she sang in one of her last hit tunes La vida es un carnaval, was no-nonsense. Underneath her ever-present smile and relentless friendliness, one sensed steel. The reporter made a mental note never to cross her, for in her ''five minutes,'' said in a jovial tone and with a smile, there was a hint -- just a quick glance -- of a sharp, shining, lethal blade.

But who would want to cross her? She was more than beloved, adored, in that way Latins have of turning a subject of admiration into an idol to be worshipped. This, Celia accepted with regal grace. She sang of her good fortune in an autobiographical number that she never failed to perform, La dicha mía, but she must have known that her only good fortune was the remarkable set of pipes with which she was born. The rest was will.


In her teens she would sing to her younger siblings in her tenement dwelling in Havana, and her barrio neighbors would stop outside the window to listen. One day she entered an amateur-hour radio show and won -- singing a tango. And it wasn't long before she became a star. Of course, there were relative ups and downs, not to mention exile. But she was Celia Cruz from the beginning, and she will always be.

Aficionados who have found Cuban music recently are misled to believe the island has been full of virgin wonders, waiting to be discovered by dashing explorers. Not so. Cuba was, for most of the past century and totally into the current one, a fountainhead of talent known to the musical culture of the entire world. In the mid-20th century, Havana's lively show-biz scene -- nightclubs, radio shows and, early in the history of the medium, TV -- was teeming with opportunities for a talent of Celia's stature.

By the time the future reporter first saw her, she was already the lead singer of a famous band, La Sonora Matancera (still rocking), which had its own weekly TV show. There she was: this young black woman in front of an all-black band. She had a killer hourglass body and her face, though not pretty, was alive with expressiveness and intelligence. Mostly, she had a voice that could raise the dead -- and in a country like Cuba, where most folk believe in the omnipresence of the afterlife, it probably did.

Celia was a contralto, with the power of a tenor. There was something paradoxically androgynous about her. She sang with a man's brute force -- even the voice of the great Beny Moré was more delicate. Yet she danced, moving an hourglass body that was almost mythically female.

Most of all, she had sass.

''For a while they had me singing old black songs,'' Celia told the reporter in that first interview, when she recalled her beginnings. "But they were so sad, all about the poor suffering Negroes. Slavery has been over for a long time. Why get so down?''

So she switched to guaracha, a precursor of salsa known for its piquancy, sexiness, and joie de vivre. She also sang boleros, the great torch songs of the Latin world. But the guaracha became her trademark, so much so that as her popularity spread to the rest of Latin America, where Cuban music was in great demand, she became first known as la guarachera de Cuba, and finally, la guarachera del mundo.


You say you want a revolution? Celia was hit by two. The Cuban one, of course, which would lead her into exile -- along with many great Cuban musicians, including the entire La Sonora Matancera. The other revolution was rock 'n' roll. For a while, her star faded, as the international appetite for the carefully orchestrated riotousness of Afro-Cuban music gave way to the anarchy of rock.

Unfazed, she tried a couple of rock-like numbers, real curios today, owned by collectors and sometimes played in the Latin shows of public radio stations. She tried her version of calypso as well. Hell, a singer who got her first break singing tango could sing anything.

Celia's next phase was even bigger. It was spurred by New York's Puerto Ricans, who, already mambo-crazed, were reinventing and curating Afro-Cuban music into something they would call ''salsa.'' Celia Cruz became the greatest salsa singer ever, and practically the only female star in a scene dominated by men. The Queen of Salsa reigning over the big salsa extravaganzas on Madison Square Garden. Bringing down the house when she yelled her trademark, ¡Azúcar! ("Sugar!'')

And Celia never stopped. She sang with all the great bandleaders. One of the first, Johnny Pacheco, returned to work with her on her last Grammy-winning album. She made a cameo appearance in The Mambo Kings (1992), perhaps the best thing in that otherwise unremarkable movie. Her star kept rising and rising until, a couple of years ago, the remix version of her La negra tiene tumbao (The Black Woman Has Swing) became a hit.

She was aging, but if offstage she began to show signs of frailty, as soon as she went on, she transformed herself into that same young dynamo the novice reporter -- now aging as well -- first saw on Havana TV.

''Fernández, where have you been? You moved and I don't have your address anymore,'' she scolded him, with the same tone of voice she'd used years earlier to remind him he was late.

For once you came on Celia's radar screen she never let you go. She never forgot anyone or anything -- she certainly never forgot the reporter.

In 2001 the reporter was working for the Latin Recording Academy, and it was his turn to give out the Grammy Awards -- which had been postponed from the show's date of Sept. 11 -- at a small function in Los Angeles. He was about to hand a Grammy, the highest honor in recorded music, to the woman he'd been admiring since early childhood. And he was about to fulfill another dream, that of being a salsa announcer:

''To many of you she is known as the Queen of Salsa,'' he said, his voice rising steadily, "but to us Latin Americans she is the ONE, the ONLY, the INCOMPARABLE . . . ¡LA GUARACHERA DEL MUNDO! . . . CELIA CRUZ!''

I could die now, the already old reporter thought. But deep inside his rapture he felt the inevitable. Just like him, Celia was getting on. And someday soon she would go.

Enrique Fernández is The Herald's Features Editor.

T-shirts and agua fria for a patient crowd

Along Eighth Street on Saturday, vendors hawked a motley assortment of wares: White roses, Cuban flags and Siempre Celia T-shirts for those indulging in the sentimental; umbrellas and water bottles for the practical. Even the unlikeliest items were up for grabs: One man -- smiling toothlessly from underneath a battered straw cowboy hat -- held up a string of miniature leather saddles in one hand, woven hemp anklets in the other.

Hot dog carts and arepa trolleys provided sustenance, with able-bodied and strong-armed young men and women toting coolers filled with Snapple and Diet Coke as well as the sugary Latin tonics of Materva, Ironbeer and Jupiña.

''Fria agua!'' shouted one man in grammatically incorrect, English-accented Spanish, prompting a few laughs from the crowd queued up along Northeast First Avenue.

''Agua fria, chico,'' corrected an older man -- ''Cold water'' -- as he handed over a dollar, his long-sleeved guayabera still crisp despite the hot sun.


Thousands waited in line to see Celia, young and old, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, South American and Central American. Many more than half of them were women.

Elena Gomez, 60, waited three hours. Her explanation for the disparity between genders: "All Cubans admired her. I'm here because I'm Cuban just like her, but men aren't good at waiting in line like this. Women are stronger.''

José Delgado countered simply: "There are always more women at funerals.''


By the end of Saturday, four generations of Ivette Diaz's family would file past Cruz's coffin: the 30-year-old Kendall woman, born in America and raised in Little Havana, kept an eye on both her abuela and her daughter, 10-year-old Annette, as the trio made a pilgrimage to the Freedom Tower.

Diaz's parents -- not much older than Annette when they fled Cuba -- would be coming on their own.

''I've never even seen Cuba,'' said Diaz, who grew up listening to the bass-heavy sounds of Power 96 as well as her mom and dad's Celia Cruz albums. "But we're all here today, my grandmother, my parents, my daughter. This is all we have, right?''

Even her daughter, a fan of hip-hop and R&B, counts La Guarachera as a musical idol.

'Her first word, at a year and a half, was 'Azucar,' '' said Diaz. "My dad taught her.''

Annette, a student at Jane S. Roberts K-8 Center, waved her tiny Cuban flag and trilled, "Azuuuucaar.''


The crowd policed itself during the hours-long wait to see Celia Cruz. Anyone cutting into line was generally met with shouts and chants in Spanish before being forced to the side.

Miami police Lt. Bill Schwartz said there were no problems to speak of: "I think our only enemy today has been the heat. It's been a very respectful crowd. People have come down to show their love for an international icon.''

Inside Freedom Tower, the crowd got so large at one point that Miami Fire Rescue had to stop people from entering for a short time. Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said, "There were about 3,000 people inside at the time.''

Compiled by Herald staff writers Tere Figueras, Susannah Nesmith, Charles Rabin and Daniel Chang.

Callers jam radio station phone lines to express their love and sadness

Celia's fans air their tributes

By Jordan Levin. on Sat, Jul. 19, 2003.

On Friday, the red lights blinked endlessly on the call board at radio station El Zol, each one for Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa, la Guarachera de Cuba, who since her death Wednesday has been elevated to the Queen of Music, the Guarachera of the World, reigning supreme over South Florida airwaves.

''Celia Cruz, she was a lady for the whole world, an idol,'' proclaims David of Puerto Rico, who hopes he'll get out of work early enough to attend today's all-day memorial in downtown Miami.

''I feel this tremendous pain for her,'' says Rodrigo, from Colombia, who wants to hear Cruz's Yo Viviré (I Will Survive), which listeners keep requesting, as if to deny that she isn't anymore. "We've lost a tremendous Latina.''

''We're always going to have her 100 percent in our hearts,'' says a caller who swears he saw Cruz's face in the clouds last night. "She hasn't died -- she's like [Cuban musical idol] Beny Moré.''

Afternoon DJ Raffy Contigo has been working in radio for 23 of his 39 years, but he's never experienced anything like this.

His Spartan studio at WXDJ-FM (95.7) has become an emotional sounding board.

The calls haven't stopped since Wednesday night, coming from a who's who of artists -- Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, Johnny Ventura, Willy Chirino, Luis Enrique, Victor Manuelle, Fernandito Villalona -- to people like the woman who called sobbing from her desk Thursday.

Contigo works his soundboard, microphone and computers like a high-speed verbal traffic controller, taking calls, then punching them through a computer to pull out the most heartfelt moments and send them back out over the air, relighting the call board as if by electronic signal, picking up people's thoughts from Hialeah, Miami, Pinecrest.

''People want to express their feelings,'' he says. "This is their way to vent.''

"The beautiful thing is she's going to unite a lot of people who would never come together otherwise. She was a mother to all of us.''

El Zol plays more salsa, Cruz's style of music, than any other commercial station in Miami, making the station a natural lightning rod for people's outpourings. Thestation has Cruz specials planned throughout the weekend.

The volume of calls has slowed a little from Thursday's onslaught, when callers were grieving, shocked. On Friday, said Giselle Andrés, who's on the air before Contigo, callers wanted to acknowledge the joy she brought to their lives.

''People want to respect what she was all about -- live your life to the fullest,'' she says.

The top requests: Yo Viviré and La Vida es un Carnaval (Life is a Carnival).

Cruz's body was flown Friday from New York to Miami. A public viewing will be held today from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Blvd.

''People are happy she's not suffering from cancer anymore. God has finally given her rest,'' says Adriana, who's driving to work. "I miss her. But she will live on in our hearts.''




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