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Maria Hinojosa remembers Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz
Celia Cruz

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(CNN) -- After interviewing Celia Cruz as a cub reporter in the 1980s, CNN's Maria Hinojosa came to see the famed Cuban musician not only as an extraordinarily talented artist but also as a role model for Latino women and men. She shares some of her anecdotes and thoughts about the "Queen of Salsa."

HINOJOSA: When I was growing up as a Mexican immigrant on the south side of Chicago I really didn't know Celia Cruz. It wasn't until I came to New York in 1979 that I was turned on to Celia Cruz and she was just such an extraordinary presence in the Latin music scene here in New York and then of course, as I got to know her, really worldwide.

She was one of the first people that I did a documentary on when I was a cub reporter in 1987 or 1988.

By this time I knew very well who Celia Cruz was. And when she agreed to let me do a radio documentary on her I was just floored. I really was a cub reporter... I didn't have much experience as a journalist. I sat in Ralph Mercado's office interviewing her, she wouldn't let us come to her home. He's really the music producer who's credited with putting her on the scene in the United States. They later split up and she formed her own production company, but for years he was really the one who gave Celia Cruz a name in the United States. We just talked for hours. She sat down, she offered me coffee, asked what I needed. And I was like 'what I can do for you, you are this extraordinary star' and she just talked for hours.

And then, I'll never forget, it was two months after I interviewed, I had given her my home address, I didn't even have a business card, and in the mail I started getting postcards from CC from Japan, from Venezuela, from Puerto Rico, from all over the world.

Maria Hinojosa
Maria Hinojosa

What topped it off was that she would send me postcards on my birthday! She would remember when my birthday was. I never forgot the fact that she was so humble and so appreciative of people who cared about her.

I guess if she saw something special about me was that I was a young Latina trying to break into the world of journalism and she probably wanted me to know that people like her supported me in this, that someone as important as her would take the time to recognize someone as unimportant as myself. It's a life lesson that I learnt from her: you never forget your humility, you just always remain the most courteous and giving person that you can be to all the people around you.

The last time I saw Celia Cruz -- there were many years I didn't see her -- was in December. She was on a flight coming back from San Jose, California, and I was on the same flight and she was in the front row of the first class with her husband, Pedro Knight, at her side of course... She was wearing those fabulous glasses that had glitter all over them, and fabulous blonde wig and I just leaned over and said: 'I have to hug you, you probably don't remember who I am but I've known you for years, you used to send me postcards' and she said 'Ven aqui chica: dejame abrazarte, dejame darte un abrazo!' ('Come here, girl: let me hug you, let me give you a hug!') and she gave me a huge hug and then I turned to Pedro and told him 'Pedro, you are the most extraordinary husband and partner that a woman could want' and I gave him a huge hug. And then I left them alone.

Even though she really could appropriate that term diva, she would never act that way. She never traveled with an entourage... It was always her and a low key staff. They weren't there to protect her. She loved to be approached by people. She just loved it.

She talked a lot about the importance of being a partner to her husband. She talked to me about cooking dinner for him as many nights as she could, making him a little 'cafecito'... She was a very traditional wife and what was extraordinary about that was that Pedro, although they played those traditional roles, never put any limits on Celia. There was never any doubt that there ever was any disloyalty between the two of them. The relationship between Celia Cruz and Pedro Knight was one to emulate.

You talk to any salsa musician and putting a woman to headline a band is just not something done traditionally in Latino music. Before Celia Cruz no one had done it as consistently as she did...

Johnny Pacheco said that he never wanted to perform with women because they were always problematic. They were always too demanding. And he said that working with Celia was like working with an angel. She would come in and there would never be any problem and if there were problems she would be the first to solve them and to smooth them out. And I think the other example for all of us was to see this woman who was 79 and who was performing as if she was 25.

It is somewhat symbolic that the Cuban music world would lose someone like Compay Segundo, who stayed in Cuba and made his entire career in Cuba, and just two days later lose Celia Cruz, who was a huge Cuban star who left the island and vowed she would never ever go back.

She felt very strongly about what happened in Cuba after Fidel Castro came in... It was something she couldn't accept and even though she felt forcefully about this, it wasn't until about a decade ago that she became more involved with Gloria Estefan, that she made a much more forceful political statement about that. But interestingly... here in this country, she was playing concerts at the last Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles but she was also performing for George Bush.

What amazed me about Celia Cruz was that she was always doing something new with her music. She would perform with David Byrne, she would perform with Carlos Santana. She was willing to try anything.

You ask any musician what it means to have lost Celia Cruz and they will tell you that it will be another hundred years before another Celia Cruz appears.

And as a woman who knew her, I'm sad she's gone. At the same time... she lived her life fully. She loved her life. She was happy and thrilled to be alive and that's something we can all learn from her as well.

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