The first memories I have of Celia Cruz is the sound of her guttural voice echoing through my grandparents’ radio. Yo Soy de Cuba la Voz — I am the voice of Cuba — she bellowed. It was the station ID for WQBA radio, the focal point of all things Cuban for exiles in the early to mid 1970s.
Then-station director and radio icon Emilio Milian’s idea to have Celia record the station’s moniker was a stroke of genius. The jingle played on Miami’s radio airwaves for more than four decades, defiantly claiming her, and our, Cuban roots. And there lies the crux of Celia’s connection with Cubans all around the world. Her talent, her larger-than-life persona and her innately acute understanding of our yearning for our homeland made Celia an inextricable part of our exile identity.
In the 1970s, Celia was one of only a handful of recognizable Cubans who lived outside of Cuba. In the Cardonas’ humble abode in Hialeah, as well as many other exile households of that era, Celia represented a stalwart of Cuban culture. She had single-handedly managed to preserve the essence of the island’s rich musical traditions. However, it was her clear and unflagging stance against Cuba’s dictatorial regime that cemented Celia’s distinguished position among a community whose woes and sacrifices were little known and rarely mentioned.
Though I was exposed to Celia’s voice at a young age, my true understanding of her craft didn’t come until much later. Some time in my late teens, I inherited some of my older cousins’ party albums — the ones that were played at least twice at all family weddings, Año nuevos and quince celebrations. The collection included several of Celia Cruz’s salsa recordings under the Fania label.
The salsa sound was a veritable hodgepodge of Latin rhythms that were blended in the streets of New York City and became the soundtrack of a cultural and political movement that redefined Latino identity in the United States. Celia Cruz was at the epicenter of this cultural wave. Hers was the thunderous female voice that punctuated the era.
Celia’s historic recordings landed on my turntable a few years removed from their heyday. Yet it was perfect timing because I was discovering them at a moment when I was grappling with my own “Cubanity.”
Celia’s Fania albums and her legendary musical couplings with the likes of Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colon were welcoming to me. The musical fusion spoke to who I was, a mixture. I wasn’t born in Cuba, my Spanish was less than stellar and my knowledge of Cuban history was sketchy at best. Yet through Celia’s music I felt as authentically Cuban as my grandmother’s black beans.
The Fania All-Stars were long-haired, bearded, dashiki-clad musicians who looked no different from American rock stars. Celia herself donned African-roots garb and proudly wore her Afro. I could easily identify with the cultural cues of the salsa movement — as my appreciation for Celia and her music grew, so did my desire to learn more about my heritage.
Because of turbulent and unyielding political events in Cuba, many Cuban Americans of my generation were deprived of sharing much of our families’ stories. Celia provided a rare opportunity to share a piece of common culture with my family. Inevitably, listening to her songs led to stories of yesteryear on the island. My grandmother would perk up and speak about los bailes del pueblo — the town dances — and how my grandfather was too shy to ask her to dance.
To me, Celia will forever represent family. She helped me better negotiate the ethnic hyphen by connecting me to my past. When my daughter was born six years ago, her mother and I thought it fitting to honor the woman that had been so integral in shaping who we are today. We lovingly named our daughter Celia.