CubaBrief: On this day in 2003 Cuban artist Celia Cruz passed away. 20 years later her music remains banned by Havana. Other Afro-Cuban artists are jailed in Cuba today for defending human rights.

 “Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is remembering without pain.” – Celia Cruz 

On this day in 2003, Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, passed away after a long illness. She was 77 years old. Celia began her career as a singer in 1948, and by 1957 was an international music sensation. She was widely loved in Cuba.  Because she had refused to bend the knee to Fidel Castro in early 1959, and did not want to become a tool of the Castro regime, she left Cuba on July 15, 1960.

  When her mother became ill in 1962, she was not allowed to return by Cuban officials to see her. Nor was she allowed to attend her funeral a short time later that same year. This practice continues to the present day in Cuba, with the case of Anamely Ramos in 2022, one of many recent examples. Celia Cruz won many Grammys and Latin Grammys for her music, and her music is played over radio stations, and television stations the world over, but her music is systematically censored in Cuba, even today.

She was finally able to return to Cuba in 1990, when she played a concert for Cuban employees who worked on the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base, and collected Cuban soil that would be entombed with her in 2003.

During the Summit of the Americas in 1994, she departed from the script and asked the leaders of the Americas, “Please, on behalf of my compatriots, I ask you not to help Fidel Castro any more so he can go away and leave us a Cuba free of communism.”  She said that all the artists had been asked to refrain from expressing political messages, but she had engaged in an act of civil disobedience.

She continued to make music that transcended borders, and cultures. In 1998 she recorded “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” Rolling Stone Magazine in 2021 recognized Celia Cruz’s, ‘La Vida Es un Carnaval’ as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

On May 19, 2001 at the reopening of the Freedom Tower in Miami Celia Cruz sang the prophetic song “Por si acaso no regreso” [ In case I don’t return]. In 2002, Celia released the album, La negra tiene tumbao, for which she won her third Latin Grammy and second Grammy.

The world mourned her death in 2003, except in the halls of the dictatorship in Cuba, where the official media published a small note recognizing Celia Cruz as a “important Cuban performer who popularized our country’s music in the United States,” adding that “during the last four decades, she was systematically active in campaigns against the Cuban revolution generated in the United States.”

What would have happened to Celia Cruz if she had remained in Cuba with her defiant stance towards the Castro regime? The answer can be seen over the decades in how artists who dissented were treated.

Maria Elena Cruz Varela

On November 19, 1991 Cuban poet Mariela Elena Cruz Varela, who peacefully dissented asking for nonviolent change, was assaulted by a mob organized by the dictatorship who tried to force feed the poet her own words. She wrote about the assault in her book, Dios en las cárceles cubanas (God in the Cuban jails):

“They broke my mouth trying to make me swallow the leaflets that members of my group had distributed throughout Havana. Afterwards I spent three days brutally besieged, imprisoned in my own home with my two children, with no water, no electricity, no food, no cigarettes. We heard what the huge speakers never stopped amplifying, allegorical songs to the country, the necessary punishment of traitors, and anyone who wanted to could shout at me, organized, of course, the slogans they pleased: Comrade worm, we are going to execute you by firing squad!”

Today in Cuba there are at least 10 artists in detention while 13 others were sent into forced exile, according to Artists at Risk Connection in their report Método Cuba: Independent Artists’ Testimonies of Forced Exile released on July 11, 2023.

Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez in the music video Patria y Vida.

One of these artists, like Celia Cruz, is a multi-Latin Grammy winner. His name is Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez, and he is serving an unjust nine year prison sentence for speaking out, and singing protest songs that imagine a Cuba without dictatorship. PEN International and Artist at Risk Connection on July 14, 2023 called for his immediate release.

The Artist at Risk Connection and PEN International today called for the immediate and unconditional release from prison of Cuban artist Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez, who has tattooed the words “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life) on his arm and sewn his mouth shut to protest the ongoing harassment and threats he has experienced in Kilo 5 y Medio, a maximum-security prison in Cuba.

Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter, July 16, 2023

Remembering Celia Cruz: 20 years after her death the Queen of Salsa’s music still banned in Cuba

 “Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is remembering without pain.” – Celia Cruz 

20 years ago today on July 16, 2003 Cuban music and freedom icon Celia Cruz passed away after a battle with cancer. She was 77 years old.  Special Masses are being held in memory of Celia, her mausoleum has been opened today for visitors, and the New York Cuban and Hispanic Parade will honor her today. Next year she will be appearing on U.S. currency.

She had started singing in Havanas’s cabaret’s in 1947, and recorded her first song in 1948 after joining the Las Mulatas de Fuego (The Fiery Mulattas), a group founded by Roderico Rodney Neyra, who would become known as the choreographer of the Tropicana Cabaret.  Her breakout into stardom took place in 1950 when she joined the Sonora Matancera, and recorded her first songs with them. She would become an international star singing with this group over the next 15 years. She also met her husband Pedro Knight at the first rehearsal of the Sonora Matancera. She had her first gold record in the United States with the song  “Burundanga” in 1957.

Celia made the decision to live and sing in freedom, and in order to do that she had to leave Cuba during the Castro dictatorship. When her mom, Catalina Alfonso, was ill she tried to return to see her in 1962, but was barred from entering the country by the regime. When her mother died Celia was blocked by the dictatorship from attending her funeral. 

The above story is familiar to many, but the details are not, and are worth knowing.

On January 1, 1959 the Cuban revolution took power in Cuba, and despite their claims to be restoring democracy, immediately set out to impose a communist dictatorship, but needed to capture cultural icons and turn them into mouthpieces of the new regime.

Fidel Castro tried to create a situation that forced the salsa singer to pay him homage, but Celia refused. Salserísimo Perú, a site created in Peru by three journalists to share information on salsa and tropical music have reported on it.. Below is an excerpt 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. 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.”

This is totalitarianism. It is not enough not to oppose the dictatorship, but you must actively support it to avoid punishment.

She left Cuba on a flight to Mexico on July 15, 1960

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. Because she was not an active supporter of the regime, her music was banned in Cuba and she was punished by not being able to see her mom.

Celia’s relationship with the Sonora Matancera ended in 1965, and in 1966 she began what would be a five album collaboration with Tito Puente. In 1974 both Tito Puente and Celia Cruz signed with Fania Records. Celia would continue that relationship until 1992.

The vindictive cruelty of not allowing her to return to her home town in Cuba to see her mother fueled Celia’s distaste for the Cuban dictatorship. When she went to the Guantanamo Naval Base three decades later she picked up some Cuban soil, a piece of home, to take back with her into exile. This 1990 trip to the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base would not be forgotten in official circles of the communist dictatorship.  

Celia continued to make hit music, and release new albums in the 1990s, and won both American and Latin Grammys for her work. One of her most famous songs “La vida es un carnaval.”  Her last collaboration with Tito Puente was on her album Celia Cruz and Friends: A Night of Salsa, recorded in 2000 for which she received a Latin Grammy.

On May 19, 2001 at the reopening of the Freedom Tower in Miami Celia Cruz sang the prophetic song “Por si acaso no regreso” [ In case I don’t return]. In 2002, Celia released the album, La negra tiene tumbao, for which she won her third Latin Grammy and second Grammy.

Celia passed away on July 16, 2003 after a long battle with cancer, and per her request was entombed with soil she had brought back from her 1990 visit to Guantanamo.

The world mourned her death in 2003, except in Cuba where the official media printed a small note on her passing recognizing Cruz 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.” 

Rolling Stone Magazine on September 15, 2021 placed Celia Cruz’s, ‘La Vida Es un Carnaval’ as the 439th greatest song of all time.  Below is the image and text provided by the publication.

20 years later Celia Cruz’s music is still banned on Cuba’s official airwaves, and in death she remains an unperson in official circles of the Castro regime that continue to have monopoly control over radio. 

According to the 2004 book Shoot the singer!: music censorship today edited by Marie Korpe there is concern that post-revolution generations in Cuba are growing up without knowing or hearing censored musicians such as Celia Cruz and Olga Guillot 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 of their heritage. 

However, everywhere else in the world, and especially in Miami, she is remembered as the Queen of Salsa and her musical legacy endures.

https://cubanexilequarter.blogspot.com/2023/07/remembering-celia-cruz-20-years-after.html

20 years later Celia Cruz’s music is still banned on Cuba’s official airwaves, and in death she remains an unperson in official circles of the Castro regime that continue to have monopoly control over radio. 

According to the 2004 book Shoot the singer!: music censorship today edited by Marie Korpe there is concern that post-revolution generations in Cuba are growing up without knowing or hearing censored musicians such as Celia Cruz and Olga Guillot 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 of their heritage. 

However, everywhere else in the world, and especially in Miami, she is remembered as the Queen of Salsa and her musical legacy endures.

https://cubanexilequarter.blogspot.com/2023/07/remembering-celia-cruz-20-years-after.html

NBC6, July 15, 2023

Music & Musicians

‘Queen of Salsa,’ Celia Cruz remembered 20 years later

Sunday marks 20 years since Celia Cruz’s death — but her memory is still alive.

By Kaitlyn Schwanemann

Published July 15, 2023

Cuban singer Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso was adored across the globe for her musical artistry. Sunday makes 20 years since her death — but her memory is still alive.

Cruz started out in Cuba, singing her younger siblings to sleep. She attended music school until a professor advised her to drop out, knowing that she could find success on her own.

She grew to create all types of Latino music, including rumba, mambo, cha-cha, guaracha, and most notably, salsa.

Cruz won six Grammy awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a National Medal of Arts, received three honorary degrees, and was dubbed “Queen of Salsa” by many.

The singer’s signature catchphrase, “azúcar,” meaning “sugar” in Spanish, has been used as the title for a variety of memorials: an exhibit at the National Museum of American History, a musical tribute aired on Telemundo, a musical, and more.

She died at 77 after falling ill to cancer, and her body was flown to Miami so that her fellow Cuban exiles could pay their respects before she was ultimately buried in The Bronx, New York.

The U.S. Mint announced in February that Cruz would be the first Afro-Latina to appear on the quarter.

She is a 2024 honoree of the American Woman Quarters Program, which honors historically significant women on the coin.

Cruz will also be the focus of the 2023 New York Cuban and Hispanic American Parade in Manhattan, NY, and will be honored with a ceremony at her burial site.

https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/queen-of-salsa-celia-cruz-remembered-20-years-later/3071937/

Havana Times, July 15, 2023

Cuban Rapper Maykel Osorbo Decries Mistreatment in Prison

July 15, 2023

Threatens to sew his mouth shut if conditions don’t improve

Recent photo of Maykel (Osorbo) Castillo taken clandestinely from the Kilo 5 y medio prison, in Pinar del Río. (Facebook/Anamely Ramos)

Por 14ymedio

HAVANA TIMES – Cuban activist Anamely Ramos, now in exile in the US, reported this Wednesday on her Facebook profile that rapper Maykel (Osorbo) Castillo tattooed the slogan “Patria y Vida” on his forearm and that he threatened to sew up his mouth, as a gesture of protest against the mistreatment suffered in the Kilo 5 y Medio prison, in Pinar del Río, where he has been imprisoned for two years.

“If you don’t hear from me again on Friday, you know what happened: in a cell, with my mouth sewn up. This is war!” warned the musician during a phone call he had with Ramos, who assures that until now, Castillo had assumed prison as a race of “resistance” and had focused on reinventing himself, reading and “connecting” with his family, but now he asks for “respect.”

Ramos said that she has been reporting on Castillo’s situation in prison for months, where he has suffered “all kinds of abuses” and the recurring violation of his rights. “Not even the nine years that they have thrown at me matter to me. I am ready to continue being me, to assume whatever. But artists are treated with respect. I am not going to give my respect in exchange for anything, nor for my freedom,” said the co-author of the song Patria y Vida.

Ramos, an activist and art historian, also details a list of arbitrariness committed against the musician, which includes confinement in punishment cells, periods of solitary confinement of up to three months, cancellation of regular and conjugal visits, continuous disagreements with Security agents of the State, humiliation and threats from common prisoners allowed by the officers in charge of maintaining order within the prison.

In Ramos’s opinion, these warnings have been “directed by the prison bosses” to harass Castillo. “At this point, Maykel has decided to say enough is enough,” she clarified, noting that the inmate’s life is in danger, “like that of all political prisoners who are not willing to play at the pace that power wants.”

As a preventive measure, says Ramos, the rapper “tries to eat as little as possible of what they give there.” As he previously reported, his jailers have even installed a surveillance camera in his cell after accusing him of inciting a riot.

They have also delayed giving him immediate medical assistance when he needed it and refused to give his medical file to his family. “His situation has worsened significantly since they changed his company,” said the activist.

Translated by Translating Cuba

https://havanatimes.org/news/cuban-rapper-maykel-osorbo-decries-mistreatment-in-prison/

Pen America, July 14, 2023

Imprisoned Cuban Artist and Activist Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez Sews His Mouth Shut to Protest Threats and Harassment

Artists Has Been Subject to Punishment, Solitary Confinement, Delays in Medical Attention, and Threats from Other Prisoners

July 14, 2023

(NEW YORK / LONDON) – The Artist at Risk Connection and PEN International today called for the immediate and unconditional release from prison of Cuban artist Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez, who has tattooed the words “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life) on his arm and sewn his mouth shut to protest the ongoing harassment and threats he has experienced in Kilo 5 y Medio, a maximum-security prison in Cuba.

The news of Maykel’s protest was first shared on Maykel’s profile on Facebook on Wednesday by Anamely Ramos, an academic, art curator, and activist. Maykel has been imprisoned since 2021, unjustly sentenced to nine years for his leadership of pro-democracy activism on the island. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that he is being held under arbitrary detention in violation of international human rights standards.

Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) Director Julie Trébault said: “Maykel Castillo has endured unrelenting and unfair treatment and we are deeply concerned about his well-being in light of the extreme measures he has taken to protest the constant harassment he faces in prison.”

Maykel Castillo has been subject to punishment cells, suspension of regular and conjugal visits, periods of solitary confinement, delays in providing him necessary medical attention, threats from other inmates, and constant visits from state security, among other acts.

“Maykel’s prolonged imprisonment exemplifies the Cuban government’s cruel and ruthless tactics to suppress dissent and suffocate artistic freedom and freedom of expression in Cuba,” said Trébault.

Ma Thida, chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, said: “Maykel Castillo Pérez is unjustly imprisoned for exercising his right to free expression, for writing a song, for criticizing his country’s government. His case is emblematic of the situation faced by independent artists, writers, journalists, and human rights defenders in Cuba. It is a tragedy for the world that he has decided to sew his mouth because of this repression and the poor conditions in prison. Maykel must be released immediately.”

Background

Maykel was arbitrarily detained at his home by state security officials without a warrant on May 18, 2021. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) Opinion No. 63/2021, concerning Castillo Pérez and decision considered the detention as arbitrary, contravening Articles 3, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The detention also fell under categories I, II, III and V of the definition of arbitrary detentions, as identified by the WGAD. Following his detention, he forcibly disappeared and subsequently was transferred to the high security 5 y Medio prison in Pinar del Río on May 31, 2021 where he currently remains. Following a closed-door trial with significant police presence, Maykel was sentenced in June 2022 to nine years in prison, in a “ruthless and inhumane” effort to punish them for their artistic expression and leadership in protest movements on the island.

On February 2, 2022, following a complaint by seven international NGOs to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, the United Nations finds that Maykel Osorbo, winner of two Latin Grammy awards, has been imprisoned solely for his pro-democracy activism and demands his release.

Maykel, along with Yotuel Romero, Descemer Bueno, Eliexer “El Funky” Márquez Duany, and Gente de Zona released the song “Patria Y Vida” which became the anthem for the mass demonstrations in Cuba on July 11, 2021.

In the past few years, Cuban artists have been increasingly targeted for their free and artistic expression, especially those who are independent or considered dissident. ARC, PEN International, and Cubalex spotlight 17 artists’ testimonies of forced exile, many of whom have also faced detention at the hands of Cuban officials in their new report Método Cuba: Independent Artists’ Testimonies of Forced Exile

About the Artists at Risk Connection

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. ARC recently released A Safety Guide For Artists, a resource that offers practical strategies to help artists understand, navigate, and overcome risk, and features an interview with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera about the state of free expression on the island. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

About PEN International

PEN International promotes literature and defends freedom of expression. It is a forum where writers meet freely to discuss their work; it is also a voice speaking out for writers silenced in their own countries. PEN International was founded in London, UK, in 1921, simply as PEN. Today it operates across five continents through 145 Centres in over 100 countries. PEN International is governed by the PEN Charter and the principles it embodies: unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

https://pen.org/press-release/imprisoned-cuban-artist-and-activist-maykel-osorbo-castillo-perez-sews-his-mouth-shut-to-protest-threats-and-harassment/