Celia: My Life

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Celia: My Life – An Autobiography

Celia Cruz & Ana Cristina Reymundo (2004)

Pub. Rayo

Based on over 500 hours of taped interviews by Texas based journalist Ana Cristina Reymundo, recorded shortly before her death, this 260 page book contains a number of previously unpublished photographs among 100 or so featured. A full discography and list of awards/honors is provided at the end. Essentially the book explores, through many personal, anecdotal accounts, her life in music – childhood and development as a singer in Cuba, leaving Cuba via Mexico, life in the United States and the contrast between her flamboyant stage presence and home life.


Why you might buy it:
Books written in conjunction with Latin music icons don’t come around that often, so for that reason alone I expect many people will buy this volume. Celia managed to remain a fairly private person and before this book shared very little with prospective writers, much of what is written comes directly from her for the first time in print. It is a light, conversational style of writing that makes for an un-taxing read. Celia comes across as an extremely nice person, which I sure she was, though she does make some (welcome) critical comments here and there. Having lived a full life in the spotlight the book is able to draw upon considerable experiences to share with the reader.

Why you might leave it:
You may feel that there are too many passed opportunities – at times the book is just too positive, either that of there is a certain naivety present. Celia has certainly not lived a life that was free of tension – she lived through the Cuban revolution and her life in the States and beyond was also touched by controversy, not that you get even a hint of that from this book in any real meaningful manner. Andy Montanez anyone? The conversational style of the book, and possible translation issues, mean that there are a lot of “I met so and so, he was kind, I had a nice time” moments – there is a real lack of depth to many of the transcribed memories and many anecdotes don’t really go anywhere. Several times this may leave you thinking “…and !??!”. Unfortunately there is no index (which would have been really useful), there are a number of alternative biographies also available.

Contents:

Foreword by Maya Angelou
Prologo by Ana Cristina Reymundo
Uno: Mother Cuba
Dos: My Golden Years with the Sonora Matancera
Tres: Exile
Cuatro: Salsa and Azucar!
Cinco: The Queen of Salsa
Seis: Siempre Vivire/I Will Survive
Epilogo by Omar Pardillo-Cid
Gracias by Pedro Knight
Discography
Awards and Honors

Selected extracts (from):

(Uno: Mother Cuba):
I always said I never wanted to write an autobiography. I always dreamed to have a movie made about my life, but I never imagined a book. Yet here we are. So what finally convinced me to write my story? I realized that when I’m gone, there will be those that say “Celia was like this”, and others who’ll dispute that and say “No, she wasn’t like that at all, she was more like this…”

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I decided to tell my own story in my own words, so no one could ever dispute the true facts about my life. Who better to tell my story than the woman who actually lived it, right?

This book is a collection of my own opinions, memories, points of view and feelings. Wherever my recollections may differ with those of others, I just want to remind readers that every individual sees things his or her own way. Interpretation is a funny business. This book and these memories are all mine.

(Dos: My Golden Years with the Sonora Matancera):
When I began with the Sonora, Bienvenido Granda was the orchestra’s singer. He had a huge mustache, and that’s why people called him “the Singing Moustache”. He joined the Sonora the same year Pedro did, in 1944. Pedro joined the orchestra on January 6 of that year, and Bienvenido joined in December. When Humberto Cane, the Sonora’s previous singer, retired, he recommended Bienvenido, and the Sonora hired him immediately.

Pedro once told me that the night Bienvenido debuted with the Sonora, they were set to play for a dance at a place very holy to Cubans. El Rincon was a former leper colony and a sanctuary dedicated to Saint Lazarus. It was located in a town close to Havana called Santiago de las Vegas. The Sonora had been hired to play at the celebration of the eve of Saint Lazarus day – that is December 16. Back then the Sonora had a Buick that became famous throughout Cuba, since in the 1950’s there were only two cars of that make on the island. The car sat seven, but all of us managed to squeeze in. On the way to Santiago de las Vegas, it ran out of gas. All of them, except for Rogelio – who was driving – had no choice but to get out and push. Nine of them, dressed in tuxedos, had to push that heavy car a long way. Pedro was so frustrated that he kicked it. The kick hurt Pedro far more than it did the car. His kick didn’t even leave a scratch, but poor Pedro ended up with a bad knee that nagged him for quite a long time. It was on that trip to Santiago de las Vegas that Bienvenido debuted with the Sonora Matancera. When he left the orchestra, Celio Gonzalez and Estanislao Sureda (whom we called “Laito”) replaced him.

(Tres: Exile):
I July 1961, I secured a contract to perform alone without the Sonora at the Los Angeles Palladium with the Mexican promoter Chico Cesma. While in California, my travel documents expired, so I couldn’t return to Mexico, and quite honestly at that moment I didn’t want to. My reason for not wanting to return to Mexico had nothing to do with the Mexican people, whom I loved and still do. My reason was based solely on issues with the Mexican government. Becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen was just too complicated and too long a process. If you weren’t a Mexican citizen you couldn’t buy any type of real estate. Even worse, the Mexican government was just too sympathetic to the regime in Cuba for me to seriously consider living there permanently. Another issue I had with returning to Mexico was that I was tired of the daily grind. Singing “El Yerbero Moderno”, “Tu Voz”, and “Luna Sobre Matanzas” every single day! Granted, they are lovely songs, but I just didn’t want to keep singing the same thing over and over again.

As an entertainer, I had a deep desire to be creative. Unfortunately, it was just too difficult for me to do so in Mexico at that time. I feel great affection for the Mexican people, and I know they feel the same for me. The Mexican people did not want me to leave. Even Augustin Lara, the great Mexican composer, cried when I told him I wasn’t planning on returning from Los Angeles. In tears, he said to me “Negra, please don’t leave. I’ll even get you your own band”. But my mind was made up. There was no going back. Yet again I left a country I had come to think of as home.

(Cuatro: Salsa and Azucar!):
There are many people who are still so insulted by the term salsa that they reject it. But as Pedro and I have always said, those same people just refuse to understand that young people were snubbing the classification of traditional Cuban music, and the use of that term was the only way to rescue it. We used to perform in Miami in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, but young people wouldn’t come to see us. There were times back then when we performed to half-empty concert halls. Young people used to say, “Celia Cruz and Sonora Matancera? No way! That’s old-fogey music”. But when they started calling it “salsa” in the early 1970’s, young people began flocking to our performances again. If we called our performance “salsa”, 80 percent of the audience would be composed of young people. If we called it Cuban musical performance, young people would ignore it.

What offends me is that many people who complain about the term salsa make their livelihoods of it. If they are so offended by the term, then they should have some self respect and not participate in salsa events. But instead, many of these same people perform at salsa festivals and charge for their work, while continuing to deny that they have anything to do with salsa, and when they are interviewed about the topic, they find fault with the use of the word. I sincerely believe that if they are going to complain about the use of the term, then they should announce publicly that they are not salsa performers, and they also shouldn’t perform in salsa festivals. I don’t think that they should make money off what they criticize so much.

(Cinco: The Queen of Salsa):
In the mid 1990’s, I was involved in an unpleasant controversy. That was the period when “psychic” hot lines became popular. Several stars had lent their name commercially to some of these phone lines, so my agent, Ralph Mercado, suggested I record a tape saying, “Hello. You have called the Celia Cruz Psychic Hot Line. In a few moments, I will transfer you to one of my psychics”. I don’t really know why people were so critical of my involvement in that, since don’t we all have the right to believe or think in any way we please in this country? In any case, I never claimed to be a psychic. That was never my intention.

(Seis: Siempre Vivire/I Will Survive):
I couldn’t think straight. I had lost a dear friend. It was the only thing that mattered at the moment. I asked Omer to make the arrangements to return to New York as soon as possible, but he reminded me that we were under contract and could not simply leave. Granted, there was a clause in the contract that excused me from my obligations in case of death, but only if the person who passed away was a blood relative. Tito, my dear brother, had died and I wasn’t able to be at his side during the funeral, just as I had not been allowed to return to Cuba to bury my mother. All Pedro and I could do was send flowers in our name. Both Pedro and I prayed the rosary for the repose of his soul. While we prayed for him, I kept thinking of what it will be like the day God brings us back together again, with Tito playing his drums and me singing, both of us surrounded by dancing angels. From the day he passed away until this very day, and solely in his honour, I have included his would famous cha-cha, “Oye Como Va” in all my performances.

Fifteen days later, we returned to New York. As I was checking my answering machine, I was shocked to hear a message from Tito. Tito was not the type of person to leave messages, so I found it even more odd. When I listened to it, his clearest words were, “See you later, negra”. When I looked at the date of the call, I realized he had called to say good-bye on the eve of his death. Those were his last words to me. I immediately removed the tape from the answering machine and put it in my safe. Those words were his last gift to me, and I will cherish them until my last day on earth.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

Publishers Weekly
”How did a little black girl from Santos Suárez [a poor, working-class Havana neighborhood] come so far?” asks Cruz. One answer: “Only God knows why I’ve been so fortunate.” Another explanation – that Cruz’s success derived from her inimitable vocal style, passion for Cuba and its music, and her desire to keep expanding her oeuvre by recording with new artists and embracing all types of Cuban music (rumba, cha-cha, mambo, etc.)—is less a focal point of this book, but emerges nonetheless as the reason for her eventual status as “a cross-cultural, cross-generational phenomenon,” according to People magazine. Cruz (1925–2003) recollects performances with many of the world’s greatest musicians, including touring with the famous Sonora Matancera Orchestra and bringing salsa music to the U.S., South America, Asia and Europe. Although Cruz prefers to reminisce about her fabulous life rather than explain her connection to the music that came to define her, her autobiography, conversational in tone, neatly tells the story of a woman who bravely left her beloved homeland for a better life—and wound up bettering the lives of many others with her powerful music.

Amazon.com by doomsdayer520 (2005)
This is an enjoyable memoir from the great Cuban singer Celia Cruz, reminiscing on her long life of musical creativity and success. She came of age in the rich Afro/Latin/Caribbean musical scene of pre-Castro Cuba, but then had to flee her homeland, never to return, after the dictator took control and ruthlessly suppressed his people’s vibrant and colorful homegrown culture. For some reason Celia never hit it big with mainstream American audiences, but she was huge in the Latin community, and hundreds of thousands of fans mourned her passing in 2003. This book is written mostly in the form of positive reminiscences on friends, faith, and successes. There is nothing wrong with that in the slightest, but I can’t quite give this book a perfect rating because of some missed opportunities. Celia’s life offers many rich lessons on having to flee one’s home into exile, and continuing to work for one’s people through success in the outside world. Celia has many very wise and compelling things to say about Castro, the suffering of her people, life in exile, and the issues faced by black and Latin women in music. Unfortunately, Celia’s experienced and heartfelt remarks on these matters usually appear for only a paragraph or two, and then it’s back to the joyful reminiscing. But even though some golden opportunities for real insight are lost, this is still a great story about the life of an outstanding talent and personality.

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