LATIN POP ICON GLORIA ESTEFAN OPENS UP ABOUT HER IDOL AND LIFELONG INSPIRATION, ONE OF CUBAÍS GREATEST MOVERS AND SHAKERS, SALSA QUEEN CELIA CRUZ
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As a little girl I was very musical—I sang as soon as I could talk, maybe even before I could talk—and the first things I heard were the records that my mother would play for me that she was able to slowly smuggle out of Cuba. My grandma would send us an album every time she mailed us a box of mango baby food, which was the only thing I would eat and something they didn’t sell in the States. That’s my first memory of hearing Celia Cruz.
My mom had all of her records, so when I was three or four years old I was always hearing Celia Cruz around my house. My mom also sang really beautifully—she still does, actually—and she’d be singing along to these songs. Celia was a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Then, when I was about 19 or 20 years old, Miami Sound Machine had a big hit in Latin America. We were playing in Costa Rica and it turned out that Celia was also there. We’d never met before, but she’d heard about the success we were having and she knew we were Cuban, so she sent us flowers to our hotel. There was this lovely note saying congratulations and how nice it was to see some fellow Cubans having success and that she wished us all the best. We just couldn’t believe it. Celia Cruz! In fact, we still have the note to this day—Emilio saved it. We just thought it was so incredibly kind. I mean, she was this incredible superstar and we were just kids, you know?
The next time I saw her was at a tribute show where she was being honored. I was shaking I was so nervous. I said that I wanted to dedicate our performance to my idol, Celia Cruz, and she came out onstage and sang with me. It was an unbelievable moment for me. From then on we were dear friends. Whenever there was an opportunity for us to see each other, we did. We would often cross paths in strange cities all over the world when we were both on tour. Eventually Emilio worked on her first-ever music video, for a song called “Sazón.” She was the kind of person who never forgot a birthday or an anniversary, you always got a handwritten card from her. She was just one of the most giving human beings I’ve ever known, so humble and wonderful. I remember being backstage with her at the Grammys and she was having some health problems at that point and starting to get sick. She really didn’t feel well, but as soon as she stepped out on that stage she just came to life. No one had any idea. She was just the consummate professional. She adored her fans and was incredibly disciplined and responsible. I think she was sorry that she and her husband, Pedro Knight—who she used to call “old cotton-ball head”—never had children, but they were incredibly committed to each other. She was honestly just one of the most amazing human beings that I’ve ever met.
She was a symbol. She represented everything that was beautiful about the Cuban woman. She was optimistic and strong. She lived and breathed music. She was also an incredible humanitarian. Cuban women couldn’t really ask for a better representative. She was such an inspiration to me my whole life—and throughout her entire life. She was ageless. You didn’t look up on that stage and say “Oh my God, what’s that 78-year-old woman doing up there on that stage?” You looked up there and said “Oh my God, that’s Celia Cruz! And she’s just as amazing now as she’s ever been.” I mean, she was having huge dance hits right up until her late 70s. She’ll go down in history as being one of the most iconic Cuban women ever.
I remember being in Holland just after we’d had our first hit there, in 1984—a song called “Dr. Beat”—and Celia’s music was playing on Dutch radio. Even then she was an icon all over the world. She wrote so many great songs about Cuba, which always filled me and my parents with nostalgia. You know, any time Celia played shows, everyone came, but for Cuban people, seeing Celia Cruz—or even just listening to her—was like going home. AS TOLD TO T. COLE RACHEL
image Courtesy Gloria Estefan