Posted on Sun, Jul. 20, 2003 in The
A long goodbye
With songs to soothe sad hearts, thousands
pay their last respects
By Lydia Martin, Daniel Chang
and Susannah Nesmith. firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
A LONG WAIT
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
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.
AT HER SIDE
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
''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
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
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
Joyful force of Celia Cruz will never be forgotten
By Enrique Fernandez. Efernandez@herald.com.
''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.
RISE TO STARDOM
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 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
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,
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
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
''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.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
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
''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,
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. Jlevin@herald.com.Posted
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
''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]
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
''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.''