CubaBrief: Remembering Celia Cruz 17 years after her passing, and setting the record straight on the Smithsonian Institution’s omissions about her life.

Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso died 17 years ago today on July 16, 2003, she was 77 years old and died from an aggressive cancer, and across the world her millions of fans mourned her passing. Waves of grief were especially felt in Miami, Florida and Hoboken, New Jersey, both containing large Cuban exile communities. She was better known by her stage name, Celia Cruz.

Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa

Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa

The mourning for Celia was nearly universal, except in her homeland Cuba where the official media printed a small note on her passing recognizing Celia as an “important Cuban performer who popularized our country’s music in the United States,” it went on to say that “during the last four decades, she was systematically active in campaigns against the Cuban revolution generated in the United States.”

Sadly, the reason for the Castro regime’s hostility towards Celia Cruz, her refusal to bow to Fidel Castro, her legacy defending freedom of expression, and the high price she paid is absent from a March 5, 2020 video by the Smithsonian Institution titled “Why Is Celia Cruz Called the Queen of Salsa? #BecauseOfHerStory.” Ariana A. Curtis, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is interviewed by a student identified as Mincy that hides key parts of Celia’s history conflating her with the immigration experience in America, when she was a Cuban Exile barred by the Castro dictatorship from returning to her homeland, and her music banned to the present day in Cuba. This is the portion of the interview that describes her departure from Cuba:

Ariana A. Curtis: Because especially during the early 1960s when she left, that was right after the Cuban Revolution, you know. And so Cuba was in the news a lot about politics, and about socialism, and about military things. But she really wanted to be able to show this “other side” of Cuba, right. The arts and culture side. And so she definitely used her style, sort of like satin dresses with the ruffles, and like these long trains.

Mincy: People migrate here and they tend to change their names and change who they are  so that they can get jobs or so that they can get opportunities. So they hide that part of themselves in order to like grow in this country, it’s so important that we have an example that Celia Cruz did not hide herself.”

This omits much of Celia’s history, and could be viewed as an Orwellian rewrite that would be welcome by the Castro dictatorship because it does something that the Queen of Salsa never did, and that is hide who she really was. And this process did not begin with this interview, but stretches back several years. This is disturbing because the Smithsonian Institution is paid for by American taxpayers, and should not be generating such shoddy material to advance a specific and false narrative.

Celia made the decision to live and sing in freedom, and in order to do that Celia had to leave Cuba during the Castro dictatorship. Fidel Castro had tried to create a situation that forced the salsa singer to pay him homage, but she refused. Salserísimo Perú, a Youtube site created in Peru by three journalists to share information on salsa and tropical music offers a more complete and accurate history than the Smithsonian Institution. Below is a description of Celia Cruz’s first “encounter” with Fidel Castro.

“In the early months of 1959, Celia Cruz was hired to sing with a pianist at the house of the Cuban businessman Miguel Angel Quevedo.  Quevedo owned the magazine Bohemia, the most influential in Cuba and who had supported the revolution in the last few years.  The guerrilla movement with a certain Fidel Castro in front proclaimed in Santiago the beginning of the revolution. At that moment Celia enjoyed great popularity for “Yebero Moderno”, “Tu voz” and “Burundanga” songs she had recorded with the Sonora Matancera. As a guest artist of Rogelio Martinez’s group the Guarachera (Celia) was free to accept other contracts as a soloist. This allowed her to show her talent on different radio stations in Havana, and perform in Mexico, Venezuela, and Peru. Since the regime of Fidel took power, it had begun to systematically seize businesses, radio and television stations. [Fidel Castro speaking: ‘The revolution was something like a hope and that joy, possibly, prevented us from thinking all that we still had to do.’ For the Guarechera, Fidel was ending free expression and the arts in her country.  The night of the show in the home of Quevedo, Celia was singing standing next to the pianist,  when suddenly the guests started to run to the front door of the house. Fidel Castro had arrived.  Neither she nor the pianist moved and continued singing. Suddenly, Quevedo approached Celia and told her that Fidel wanted to meet her because in his guerrilla days, when he cleaned his rifle he was listening to Burundanga. Celia replied that she had been hired to sing next to the piano, and that was her place. If Fidel wanted to meet her, he would have to come to her.  But the commandant did not do that.”

Since Celia Cruz refused to bow to the new dictator, and wanted to continue to live the life of a free artist, she had to leave Cuba. However, when her mom was ill she tried to return to see her in 1962, but was barred from entering the country by Fidel Castro. When her mother died Celia was again blocked by the dictatorship from attending her funeral. Because she was not an active supporter of the regime, her music was banned in Cuba.

Regime apologists and their agents of influence have attempted to pretend that things have changed with regards to artistic freedom.

On August 8, 2012 BBC News reported that Cuba’s ban on anti-Castro musicians had been quietly lifted and on August 10 the BBC correspondent in Cuba, Sarah Rainsford, tweeted that she had been given names of forbidden artists by the central committee and the internet was a buzz that the ban on anti-Castro musicians had been quietly lifted. Others soon followed reporting on the news. The stories specifically mentioned Celia Cruz as one of the artists whose music would return to Cuban radio.

There was only one problem. It was not true. Diario de Cuba reported on August 21, 2012 that Tony Pinelli, a well known musician and radio producer, distributed an e-mail in which Rolando Álvarez, the national director of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (ICRT) confirmed that the music of the late Celia Cruz would continue to be banned. The e-mail clearly stated: “All those who had allied with the enemy, who acted against our families, like Celia Cruz, who went to sing at the Guantanamo Base, the ICRT arrogated to itself the right, quite properly, not to disseminate them on Cuban radio “

Celia Cruz picks up Cuban soil to take back home to exile in 1990

Celia Cruz picks up Cuban soil to take back home to exile in 1990

Celia  is in good company. Other major Cuban artists who have had their music banned by the Castro regime are Olga Guillot, Rolando Lecuona, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval,  Israel Cachao López, Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría, Mario Bauza, Arsenio Rodríguez, Willy Chirino, and Gloria Estefan.

According to the 2004 book, Shoot the singer!: music censorship today edited by Marie Korpe there is increasing concern that post-revolution generations in Cuba are growing up without knowing or hearing censored musicians such as Celia Cruz, Olga Guillot, and the long list above, and that this could lead to a loss of Cuban identity in future generations. This process has been described as a Cuban cultural genocide that is depriving generations of Cubans their heritage.

Hopefully, one day the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will tell the full story  of Celia Cruz, and not the sanitized, politically correct version broadcast over Youtube earlier this year. Meanwhile, friends of freedom and good music can celebrate her full life and legacy set to her music.