CHAPTER ONETHE GIRL WHO CARVED HER NAME IN THE AIR
Celia’s home was both happy and crowded. Her parents, three siblings, one grandmother, a few aunts, and a whole bunch of cousins squeezed into their small first-floor tenement with two bedrooms and a single bathroom. As many as fourteen kids lived at 47 Serrano Street when Celia was young, and it was her job to sing lullabies at bedtime to everyone younger than she was. This backfired every time. Celia could not sing the smaller kids to sleep. They refused to sleep. All of them stayed awake and demanded endless encores of every lullaby.
Protective metal bars covered the first-floor windows in Santos Suárez, a working-class neighborhood in southern Havana. Those bars tried to look intimidating, but the Cruz family home did not lock itself away from the rest of the city. Their front door was always propped wide open to welcome conversations with neighbors and the cooling Caribbean breeze.
If you walked by their open door in the afternoon, you would probably hear Celia’s mother singing to herself in the kitchen. You would also smell her cooking: white rice and black beans on an ordinary day, sizzling slices of plátanos and the slow simmer of ropa vieja on special occasions.
Celia would always remember that meal as her unsurpassed favorite, and the smell of it simmering on the stove—which took all afternoon—conjured memories of her mother’s singing voice.
If you walked along Serrano Street in the evening, you would hear Celia herself singing lullabies to the household’s younger kids. Her voice would carry through the bars outside their shared bedroom window. It would carry through the open front door. Neighbors would gather to listen. You would gather with them, becoming a part of that sudden, unplanned audience. It wouldn’t matter where you thought you were going at the time. If you could hear Celia sing, then you had no reason to be anywhere else.
Sometimes she paused, went outside, and told the crowd of neighbors to please go away. They always came back.
As a young girl in south Havana, Celia never guessed that she would one day become Cuba’s cultural ambassador to the rest of the world, praised as the greatest voice in a generation.
* * *
Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso was born on October 21, 1925, at 47 Serrano Street in Havana—the capital city of the Caribbean nation of Cuba, approximately one hundred miles south from the Florida Keys.
Her parents named her Úrsula because she was born on the feast day of Saint Úrsula, patron of schoolgirls, but her mother insisted on calling her Celia instead. Saint Celia is the patron of music, and music was vital to that side of the family. Her mom—known to everyone by her nickname Ollita—was always singing. Celia later insisted that her mother’s voice lifted in song was the first sound that she heard while still in the womb. The calming timbre of that voice continued to be an ever-present soundtrack throughout her childhood.
For her part, Ollita was so proud of her daughter’s voice that she took every opportunity to show her off. Celia sang for family guests when she was still too young to feel self-conscious about doing so. After one performance of “¿Y tú qué has hecho?”—a folk song about a girl who carves her name into the bark of a tree—the guests were so impressed that they bought Celia a new pair of white leather shoes.
One of the neighbors on Serrano Street provided backyard lessons in Caribbean musical history by way of Lucumi songs and ceremonies—a syncretic combination of European Catholicism from Spain and African religious traditions of the Yoruba people. These traditions had survived the atrocities of the Middle Passage, blended with Catholicism during centuries of slavery, and continued to thrive in contemporary Havana. Celia’s mother was afraid of Lucumi, and called it Santería. Celia’s brother, Bárbaro, would one day become a santero himself and use the family gift for music to sing Lucumi songs of devotion. Celia herself sat under a ceiba tree in the corner of her backyard and listened close whenever their santera neighbor hosted bembé drum celebrations. Years later, Celia would find inspiration, ancestry, and solace in Afro-Cuban music of diaspora.
As an older kid, Celia went dancing with her friends and cousins at the Sociedad de los Jóvenes del Vals—a neighborhood social club on Rodriguez Street—where she heard live performances by legendary musicians. She would sit as close to the stage as possible whenever her favorite singer, Paulina Álvarez, performed to the beat of her handheld wooden claves.
Celia was fourteen when she snuck out to see the Havana carnaval for the very first time. She felt thrilled, terrified, and horribly guilty about lying to her mother and pretending to spend the whole day at her friend Caridad’s place. (Meanwhile, Caridad’s parents thought that their daughter was over at Celia’s.) Celia also felt physically uncomfortable on the bus, because she had to sit on her cousin Nenita’s lap for the entire ride. Bus fare was just a nickel in 1940, but there were six of them, and they only had enough pocket change for five tickets, so Celia and Nenita needed to share a seat.
They took the bus from Santos Suárez to central Havana, crossing the length of a city so beautiful, powerful, and coveted by the colonial powers of Europe that when British pirates occupied Havana in 1762, Spain traded the whole peninsula of Florida to get it back. England could not maintain their new claim on Florida for very long, though; the mainland colonies that would become the United States defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781.
Cuba wrested independence from Spain a century later. Celia’s maternal grandfather fought as a mambí for that freedom. Soon afterward the island nation of Cuba restored its centuries-old traditions of carnaval: a multiday hurricane of music, dancing, parades, and processions in resplendent clothes and costumes.
Carnaval in Havana was like nothing else in the world. Fourteen-year-old Celia Cruz had never seen it, though, despite living in the city for her entire life. Celia’s mother and father had never let her go. Her parents had no idea that their daughter had snuck out to hear the rhythms of bembé and watch costumed processions of dancers overwhelm Havana.
A fierce joy woke in Celia on that day of carnaval, and for the rest of her days it would never leave her.
The six friends had a long walk home to Santos Suárez afterward. None of them had any money left for the bus ride back.
Celia snuck home without getting caught, exhausted but still unable to sleep. The excitement and adrenaline of carnaval kept her awake. So did the guilt. She hated lying, to anyone, for any reason whatsoever, and she hated lying to Ollita most of all.
The next morning, Celia quietly confessed to Tía Ana, her mother’s sister.
Ana gently scolded her niece for sneaking out. Then she asked if Celia wanted to go back.
The two co-conspirators returned to carnaval that afternoon. Tía Ana made excuses about needing help with errands, which spared Celia’s conscience the burden of lying to Ollita two days in a row.
Auntie and niece arrived at the capitol building, the very center of the joyous storm. They sang and danced alongside the costumed troupes of comparsas until the two of them couldn’t feel their feet anymore. By the time they returned home, very late at night, Celia’s father was already asleep. Her mother, clearly undeceived by their sneaky cover story, stayed awake to welcome them back with conspiratorial hugs.
That night, Celia dreamed she was the Queen of Carnaval.
She wore a long white gown and held her arms wide to the world as she sang.
* * *
In 1944, just a couple of weeks before Celia’s nineteenth birthday, a devastating hurricane passed through Havana. Storm winds humbled royal palm trees and sent them flying. Celia was sure that their home on Serrano Street would collapse over their heads, but the walls held strong.
Another young musician was badly shaken by that same storm. Pedro Knight, a tall trumpet player, worked for a traveling circus that year. Hurricane winds were unkind to the circus tents. Afterward, as Havana slowly pulled itself back together, no one had any spare cash to spend on a damaged circus. Unfed, unpaid performers ate little more than bread crusts in the lean weeks that followed.
Celia’s heart would have broken for them if she had known, but Celia had yet to meet the tall trumpet player Pedro Knight.
* * *
Young Celia Cruz intended to become a teacher when she grew up. That was the plan she inherited from her serious, hardworking, and practical-minded father. Celia liked school, loved kids, and shared a first name with the patron saint of schoolgirls. It seemed perfectly natural for her career to lead back to a classroom of her own.
A crossroads moment arrived in 1947, when two wildly different versions of Celia’s life stretched out in front of her. She was already enrolled in the Escuela Normal de Maestros for teacher training when her cousin Serafín secretly signed her up for a singing contest at a local radio station.
Celia felt overjoyed, nervous with stage fright, grateful to her cousin, and annoyed with him for signing her name without asking her first. Serafín made no apologies, though. He knew what music meant to Celia. He also knew what Celia’s voice meant to everyone else.
The contest was held on a Saturday. Celia woke up extra early that morning. She felt confident, her former nervousness gone. She wore a white dress, and her mother styled her hair into a tight bun behind her head. In the mirror she looked exactly like her dream of the Queen of Carnaval. Outside, early-morning sunlight sparkled on dewdrops like sequins under stage lights.
Serafín went with Celia to the radio station. It was only twelve blocks from the house, and they were used to walking everywhere, but on that day the two of them rode the bus instead. Most of the other contestants at the station were older than Celia, which made her feel a bit naive and out of place. Then she took her turn at the microphone and sang “Nostalgia,” a tango accompanied by the beat of handheld wooden claves. She had brought them in honor of Paulina Álvarez, her favorite singer, and now they unlocked her voice.
Celia won first place.
Her prize was a cake from La Casa Potín, one of the best and fanciest bakeries in Havana. Celia and Serafín brought the cake home in triumph—he was even more excited about her musical victory than she was—and shared that sugary feast with the whole family. Celia would always remember the deliciously delicate taste of that cake.
She won a necklace when she took first place in the next contest, and after that she signed up for every singing competition she could find. Serafín continued to help as her unofficial agent. The two of them brought home prize after prize—sometimes money, sometimes chocolate, and sometimes household necessities like condensed milk, bread, and soap. Every new victory sparked a party at home, where almost every family member laughed, talked, and sang over one another.
Celia’s father was the only one who refused to celebrate her victories. He radiated cold, quiet displeasure whenever his daughter made a public display of her voice.
Simón Cruz worked the railroads.
He shoveled coal all day.
He never sang.
Whenever the topic of Celia’s future came up in conversation, her father continued to insist that she would become a teacher. Celia didn’t argue. She kept up with her classes, learned more about literature and the art of teaching, and paid for her textbooks with the money that she kept winning from radio contests.
Her mother told her not to worry too much about her father’s coldness. Celia did worry, though. She keenly felt the lack of his respect. Ollita and Tía Ana offered extra helpings of warmth and support to compensate.
One day Ana joined her niece to watch her perform in yet another radio contest. Celia won—as usual—but the win clearly belonged to her voice alone and not to her presence onstage. Afterward Ana gently pointed out that Celia had stood like a statue. She didn’t dance. She barely even moved. She seemed immune to the power of her own voice. Tía Ana told her that an audience couldn’t feel the emotion, rhythm, or momentum of music unless the musician allowed herself to be moved by it first. That wasn’t something Celia wanted to hear. It took a little of the shine away from her latest vocal victory. She still appreciated her tía’s critique, though, and she understood why she held very still at the microphone: Celia was afraid. Some part of her held back, reluctant to accept and command the focused attention of stage and spotlight. She was a gifted singer, and she knew that—everyone knew that—but Celia was not yet a performer.
She vowed to become one.
After Tía Ana told her to unfreeze at the microphone, Celia took every opportunity she could find to perform in front of a live audience. She sang at parties and neighborhood events with the local band El Botón de Oro—the Golden Button, named for the gold flower-shaped buttons they wore. She sang accompaniment to every show and ceremony at the teachers’ college. She sang on graduation day in 1949—a day that would turn out to be another crossroads moment.
After the commencement ceremony ended, Celia found herself in conversation with Marta Rainieri, one of her favorite teachers at the college. Celia asked for advice about becoming a teacher herself. Ms. Rainieri gave her a stern look, spoke with a serious tone, and told Celia that she had more of a gift for singing onstage than lecturing in the classroom. She urged Celia to honor that gift. (Ms. Rainieri also confessed that teachers’ salaries were much too small.)
Celia felt surprised and thrilled to be seen, heard, and recognized for who she really was.
Savor that moment along with her. Think about a time when you felt seen and understood by a teacher. (Hopefully you have at least one such moment to remember.) Enjoy the irony that Ms. Rainieri demonstrated the life-changing power of a good teacher by telling Celia not to become one and to follow her musical calling instead.
This was the moment when Celia stopped trying to simultaneously embrace two different versions of her future: the one she wanted for herself, and the one her father wanted for her. She set teaching aside and set out to conquer the music business instead.
Simón Cruz withdrew further into his shell of cold, quiet anger.
Celia ignored him as much as she could.
* * *
Her conquest began at Havana’s Academia Municipal de Música; Celia may have buried her former plans to become a teacher, but she continued to feed her curiosity and intellect by studying musical theory at the academy. There, she continued to train her rare contralto voice, which is the lowest gendered range for female singers. A male voice hitting the same notes is called a tenor.
Celia also found private tutors for piano lessons, with mixed success. She couldn’t stand her first piano teacher, for reasons that Celia herself never fully understood; the two of them just clashed. She learned more from Oscar Muñoz Boufartique, who urged Celia to cut her long fingernails in order to better play the piano keys. She absolutely refused. Celia later joked about it and said that she regretted missing the chance to become a better pianist when she was young. She could have grown the nails back afterward.
The rest of Celia’s training took place on the job, in radio studios throughout Havana—especially CMQ radio station in El Vedado, a neighborhood just south of the Malecón.
Freelance musicians and actors showed up in the morning; checked a notebook to see if they were on call for any of the rehearsals, shows, or commercial jingles scheduled for the day; and then sat on a bench in the reception office to wait. They called it “the bench of dreams,” a place for daydreaming about future stardom.
That bench was also a place of careful study. Celia spent many long hours observing the other performers: how they conducted themselves in rehearsal, which techniques they used to warm up before a show, and— most important—the way that they treated one another. This was a community rather than a random collection of freelancers in cutthroat competition. Musicians supported one another, looked out for one another, and offered guidance and advice to newcomers like Celia on the bench of dreams.
All of them needed that support and camaraderie, because all radio was live radio in the 1940s. Every word, note, and accidental noise hit the airwaves immediately. Every script and song needed to be memorized. Every mistake meant that you might not get hired for the next show, and everyone made mistakes. Celia learned how to take the work seriously, and how to joke about the inevitable mishaps in order to stay confident and keep from panicking the next time. She learned how to roll with the uncontrollable nature of live performance and just keep going, no matter what happened, because there was never any turning back for a second take.
Celia developed skills to match her talent at the microphones of the CMQ radio studios. She also gained the love and respect of her new musical community.
Meanwhile, the love and respect of Celia’s father seemed impossible to earn. The two of them barely spoke. He strongly believed that show business was a humiliating, degenerate life for any woman to undertake—and that his daughter brought contagious shame down on the whole family every time she performed.
The man clung to his stubborn beliefs for years, barely acknowledging that Celia even existed until the day that a railway coworker showed him a newspaper article about a rising radio star.
At first Simón was mortified. Then he actually read the article. He paid close attention to every word of praise for Celia’s talent and skill. He glimpsed the star performer that the whole city of Havana had begun to adore and for the first time saw his daughter truly.
That night, after a long workday of shoveling coal, Simón Cruz sat down with Celia for their first proper conversation in years. He tried to explain why he had felt so ashamed before and why he would never deny her again. He told Celia that he trusted her.
To everyone reading these pages: May you also be seen, heard, and understood.
Copyright © 2022 by Claudia Romo Edelman and William Alexander.