My Queen is Not Dead!
July 23, 2003 – For the last few days, people have been telling me that Celia Cruz is dead, that she died of a brain tumor Wednesday at her home in Fort Lee. I refuse to believe it. Celia is immortal.
How do you die when your spirit is full of passion? How do you pass away when your love for life has inspired millions of people? How do you expire when your clarion voice is recorded in more than 70 albums? How can you possibly be forgotten when you are the epitome of class, the essence of humility, the embodiment of integrity? How do you feel sad when she was the personification of happiness? How do you weep for the departure of a woman who taught us, in one of her last hits, that "there is no need to cry, that life is a carnival and it's more beautiful to live it singing"?
How do you fade away when you taught your friends the true meaning of eternal friendship? It's impossible. When you are Celia Cruz, you live forever. I should know. I'm one of the privileged people she considered a friend. I loved her!
At my home, whenever I wanted to impress a visitor, I had a secret weapon. Over my 30-year career I have interviewed many celebrities and I've had my picture taken with many of them. But that's not my favorite weapon. I've won a few awards and earned a few diplomas and I could cover my walls with them.
But that's not how I choose to impress. I simply told my visitors that Celia Cruz was my friend.
Disbelief usually followed. They could accept that as a journalist, I may have interviewed the ultimate Latina superstar. But a personal friend of the "Queen of Salsa"?
"No way," my visitors told me. "Stop the name-dropping."
That's when I went for my secret weapon.
I began pulling out birthday cards I have received over the last 20 years.
Not just any birthday cards. These cards have a distinct return address: "The Knights." The cards were from Celia and Pedro Knight, her beloved husband.
Twenty-years ago, when I interviewed her for the first time, I told her the article would be published on Aug. 6, 1983, which happened to be my birthday. Celia never forgot it. Since then, from wherever she was in the world - touring as the ultimate ambassador of Latin music - she would send me well-wishes for my birthday.
Since then, there were many other interviews with her, for newspapers and on the radio, but she always made me feel like she had adopted me, as if I was the son she never had.
Whenever she saw me, even in a crowd, she would go out of her way to recognize me. On many occasions, backstage before a performance, I was given private audiences with the Queen. It never ceased to amaze me how Celia and Pedro would interview me. They really wanted to know about my life, my family, and my career - as if we were relatives catching up on family business.
But I'm sure I'm not alone. The Knights had that effect on many people. And that's the truest testament to Celia's success. She wasn't just a great singer and performer or the winner of multiple Grammys, honored by presidents and universities. She was a great human being, a woman of the people, able to transcend racial, class, and generational gaps.
She was black, Hispanic and proud of it. And she instilled that pride in Latinos like no other entertainer. The world is a much better place because she sang and danced and laughed among us.
She was also electrifying. In one of my columns, I described her as a "therapist for the rhythmically impaired." Even if you were a musical stiff, sitting in one of her concerts surrounded by her swaying fans and watching her dance like a tornado, would help you discover that you had some rhythm after all.
A few years ago, during one of our private conversations, moments after Celia had received an award at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, I told Celia and Pedro about my secret weapon.
"I start pulling out these birthday cards," I said as they roared with laughter. "But I don't have a picture with you," I complained. "Imagine how I would be able to impress my friends with a picture."
Just then, we realized that photographers had been snapping shots at us during our entire conversation. The photos are on my web site, at www.miguelperez.com.
"You have to get one of those pictures," Celia said. "I already did," I told her. "One of those photographers is using my camera."
"Okay, then," she said. "Let's pose for a family portrait."
My birthday is coming soon. I know I won’t be getting a card with warm greetings from Celia. But I already have so many cards, and wonderful memories, that I know she will always live in me, as she does in millions she touched with her humility and grace.
Even after I saw her lying in her golden casket – looking as beautiful as if she was going to a concert – I refuse to believe my queen is dead.
Originally published in Spanish in El Diario/La Prensa, New York