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The City is Turned Upside Down by Celia
From El Diario
July 24, 2003

By Eva Sanchis

Some skipped their dentist appointments--the boldest, like Honduran Gloria Cruz, 60, skipped work. Thousands of admirers who wanted to give their last goodbyes to the "Guarachera de Cuba" stood outside Saint Patrick's Cathedral, where her funeral was held yesterday evening. Crammed behind police blockades, and under a heavy rain that began to fall shortly before the arrival of the singer's body, the crowd gave their goodbyes in a mixed atmosphere of sadness and celebration.

As if it were choreographed, a clap of deafening thunder was heard, and shortly afterward the followers welcomed with applause the white funeral retinue, crying "Celia" or singing lines from "La Negra Tiene Tumbao" and other of her songs, and confusing many passers-by, who thought the gathering was some type of concert.

"What is this all about?" asked a middle-aged man, who seemed annoyed at being unable to cross Fifth Avenue. "It is the burial of Celia Cruz, one of the greatest Latina singers," responded Gloria Cruz.

But it is not just the talent of the "guarachera" that forced the Honduran to arrive late to work yesterday, nor is it what made her wait in line for four hours the previous day at Frank and Campbell's undertaker's, after having worked on her feet for eight hours in a supermarket. It was the humility of Celia that wooed her. In 1984, when Gloria was a cashier at supermarket in Midtown Manhattan, Celia came to her check-out line to pay for a bottle of water that she had bought so that her husband could take his medicine.

"I watched her, transfixed, as she was going to pay me and I said to her: 'Celia?' and she touched my hand and said to me: 'Yes, Celia at your service,'" remembered the Honduran, who has been a follower of Cruz since the times of the Sonodora Matacera. "She was the greatest--until the last day she was loyal with the humble people." Celia Cruz, herself a black singer from a poor family and exiled from Cuba par excellence, became for many the mother of those exiled from the country, but also of those exiled from life, the least fortunate.

“Celia managed to triumph in a country where the black Americans had it easy, but the black Latinos did not," explained Héctor Zamora, a 54 year old Afro-Cuban who emigrated to the United States during the exodus of the Mariel in the 1980’s.

For Zamora, going to Celia’s funeral closes a very important part of his life. Originally from a farming town called Matazanas, the Cuban saw her act for the first time when he was six years old in the popular transmitter CMQ in Havana. Celia, dressed fashionably in a gray skirt, white blouse, and ponytail, dazzled her audience. Since that moment, Zamora became a follower of Celia's music.

"I couldn't go to the wake, but I could not permit myself to not be at the funeral," explained the Cuban, "so I came here, and seeing the casket pass, I said to Celia: 'well, my negrita, I came here to take leave for the last time.'"

Other Cubans present, like Robert Anadir, 65, a resident of Manhattan for three decades, remembered with nostalgia the guarachera's figure.

"I learned to dance in Cuba like her, although soon it was not allowed on television or on the street, so that the people listened to her in private, but the tradition is very difficult to lose," explained Anadir, who came to the funeral with his Puerto Rican wife, also an admirer of Celia Cruz.

Among those who had lost their dentist appointments was Isabel Ortiz, 82, a Puerto Rican who came to give her last goodbye to the singer with her daughter-in-law, Elsie Cintron, a Cuban who, like Celia, left the island in the sixties, and has not only all of the artist’s records, but also a wig like the one she popularized.

"Celia gave a lot of love and now she is receiving it," explained Ortiz.

Norma Balbuena, a 45 year old Dominican, came to the funeral with a poem written the day Celia died. The poem began: "Celia, if at least you imagine the despair and anguish that your parting causes us, / you would return from the cold and inert place in which you find yourself."

With Balbuena were her two adolescent children, Lisamary and Shelinna, who affirmed that they were admirers of the artist "from mom," but said they preferred the last records of the guarachera to the older ones.

Some of the others expressed their respect and love for Celia. The most distressed, like María del Carmen Binet, 77, a Dominican who had come with her husband Jose Nicholas, 79, were not able to express what they came to say to Celia.

"I wanted to shout: 'Celia, Azúcar!, but I could not because I got lost in my tears," explained María del Carmen, who admitted that the only one who dances is her husband, but who admires the voice and the simplicity of Cruz.

Others, like Alex, who went with his Puerto Rican parents and his brother Adam, 9, could only stammer “Azúcar!” but it was clear that Alex is only 6 years old.

Translated from Spanish by Charlotte Triggs.


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