Celia was Cuba
Off the world's stage but still in my soul
By Jeordan Legon
Celia Cruz with Jeordan Legon in March 1992.
Watch as mourners pay respects to salsa legend and Cuban exile Celia Cruz, many weeping as they pass her casket to the sound of her music playing. (July 19)
It's easier to be simple and natural than to be stretched out and phony.
-- Celia Cruz
(CNN) -- During my childhood in Cuba, it was against the law to play Celia Cruz albums.
The Salsa Queen's decision to defect to the United States made her an enemy of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his communist government. But my family didn't care.
Our neighborhood watch group could lecture us or slap us with fines or maybe even send us to jail. We were not giving up our Celia. We blasted the tapes of the singer's pure, pitch-perfect alto voice -- smuggled to us by our Miami relatives -- at every wedding, birthday party and family reunion. And most of our neighbors did too.
No matter how far away from Havana her career or political differences took her, Celia was still one of us. She was a national symbol of pride -- of how far we could go when we combined our hard work with a hearty laugh and a good dance. As famous as Cuban cigars, the warmth of our people and the beauty of our beaches, Celia was the voice of Cuba. And by making the world jam, she became our greatest cultural export.
Celia brought the irresistible, soulful rhythm of Afro-Cuban music to people who knew nothing else about our island. From her, they got a glimpse of the joy of being Cuban and the richness of our culture. Just as she helped me to see that in myself.
When I interviewed her in 1992 for an article in The Orange County (California) Register, I was struck with just how down to earth she was. Despite an honorary doctorate from Yale University, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a statue in the Hollywood Wax Museum, Celia didn't put on airs.
While critics compared her to jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Celia talked about how much she loved being a housewife when she was home in New Jersey -- folding clothes and cooking for the love of her life, Cuban trumpeter Pedro Knight.
"It's easier to be simple and natural than to be stretched out and phony," she told me in Spanish. Even though she understood it, she didn't like to speak English. "I am afraid to speak it," she whispered with a hint of embarrassment.
Along with the Puerto Rican musicians in her adopted city of New York, Celia helped reinvent salsa music in the '70s. Her brassy, flashy arrangements reignited a love of salsa's sabor -- its flavor and groove -- in people like me, who thought the Cuban danzones and guarachas of the 1950s were the corny music of our grandparents, not ours.
Celia's vivacious performance style, brightly colored wigs and flashy sequins made salsa music almost as cool as disco. And we played her hottest tracks "Cucala" and "Usted Abuso" right along with our 8-track recordings of the Bee Gees and Donna Summer.
In the 1980s, she may not have sold as many albums as pop divas Madonna and Gloria Estefan, but we loved her just as much, turning up the volume every time Celia's hit "La Dicha Mia" came on the radio.
"I can't believe that Celia!" my father would say, and then he'd embark on the story he had told us so often it made us roll our eyes. Celia had hits on Cuban radio when he was a little boy in the 1950s. And now here he was a man in his 30s, living in exile in Miami, and Celia was still making hits.
The conversation usually was followed by relatives taking guesses at Celia's age -- something the star didn't like to talk about publicly. By then, Celia's tape had rewound and it was time to dance again.
I called my dad in Tampa after hearing the news of Celia's death.
"We're very sad," he said. "She looked a little thin when we saw her sing here about a year ago. But she was still amazing."
She was with us for so long, we never thought she would leave us.
Jeordan Legon is a producer for CNN.com. He left Cuba with his family in 1979.