By Madeline Baro Diaz, Jennifer Valdes and Jean-Paul Renaud | Miami Herald
MIAMI · For a time on Wednesday, the city with the largest Cuban population outside of Cuba slowed to a stunned silence. The news that Celia Cruz, the island’s most famous musical export, had died was too much to bear.
Business owners in Little Havana sat on lawn chairs outside their stores, watching the dozens of passers-by who put flowers or stood silently before the singer’s star on Calle Ocho, paying their respects to the queen of Latin music.
Marcia Reyes left her eatery on Southwest 14th Avenue and Eighth Street for five minutes and walked over to the star, which was adorned with half a dozen pink flowers less than two hours after Cruz’s death was confirmed.
“She sang what she felt,” said Reyes, who was born in Nicaragua and has lived in Miami for 16 years. “That’s why everyone could relate to her. When she had something on her mind, she did it. She never demonstrated her illness, her suffering. She was always happy.”
There is no doubt that Cruz was beloved around the world. In addition to the Calle Ocho star, Cruz had a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, as well as versions of it in Mexico City and San Jose, Costa Rica. Streets in various countries carry her name, including a portion of Calle Ocho.
In Miami, tearful fans called Spanish-language radio stations, some from as far away as Nicaragua. All wanted to share memories, give their condolences or request a song.
Phone lines also were busy as people informed relatives and friends about the death of Cruz, known simply as “Celia” to those who grew up listening to her music.
María Gilbert, a Venezuelan painter from Monroe, La., received the news in a phone call from her mother in Venezuela.
“I was speechless,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert, who also teaches Spanish, said she motivates her students to learn the language by playing the singer’s music and asking them to translate what they heard.
Cruz’s death is a blow to all Latin Americans living in the United States, Gilbert said.
“Physically, she has left the world, but her music will always remain,” Gilbert said.
In Colombia, local newscasts led their broadcasts with the news of her death.
Ricardo Bustos, a percussionist with Los Alfa Ocho, a Latin orchestra that plays tropical and salsa music, was among the musicians paying tribute to Cruz on Wednesday in Colombia. His group’s latest album includes the song, Celia, Colombia te Canta,” or Celia, Colombia sings for you.
“We were lucky to share the stage with her in 1995 in Medellin and after the concert I spoke to her and her husband. She was very kind and offered me these words of advice: `Always be very professional about your music and your career but above all love the music you play,” Bustos said. “I think that all of Latin America is grieving right now.”
Gabriel Abaroa, president of the Miami-based Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, said Cruz was one of the first crossover artists.
“She happens to have been born in Cuba, but at the same time she was a citizen of Argentina, Chile, Spain and then she crossed over to Europe, Asia and of course the U.S.” said Abaroa, who listened to Cruz’s music while growing up in Mexico. When he heard of her death, he said it was as if “a relative of mine passed away.”
Tribute at Grammys
Abaroa said there would be a tribute to Cruz at the upcoming Latin Grammys award show, scheduled for Sept. 3 in Miami, but details had not been worked out yet.
Plans also are being made for Cruz’s body to be brought to the Freedom Tower, the downtown Miami building where thousands of Cubans were processed as they entered the United States, for a viewing on Saturday. That was one of her wishes.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said several House members would speak about Cruz on the floor of the House this evening.
City commissioners in Miami plan to pass a resolution during their meeting today on behalf of the people of Miami who are in mourning, said City Commissioner Tomas Regalado.
Regalado, a local radio personality, recalled going to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay in 1990 when Cruz performed there.
“The first thing she wanted to do was go to the fence,” Regalado said. “She stuck her hand under the fence and said, `This is the only way I’m touching Cuban soil because I’m never coming back until [Fidel] Castro is gone.’ She was our queen—the only queen we had.”