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Celia in Cuba / Cuba in Celia: a book as an act of justice

I am part of that generation that heard his name sotto voce, without understanding for sure the reason for that taboo that, like a malevolent spell, insisted on silencing her. And in making her invisible, because it also took us a while to recognize her face, to recognize her in an image from an old magazine. Bohemia, beyond the footnotes that insisted on reproaching him for leaving Cuba in the early 1960s. And despite everything, his myth remained. When I was finally able to find his recordings, when the clarion call that is his singing when interpreting Your voice It entered my ears and reached my heart and brain as only certain war songs do, something definitely woke up. And in London, just a few days after the death of Compay Segundo, I was able to see the images of the farewell they gave her in New York, when she died in 2003. It was there that I understood that Celia Cruz was something more than La Guarachera from Cuba. That what he had intuited about her person and her talent was only part of her achievements and her legend. That black woman, born in a humble neighborhood of Havana, who persisted in singing sones and guarachas and boleros in Spanish despite having settled in the United States, identified us in a much greater way. That she belonged to us and that we belonged to her. And I am infinitely glad that the book by Rosa Marquetti that I have just read confirms all this, and opens itself before us as an act of justice.

Celia in Cuba (1925-1962), Desmemoriados stamp edition, Spain, 2022; is a new title in that list of volumes that has been gradually redesigning the way we recover essential figures. For me, that gesture had Rita Montaner: testimony of an era (House of the Americas Award, 1997) by Ramón Fajardo Estrada, a starting point. It is not that before that book there were others determined to revive, from testimony and biography, personalities who for years had been overshadowed according to the dictates of a command that annulled them due to their lack of participation in the process led by Fidel Castro from 1959; but it is with this study on Rita and her time that such endeavors begin to shed a rhetoric and a cardboard approach to the achievements and backlights of those artists without whom Cuban culture would definitely not be the same. 

Félix B. Caignet, Bola de Nieve, María de los Ángeles Santana, Ernesto Lecuona, the art theater of the 40s and 50s, the Camejo Brothers and Pepe Carril… have gradually returned to a clearer dimension, which presents them as a comprehensive portrait and also, they bring with them names, events, companies and groups that are now half-forgotten, with which these figures interacted, to get fired up and win applause even beyond our land. Rosa Marquetti has already provided valuable pages in this regard, and her blog forgetful, and his books on Chano Pozo and Niño Rivera advanced this much more ambitious effort, in whose chapters the most admired, discussed and revered singer of Cuban popular music prevails as the absolute protagonist: Celia Caridad Cruz y Alfonso.

Making the most of the funds of the Celia Cruz Foundation, turning to essential sources such as the Discography of Cuban Music organized by Cristobal Diaz Ayala, to Cuban and foreign newspapers and magazines, to the direct dialogue with friends and colleagues of the singer, Rosa Marquetti has ended up giving us a clean and careful portrait of that great woman, of the voice that crackled in the air together with the Sonora Matancera, in the years of its emergence and rise, until its departure from Cuba and its relocation to New York. There, we know, she joined the salsa magnates, climbed even more demanding and luminous seats and transformed herself from La Guarachera de Cuba into the undisputed Queen of Salsa, as confirmed by the Grammy awards she received and in many other awards and recognitions.

Marquetti emphasizes the dedication, the rigor, the meaning that as a professional that young woman with a privileged voice gave to her career, far from diva poses, since she stood up before the microphones. Taking as the axis of its reconstruction, among other essential texts, numerous passages from Celia. My life. an autobiography, co-written by Ana Cristina Reymundo and Celia Cruz herself, published in 2004, the author of this volume expands the landscape, provides data and new questions, without losing the pulse throughout the more than 400 pages, so that in the end emerge the silhouette of the one who immortalized modern herbalist, Burundanga or Moon over Matanzas, and left records of Afro-inspired songs that are part of the powerful heritage that is our music. Since the days of amateur contests, that slender girl who began singing tangos made her way with no other weapon than her throat, and triumphing on the Mil Diez or Radio Progreso or Radio Cadena Habana radio stations, she surrounded herself with a popularity that continues to be, even after the years of silence around her name, the core of respect that still embraces her.

Almost 20 years have passed since her death, and through tributes, documentaries, memoirs and other tributes, the name of Celia Cruz has not faded. Rosa Marquetti extends her interest to other singers who, like her, had to face prejudice of all kinds, and from there comes the salute to Angelita Bequé, Paulina Álvarez, Rita Montaner, Celeste Mendoza, Xiomara Alfaro, who are an essential part of that path and that legacy. With punctual step, encrypting year by year in which she proposes the title, the researcher describes Celia's steps in nightclubs, theaters, movies, television programs, records and ceremonies where she was seen to shine. Incidentally, he clarifies some dubious legends, such as the singer's relationship with Santeria, and refers to anecdotes such as those that occurred when finally, after the departure of Myrta Silva from Sonora Matancera, Rogelio Martínez opted for that young woman "not so pretty face”, but in which the director of the dean of the ensembles recognized a trump card. And if you weren't wrong.

The world of Celia Cruz in those years is that of the Tropicana, Montmartre, Sans Souci, CMQ Television, Radio Progreso, the Blanquita Theater (today Karl Marx), the Martí, the Nacional (today Alicia Alonso), the emergence of hotels managed by the North American mafia, and various political outbursts that she, immersed in the maelstrom of so many performances and contracts, perhaps did not fully notice. Rosa Marquetti also places her in that convulsive panorama, in which the singer puts all her efforts into building a house for her mother, whom she adored, with her income, while "generals and doctors" succeeded each other. Having joined the payroll of Mil Diez, however, will bring him misgivings and consequences that will delay his triumphant arrival on the North American stages, due to the leftist tendencies that that station harbored. Politics, as a counterpoint, always sang on another sound track, different from Celia's, and that disagreement would end up becoming the silence that clouded it before us. From an action on the Batista farm, the researcher reminds us, came the necessary help for that family house to be completed. And from the fervor of the first days, in which so many figures and artists came together to greet the revolutionary government, comes the recording of Guajiro, your day has come, which was unearthed not long ago and triggered another, largely unnecessary, controversy. The book places all these facts in a clear line, and allows us to understand Celia Cruz (and not only her, both on one side and on the other) from what the investigator's gesture should be: cleanly exposing the truth, reconstructing the memory without going to extremes, and project, from there, new questions towards the present.

With the same transparency and rigor with which she almost punctiliously reconstructs the future of Celia Cruz in the musical field of her time, Rosa Marquetti also addresses the causes and circumstances of her departure from Cuba. And it offers the details of the definitive rupture, when the interpreter is denied the possibility of returning to her land to attend the funeral of little pot, his mother. Its popularity was so great that it turned against itself, as an exemplary punishment that was intended to be given to those who "stayed", "deserted" or simply chose a life beyond the political border that demarcated the edges of the Island. That Celia's fame did not stop growing, made the censorship against her name more difficult. At Radio Progreso's Discoteca del Ayer, we heard the danzones, sones, mambos and boleros of the orchestras and singers free from that suspicion. There could be a history of Cuban popular music without those singers, they seemed to tell us. And yet, this is not the case, because without them the gaps are too evident, and other processes of continuity in which, like it or not, they left an indelible mark could not be explained. I don't know if, as the author flatly affirms, Celia Cruz has been the victim of the strictest censorship imposed on any artistic creator: I think of the one that still weighs on Reinaldo Arenas, Cabrera Infante, among others. The truth, and that is what matters, is that this censorship could not completely erase it. Culture, if it is something, is not silence. And to be, it must be understood as a plural gallery of agreements, disagreements and consensus that, like the country itself, understands these voices as pieces of a larger discussion.

I am sure that this book will have more than one edition, and that as a result of its arrival in many hands, it will be able to further expand its wealth of data and references, and get rid of the few errors that I noticed when reading. There are still mysteries and keys to point out, which hopefully will be clarified in the next revisions. How Celia earned her epithet of La Guarachera de Cuba, for example. What were those not always flattering comments that the great Rita Montaner once fired at Celia, and about which she passed with complete dignity to be present at the last tribute to the owner of The manisero. Where did those scenes go? Brownish skin, the film starring Sarita Montiel, which had a first version where Celia sang with Sonora and which later disappeared from the footage, as they tell us here. By the way, I am grateful, among many things, that this book has made me see the sequence of Affair in Havana (1957), where Celia Cruz demonstrates why she won the award for best performer of Afro rhythms so many times, while dazzling on screen, despite the setbacks of the film. The reader also leaves these gifts loaded when this volume ends, knowing that there is still another large part of Celia's life to be told. That one, which gave her the applause of other international audiences, and which was demonstrated by the presence of so many in the streets of New York who crowded together to say a sincere goodbye to the woman who, without ceasing to be an example of authenticity and identity , got almost everything. 

Another thunderous applause that I have in my memory is the one that was heard in the dark room during the premiere, in an edition of the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, of the documentary I am… from son to salsa, directed by Rigoberto López, in 1996. Tito Gómez presents a skinny girl, as he says, and suddenly the face and voice of Celia Cruz appeared on the screen. It was the first time in a long time that he had been granted that way of return. Alberto Pedro had already written his work habanero delirium, in which Celia and Benny Moré are the protagonists. It was premiered by Teatro Mío that year, and then, through Raúl Martín's excellent staging with Teatro de la Luna, it was rediscovered by another generation. Here and there, she has not stopped reappearing. Just keep your ears open and your eyes open. Unjustifiable forgetfulness also persists: the Egrem launches a compilation of great Cuban singers, called unique, and there are neither Celia, nor Olga Guillot… nor Rita Montaner: The Only One par excellence. 

On a summer night, at Sigfredo Ariel's house, I met a black man, skinny and quite old, with "refined gestures", as Rita herself remarked when intoning Ay, qué sospecha tengo. Suddenly Sigfredo asks her a question: "And Celia, how is she?" "Divine, I spoke with her this afternoon," replied that man, who was none other than the singer's brother. In the long hours of Iowa, under the harsh winter, I listened to it thanks to the record collection of my dear Daniel Balderston. I think that there I began to understand her, to love her, to recognize myself in her, to know that she was essential. The ways of art have their secrets, but if you persist, they will always lead us back to what we are, so that we can recognize ourselves.

Celia in Cuba (1925-1962) tells its author that it is also time to persist and not stop. We must thank her for this act of justice, more than a book, which insists on returning us to a full-bodied Celia Cruz. Hopefully she herself or those who receive encouragement from these pages will give us a volume that will help complete everything else that our best singer. I am not only recommending the reading of an excellent book, magnificently illustrated and careful in its annexes, but something else. I am recommending that this volume reach as many people as possible, that it pass from hand to hand, as it will surely happen with my copy, which already came to me from the hand of a dear friend. It is time to complete exorcisms, to break the last insidious spells, to understand Cuban culture as a progression not devoid of conflicts, but firm in its core and in all its parts. At dawn on the Island, her voice is heard, which "entered into my being and I have her imprisoned", as the lyrics of that bolero by Ramón Cabrera say. His voice, “which is the trill of mockingbirds in the bower”. That of that woman who was able to say, without false pride, that she is “the voice of Cuba”, without any rival being able to snatch that privilege away from her. With books and tributes like these, which go beyond the late and enrich us, the spiritual map of the Nation re-emerges, above the murky waters of any injustice or oblivion. 

Norge Espinosa Mendoza Poet, playwright, critic and Gemini. Incurable cultural bipolarity. In another life he was a cabaretologist. More posts

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  1. Lupe says:

    Excellent, dear Norge. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

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