FEBRUARY 2003

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Salsa Fan Is Dismissed
From Hoy
By José L. Llanes

January 22, 2003

Julio César Sánchez, an evangelical minister, now isn’t sure how sweet the "sugar" is in the famous song by Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz. The Dominican worker was fired from the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital after complaints from the Cuban artist’s relatives about Sánchez’ prayers, which they said had become an annoyance.

Sánchez, who is 62 years old and the father of two children, says he just tried to tell Celia Cruz he was praying for her recovery.

"I read on the news that Celia was in the hospital, so after I finished my work I went to find out about how she was doing," said Sánchez quietly. He was dismissed last January 17 for "violating the confidentiality" of the Queen of Salsa. "I’ve always been one of Celia’s biggest fans," adds Sánchez.

Sánchez is paying a high price for his fanaticism. He was a janitor at the hospital and earned $600 a week. When he reached the 9th floor, where the Cuban star was recovering, a guard blocked his access. "I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, otherwise I would have hidden my ID card," said Sánchez.

The chaplain recalls that at that moment, Pedro Knight, Celia’s husband, came out of the room. "I told him I was an employee at the hospital and also a minister and that I was praying for Celia’s health. He answered that he appreciated my prayers for his wife. That was all," he said. "Is it criminal to ask about somebody’s health?"

But after Celia left the hospital, it was clear that she wasn’t happy with the visit. The worker was called by his supervisors and fired in presence of a union delegate. The dismissal document says that Sánchez had been warned against bothering the patient.

Omer Pardillo, Celia Cruz’s manager, absolved the artist from any responsibility in the conflict. "The decision of the dismissals came from reports made by the hospital’s internal security. The rules indicate that the patient’s records and health are confidential. During Celia’s stay in the hospital, several cases of employees violating these rules were reported, and this resulted in layoffs," he said.

But Sanchez affirms that he was shown papers with complaints from the relatives.

"We can’t talk about this problem, it is part of the internal policy of the institution and its employees," said representatives from Columbia, who did not want to be identified. Sánchez considers that what happened is not enough to take a job from a father with children, and will fight for his case together with representatives from the union Local 1199.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Sánchez asked Pedro Knight to put his hand on Celia’s head in order to pray, but that Knight said no, because the diva had just had an operation for a brain tumor. "I maintain that it was in the hallway where I asked about his wife’s health," said Sánchez.

The religious man recognized that it wasn’t the first time that his religious impulses had gotten him into trouble at Columbia. "In June of 2002, two employees from the emergency department denounced me for talking to patients about religion. But we think about religion in a different way. The hospital is full of sick people who need help. And I just tell them that Christ heals and saves. And that’s the end of it," said Sánchez.

That first incident gave him a warning. "I understand that this incident (the one with Celia) was the second. I deserve to be suspended, not fired," he said.

But the second time was the last. Upset about his situation, Sánchez said that other religious rites are allowed in the hospital, from Jehovah Witnesses, Jews and people who follow African religions. "And nothing has ever come of it," he said.

It also isn’t the first time that the Queen of Salsa has been involved in a public controversy. In 1997 she was booed in Puerto Rico’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium because fans did not agree with her recent support for the canceling of a Miami concert. Cruz had supported those [anti-Castro Cuban-Americans] who decided to cancel salsa singer Andy Montañes’ concert because he had welcomed the [pro-Castro] Cuban troubadour Silvio Rodriguez to Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, Sánchez has turned to his Bible. "The word says that we will pass through all of this and that we will be judged," said the religious man. "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. And I do not lose my hope because I have believed. I only want to have my job back," he said.

Translated From Spanish by Jonathan Charnay

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