Personal Voices: Remembering Celia Cruz

I'm not one for idolizing celebrities, but I can say that I have felt a little of the magic associated with Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, and I understand some of what the mourners at her extravagant New York funeral were crying for.

Cruz had a way of bridging the many gaps that exist between Latins of different socio-economic classes and ethnic backgrounds. Despite the progress that Latin countries have experienced over the past years, the divisions between rich and poor, between the elites and the masses, still remain solidly entrenched in society. There's very little -- if any at all -- common ground between the haves and the have-nots. But in my experience, Celia Cruz was one of them.

"Her music was always playing in my house, she was like an aunt to me," an Ivy League-educated banker from an affluent Miami-Cuban family once told me. "My dream is to meet her face-to-face."

My Cuban neighbor has said the same thing (I live in a working class neighborhood dominated by Cubans, not far from Fort Lee, New Jersey, where Celia Cruz breathed her last). So I have little doubt that these men, poles apart in so many ways, felt something of the same emotion the day Cruz died.

Indeed, I was fortunate enough to have felt the magical way in which she united people from different strata of life. I was in the coastal Colombian town of Cartagena in the spring of 1998, covering the annual meetings of the Inter-American Development Bank, an institution that aims to foster economic and social progress in Latin America. The yearly event brings together Latin heads of state, finance ministers, business leaders, bankers and NGO representatives -- all supposed to work together to find solutions to the many problems facing their regions.

In 1998, though, finance ministers from developing countries around the globe were still giddy over the alleged merits of neo-liberal economics and private sector finance, and so the bankers were the most sought-after players in Cartagena. International banks, too, were ever-eager for new deals, and each one strove to outdo its rivals in courting fresh business.

Indeed, it seemed there was no limit to the amount of money that could be spent on this endeavor. Banks threw evening parties in Cartagena's most picturesque settings, each one more lavish than the last. Fancy food, the finest of wine, champagne and cigars, were in abundance.

And of course, grandiose evening entertainment was a must for the Latin elites. One bank managed to get Carlos Vives, the popular Colombian merengue artist, to perform. But it was the bank that succeeded in scoring Celia Cruz that really triumphed that year in Cartagena.

The event was by invitation only, but as I got to the old Spanish fortress on the beach where it was to take place, I saw throngs of locals queuing to get inside. All of Cartagena was there it seemed, and many others had come from neighboring towns. Simple people in shorts, T-shirts and rubber slippers, they were there with their children and grandchildren to see Cruz in the flesh, to hear her sing, to dance along with her.

A young man say my conference name tag and came up to talk to me. "Are you part of the conference? Can you get me in?"

I informed him that I was a mere journalist who had no invitation to the event.

"But you have a badge," he insisted. "I am sure they'll let you in -- tell them I am with you. I so want to see Celia."

I could only try. When I got to the bouncers, I showed them my badge, gestured to the young man at my side. They glanced at my name tag and asked for my invitation.

"I left it in my hotel room," I lied.

One bouncer smiled. His eyes moved away. Others were pushing at my back, arguing their cases. Before being shoved out of the way, I lied again: "Come on, I've traveled all the way from India to see Celia Cruz in concert." For a brief moment, the bouncer hesitated. It seemed he wanted to let me in -- indeed, his eyes seemed to say that if he could, he would have let everyone in to share in Celia's music. But he was on duty.

As I was about to be rejected again, a banker I happened to have interviewed that morning came up to the bouncer, invitation in hand. He told the bouncer I was with him, and before I knew it, I was waved in through the gate.

As I was engulfed by music and lights, the aroma of fine food, expensive perfume and the tinkle of champagne glasses, I glanced back with regret at my new Colombian friend, one of the many still crowding the gate.

"Go," he seemed to be saying while smiling in my direction. "Enjoy yourself for me as well." That night, Celia was a dynamo -- an unstoppable vision in a dress of gold slit up to her fleshy thigh. She sported a gold wig and golden lashes lengthened her green-shadowed eyes, heavily accented with black liner. Song after song sprung forth from her bright red mouth as she shook and shimmied along with her orchestra.

Around me, the crowd was on fire. I spotted the then finance minister of Colombia in shirt sleeves, letting loose. Men I had previously seen only in suits, speaking on serious topics at conferences or on panels, were completely uninhibited. The banker who had brought me in grabbed me by the hand and we salsa-ed the night away together.

I was lucky, I thought, as the final encore ended, and the merry crowd slowly made its way out of the fortress and into the Cartagena night. But I still wondered about the young Colombian, and the scores of others who couldn't make it past the gate into the elite enclosure. It wasn't fair that they had been excluded.

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the Colombian, his eyes shining. He had heard the entire concert from the beach, he said. He had heard Celia's voice loud and clear. It didn't matter that he and the thousands of others could not see her dance. They could imagine her every step and they had danced along with her.

The night was warm and the stars were bright. Around me was a mixture of Latins -- rich, poor, black, white, educated and not -- all fired up, happy. Tomorrow, they would be back to their very different lives. Probably they would never meet again, but that night, on that Cartagena beach, it seemed they were all equal, the way they should be.

Savita Iyer is a financial journalist and freelance writer in New York City.


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