Monday mornings are depressing. Even when you like what you do, as I do, Monday morning is the day after the partying and relaxation of the weekend, and it stands the farthest we get from Friday than any other point in our lives.
So it came as an awesome surprise when I opened my browser to Google this morning and there she was — Celia, the patron saint of good feelings. Today is her birthday.
I’m lucky to be writing this for a Latino publication, so that I don’t have to bother explaining who Celia Cruz is. This here isn’t about who Celia was, but what she meant to me as a black-ass Puerto Rican boy growing up in the suburbs.
The suburbs of the 1990s weren’t the suburbs of the 1960s, and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who, though not Puerto Rican or Honduran, were somewhat like me. Mostly they were Mexican or black or Eastern European, and nearly all of them were working class like my single-parent family was. I related to them as best as could, given our commonalities, and there was a certain level of kinship that crossed all racial and cultural lines.
Still, there were times when the differences between me and them got in the way. I say “got in the way,” because when you’re a kid, you’d give anything to fit in, to not be the other.
Most of my friends were Mexican, and I got along great with them. But of course there were things they did and things they knew that were completely foreign to me. They played soccer (and liked it), they knew who El Chavo del Ocho was, and they cried when Selena died.
At the same time, my dark skin and immersion into hip-hop culture gave me access into black circles. But there still I was the outsider, an invited guest, but only a guest. My black friends had a certain way of being that I could only imitate, clumsily at times.
It was only when I visited Humboldt Park, my old neighborhood, during trips to my grandma’s house, that I felt one with the people (even if my suburban-ness made me an outsider there, too).
A car would pass by, or my family would play music during a barbecue, and Celia’s music would come floating on the wind. No, scratch that. Her music never floated on no wind. It soared — the drums and lyrics shooting straight into my rib cage where they exploded.
I knew from seeing her on TV once or twice que era una negrita, just as I was un negrito. And yet, her music, her voice really, made everyone smile and move their hips on command. I can’t tell how much it meant to me, how much it still means to me, to know that the Pied Piper of the Boricua community was black.
Sure, some Puerto Ricans are going to ask, “What about Héctor Lavoe? Or Elvis Crespo? Or even El Rey, Tito Puente?” Yes, of course. All of them too.
But no one had a greater effect on me than Doña Cruz. Maybe her being a woman lent itself to a Siren aspect. There’s a secret, earthy power in great female singers that is never approached by male singers. A man’s voice may get into your soul, but a woman’s voice gets into your blood, where it becomes part of your physical self.
Plus, and probably her greatest appeal for someone like me, era una negrita. A beautiful negrita. An enchanting negrita. And that made me realize that my black ass was potentially beautiful and enchanting, too.
Some of her songs have become more like psalms in the antillano community. Her version of “Guantanamera,” thanks to Martí’s poetry and place in the pantheon, is the obvious example.
But for me, listening to “Azucar Negra” is the closest I come to a deep, spiritual and existential experience. Its primordial rhythm and writer Maria Moreno Diaz’s lyrics, delivered by the voice of Mother Nature herself, seems to carry a message from the dawn of man:
“Soy dulce como el melao,
alegre como el tambor.
Llevo el ritmico tumbao,
llevo el ritmico tumbao,
de Africa en el corazon.”
For a black Puerto Rican boy like I was, the translation is something like: “You are part of something very old. It’s the same thing that connects you to the earth and to time. That dark skin on your face and the back of your hand is ancient, older than the pyramids. Cherish it.”
The message was reassuring, to say the least. Even now, the song makes me feel, dare I say, special. I am the product of thousands of people, living in thousands of places, stretching over thousands of years. I carry their rhythm, now my rhythm, deep inside me. In my veins flows the sweet blood of humanity.
One woman helped me discover that.
Happy Birthday, Celia.