Her name evokes memories of fiery rhythms and songs that never get old. Celia Cruz was, and still is, the undisputed “Queen of Salsa.” She was an artist for all generations and all times. More than 10 years have passed since Celia Cruz departed this world. The outpouring of grief and love for her around the world was spontaneous and heartfelt. More than half a million people walked past her coffin in Miami and New York. Impromptu homages appeared in various cities throughout the world. Candles were lit, flowers were placed, messages written, and countless tributes were held in her honor in places as diverse as Mexico City, Los Angeles, Helsinki and Tokyo.
"I was deeply moved but also perplexed. Something that I couldn’t understand at that moment was the contrast between her genuine and exuberant happiness and the terrible reality of what she was about to face."
The July 2004 publication of her autobiography, Celia, Mi Vida (Celia, My Life), marked the one-year anniversary of her death. Being her biographer has been an immense privilege for me. We celebrate her life, her music and her legacy in this edition of Nexos.
Celia herself said she wanted to be remembered as a good daughter, a good friend and a good wife. All of us who had the honor of knowing her recognize that she was each and every one of those things. Celia was also a mentor to many artists, whom she motivated and advised when they were just starting. Celebrated performers like India, Jennifer Lopez, Daddy Yankee, Pitbull, Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin, among others, who had the chance to work with her when they were just blossoming in the world of entertainment, have said as much.
Celia never became a mother. Still, she was a beloved maternal figure for hundreds of kids. She “adopted” more than 150 children around the world. In essence, she became a godmother to each of them. She got to know these little ones because they were her fans and they spoke to her when she was interviewed on radio stations. It was her habit to get their information so she could reach out to them later through letters, sending them postcards from the places where she was touring, and also buying them school supplies and birthday, Christmas and Three Kings Day gifts. When she spoke to them on the phone, she would give them advice. The children would send her their report cards, since their education was the most important thing for her.
I will never forget the day I interviewed her for the cover of the January 2003 edition. The interview and photo shoot, which lasted six hours, was held in New York on Sept. 24, 2002. Celia was kind, joyful and funny. She shared stories, sang, danced and captivated us with her tremendous personality. Just before she said goodbye, I discovered something no one but her husband and her manager knew: The next morning, she was checking into the hospital to have one of many surgeries and treatments in her battle against the cancer that would eventually claim her life. I was deeply moved but also perplexed. Something that I couldn’t understand at that moment was the contrast between her genuine and exuberant happiness and the terrible reality of what she was about to face. That night, Celia had imparted her first lesson to me: what living in the moment looks like.
Celia was a woman of great integrity. She was generous and compassionate, and always considerate about others’ feelings. She never asked for special treatment just because she was Celia Cruz. Yet she knew very well her place in history and her worth. I think of her as a kind of “master spirit.”
A decade after publishing her biography, I’m still assimilating her immense wisdom and the true love she showed toward others. In spite of my many faults, I want to follow her example of going through the world with an open heart and the willingness to share with others, while remembering that even during the toughest moments, there’s always something we can be grateful for.