Exile and Imagination: A Tribute to Celia Cruz By Rosana Cruz

Larger than life is not a phrase that means much in terms of Cubans. Everything about us is over the top. I joke with my partner that when you look up "exaggerate" in the dictionary there is a picture of Cuba. I'm never one to represent my experience as the Cuban monolith. I know there is no such thing, but when I share the joke with people who grew up like me, in exile, they get it.
My parents left Cuba in the summer of 1967, late in comparison to the middle class exodus that had happened years before. Accounts of the decision-making process vary; why we left Cuba depends on whom you ask. My mother, father and my older brother Raulito, who was almost six at the time, relocated to Elizabeth, New Jersey where my paternal uncle and his wife already lived. I would be born five summers later. None of my family expected to still be in the US five years later, but they were and so I was born into exile. I can be melodramatic about it, but I think I tend to be matter-of-fact: I'm Cuban, not Cuban-American, just Cuban. No one meant for me to be born here. Don't folks say intention is everything?
In the appropriate setting, a dingy, working class suburb of Newark, Papi became a career alcoholic and gambling addict. My mom claims she was still in the hospital after giving birth to me when she was served with the divorce papers. Other accounts, some also my mom's, claim that she left him. I didn't really "meet" my dad until I was 11 or 12. I hadn't missed much, and to top it off, my mom remarried another jackass, also Cuban, who ended up making my dad look like a saint. The only good thing we got out of the whole deal was my little brother Alex and six months of living in a cruddy but magical apartment in Puerto Rico, sleeping on a mattress on the floor with my older brother and having spaghetti for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By the time I was seven months old, my mom had moved us to beautiful Miami. My mom later divorced my stepdad, and Raulito left for the Navy right after he turned 18 so my childhood was mainly peopled by my mom, Alex, and a circle of other exile families who became quasi-relatives in lieu of the nine brothers and sisters my mom had left behind in Cuba, brothers and sisters she'd seen only once, for eight days, in the twenty years she'd lived in the U.S.
Growing up Cuban in Miami is a strange privilege. We've created a comfortable but imperfect facsimile of the Cuba that only exists in the nostalgia of my parent's generation. But exile is exile, and there was not a day that we were not reminded that Miami was not Cuba, our true home. Because we lived away from the majority of Cuban exiles, who had taken over places like Hialeah and La Souwesera (Southwest Miami), our network was small but vital. Every Sunday "dinner" after 2 o'clock Spanish mass, every holiday and birthday meant immersion into full-on Cuban culture. No matter how modest the setting we were required to wear our best. It was a sea of frilly bloomers, sailor suits and lace-trimmed ankle socks against the hard speckled terrazzo floors of my Miami in the 70's and early 80's. Old people and babies would dance, a few men would roast a pig in the back yard, and the women were crowded into the kitchen. Arroz con Pollo, ropa vieja, fricase, platanos maduros, yucca, and congri, all were cooked and devoured to a singular sound track -- Celia.
Because our last name is Cruz, Raulito used to tell me that Celia was our aunt. Trying to upset me, in typical older brother fashion, he would say that when I grew up I was going to look just like Tia Celia. His cruelty was lost on me. I thought Celia was beautiful. Maybe she was a little fat compared to my other idols, Marie Osmond and the Mandrell Sisters, but since my nicknames in the family were Gorda and Negra, I figured it might be true. I didn't mind, if only I would be able to sing like her too. My favorite song of hers while I was growing up was "Pun Pun Catalun," an up-beat call and response song. I knew the chorus by heart and sang it fervently along with Celia. Her music made me think of the family I had met only once but longed to return to. Her voice to me and I think to millions of exiliados -- her voice is Cuba.
Even today, when I hear the beginning strains, "BaaaaabaaaaaaaaaaLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU," I get chills.
When I finally became a singer, in my late twenties and almost by accident, it was only because I was given a chance to sing traditional Cuban music that I dared to take the stage. When I sang "Mango Mangue," my stomach filled with butterflies and my heart pounded in my chest, like it wanted to leap out and fly to where I always wanted to be. Celia is so much about the irony of Cuban exile: because Cuba is a place we have limited access to, it is a place that mostly exists inside of us. Celia truly was, and will remain, larger than life, like Cuba. She is something that exists inside of us and now, she is something that we can never have again, never return to.
There is a thing about dying. Many Cubans say, and there is even a song, "I want to die a la manera Martiana," like Jose Marti, with flowers and a Cuban flag at my head. It is understood that we want to die or at least be buried in Cuba. That is definitely what Celia wanted. She wanted to see Cuba before she died. When she died last year, I think many "Americans" were a little surprised at what a big deal it was. It was said that people were mourning her as if she were a relative of theirs. When I called my mom that Saturday night she sounded drugged, her voice low and unsteady. She was watching the funeral on TV. My cousin had gone to view the body. The line was more than five hours long, so Cuban. My friend Salvador, who came to New Orleans from Bayamo when he was four, was also watching the funeral when I called him. He told me, "It's like we are watching them bury our dream." He was dreading having to go to a cocktail party that night where no one would understand if he bothered to tell them why his eyes were so puffy and red. He wore shades.
When Celia left Cuba, she was like Papi and the rest of us. She never thought she would have to stay away for years. She was never able to return to Cuba. When I saw her in an interview in 2001, she told the story of how Castro had taken away her Cuban citizenship and declared that she was no longer Cuban. "Me," she said in Spanish, "que soy mas Cubana que las palmas." Who is more Cuban than the palm trees. They never let her return to the island. She was not able to go to her own mother's funeral and it was only to attend the memorial services that they finally granted Celia's sister permission to leave the country for a visit.
Time marches on and now we don't have Celia. People of my mom's generation are resigning themselves to the fact that they will probably die in exile, just like Celia. I think about how things fell apart with my band, how I'm not singing Cuban music anymore, and how I feel so anxious that my son Rey is answering me in English when I talk to him in Spanish. I've been to Cuba five times in my entire life. While my connection to my grandmother, my aunts, uncles and cousins is not about physical proximity or time, the years and the deaths and the tides of the gulf between us wear me down. I feel the way Cristina Garcia describes in Dreaming in Cuban, "Every day Cuba fades a little more inside me... And there's only my imagination where our history should be."
I hold on to this: a voice that burns inside my imagination forever, the voice of Celia.
Rosana Cruz is a mama, an activist, and a graduate student in Latin American Studies. She lives in New Orleans with her partner and their three-year old son and sings in the dub country band Anne Bonny's Boxcar Booty.