When Governor Phil Murphy announced last year that nine Garden State Parkway rest stops would be named after prominent New Jerseyans, I was delighted to learn the Forked River service area would be named after a Cuban exile who held a special place in my late mother’s life: Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa.
As Mami spent her days in our Union City walk-up in perpetual motion—scrubbing floors, polishing furniture and cooking—she’d snap out of homemaker mode when Celia came on the radio. She smiled, swayed and belted along with the music, occasionally putting down the Ajax, as if sidelining the pesky reminder of the reality that clashed with her erstwhile dreams of singing before a crowd at the Tropicana.
Celia, who died in July 2003 of complications from brain cancer, had envisioned being a mother and homemaker, but decided on a singing career after winning a local radio station contest in Havana. Celia married Pedro Knight, a trumpet player who became Celia’s manager. The couple, who lived in Fort Lee, never had children.
Don’t get me wrong. Mami loved being a mother and filled our lives with enough love, guidance and values to carry us through after she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975. But she lived her fantasy of a musical career vicariously through Celia.
It wasn’t just her music. It was her way of evoking cultural traits that resonated with the Cuban diaspora: the Cuban can-do spirit, the avid storytelling, the one-liners, the good-natured teasing, and the candor that manages to land softly.
As an adult, with my mother gone too soon at 47, I found Celia to be a source of comfort and connection to my ancestral land. I bought her cassettes and CDs and played them on long drives, finding myself transported, as my mother had been, to a special time in my past. I sang with her. When I was heartbroken, I played one of her songs that told me I was better off without him. When I was feeling sunny, I would blast “La Vida Es un Carnaval” (“Life Is a Carnival”).
Celia brings me back to my childhood in a Cuban home. In a real sense, she brings back Mami. Like Mami and so many other women of her time, Celia was undeniably traditional in one sense—looking out almost maternally for her husband.
But Celia was also ahead of her time, bulldozing through the barriers of race, fashion and the male-dominated salsa world. Way before Lady Gaga and Cher, there was Celia, wearing an electric-blue bobbed wig one day and a golden spiked one the next. She was a fashion provocateur, rocking orange-framed, oversized sunglasses and gowns that overtook the stage, festooned with feathers, feathers and more feathers.
As a journalist, I had the pleasure of interviewing Celia in person. She was everything I had hoped for: affable, unassuming and charismatic. When I told her my husband was a fan, she called him and sang “Bemba Colora.”
Forked River may be just another rest stop on New Jersey’s miles of highways for those who drive by. But for me, it’s an opportunity to remember Celia, Cuba and Mami.
Elizabeth Llorente is a longtime journalist, and a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment