(Marvette Pérez: Today is October 16, 1997. This is Marvette Pérez interviewing Celia Cruz as a supplement to the previous oral history project interview.)
MP: Celia, this important donation that you’ve made to the museum today, the bata cubana that you wore at Carnegie Hall, the shoes and the wig … for us it’s important to document history, not only the history of music and of musicians but also the aesthetic of people, in particular of singers … their aesthetic sensibility, how they present themselves on stage and the kind of outfits they wear and why. I’d like you to talk about why the bata cubana was so important in your career, especially once you came to the United States.
Celia Cruz: OK, well, I wore it in Cuba of course, usually when I’d do theater shows when … well, wearing it in Cuba isn’t really that significant since inside of Cuba any singer might wear it. It became important for me to wear it when I was in the United States and also out of the U.S. in places like Puerto Rico, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia doing shows in theaters and dances, which is where I performed mostly, since a bata that was very, well, big, with a lot of fabric wasn’t really useful since it was a small band…with a lot of cords on stage. But the bata was important, it always was since we wanted to show the world that we had, that our music was culture, that we have like, for example, the Mexicans who have their mariachi outfits, we also have the bata cubana. We have several kinds, the one I use, which is for singers; the one used by rumba dancers that looks kind of like mine but short in the front since they have to show off their legs, and there’s another one for dancing danzón that’s rounded and has no train. But for me, the most important one is the one I wear, or rather that I used to wear since I don’t wear it much anymore, since I wanted to show people that we had something very special to show the audience, and let me tell you, people have always been drawn to the bata cubana.
MP: Could you talk a little bit about the first time you wore a bata cubana in the United States, about who made it for you and how you found it?
CC: Well, that bata was made by a man named Enrique Arteaga and I wore it for the first time in I’d say. I came to the United States in 57 when I came to pick up my first gold record and if I recall correctly, I wore it in the Teatro Puerto Rico. By 1960, when I’d moved here, I put it on for the first time in Carnegie Hall; that’s another detail I just remembered. I put it on at the Teatro Puerto Rico in 1957 and then later in 1960, when I came to live in the US in 60, 61 I put it on for the first time in Carnegie Hall.
MP: And the bata that you wore at the Teatro Puerto Rico in 57 was also made by Enrique Arteaga?
CC: No. That one was made in Cuba by a man named Pepito. He, well, moved to the United States and died here. That one was made by Pepito in Cuba, though.
MP: What kind of reaction did you get in Carnegie Hall with that outfit?
CC: Well, let me tell you that people had already seen me wearing that kind of outfit, of a different color, but they’d seen me. And it always made a good impression, especially on Americans. Since if you’ve got an audience of Spaniards they’re not going to be especially interested in it since, personally, I think that it’s a copy of the Spanish bata.
MP: Could you talk a little about the shoes and why you started wearing this kind of shoe, which is so unique to you?
CC: Well, the shoes I bought in Mexico around 60 when I left Cuba; I went straight to Mexico … around then people were telling me about a shoe store on the Calle de Insurgentes and, as all my friends know, I love shoes. I showed up there looking to buy shoes, and I bought some everyday shoes but I also found that they’d made these which I bought for my shows since they have such a lift. I’ve worn them all morning but I have to keep taking sitting breaks. I couldn’t have been here on my feet all these hours with these on. So I started wearing them and I liked them because they are comfortable to wear when you’re on stage, especially when you get on a stage with bad flooring like with holes in the wood; with these shoes I have no problem. As time went on, I noticed that some Mexican performers had these shoes made for them, but apparently regretted it, it seems, you know?! (MP laughs.) So the only entertainer that was left ordering the shoes was me, which means that before they sold for $150 but after people stopped buying them the maker charged me for custom orders since then he had to make the shoe for my foot, he had to shape it for just me, buy the materials, so the price went up for the shoes but I was happy about it since I’m the only one wearing them so far. I’ve been wearing them for 37 years and everywhere I go, people are dazzled by them. People have told me that there are other shoes just like them, but no. Similar maybe, because I owned a pair, but these we made by Nieto just for me.
MP: Could you talk about Nieto, about all the years he spent making you shoes?
MP: About your relationship with him?
CC: Sure, well, he was a great person; I hope he’s still alive. Nieto is a wonderful person and I used to order shoes from him even when I wasn’t in Mexico. For example, I’d have a red dress made for me and then I’d need a pair of shoes and since he had my shoe size and since he’d bought the materials knowing I was going to buy shoes, I’d call and say “Nieto, I need 2 white pairs.” And he’d make them in white satin and a girlfriend of mine in Mexico, called Álvara, would bring them to New York since she traveled a lot. And so she’d take them to New York and for that reason I still have some, even after the shoe store and the maker disappeared. I don’t know where Nieto is now, but I still make do with these. A little while ago I needed to paint a pair for a blue outfit and since they were a pale lilac I just painted them so they still serve me well.
MP: Are you looking for somebody to make you those shoes?
CC: Listen, I was on a Mexican program that’s called the Verónica Castro show…
CC: …the same thing, since the shoes still cause a commotion in Mexico. A lot of people, well more like 4 people, talked to me on the phone, that they could make them, but I didn’t try. The only person who told me they could get the shoe told me that they don’t make it anymore; apparently he used to make them, but without Nieto’s consent.
CC: You know it could cause a lawsuit so he said no, that he didn’t make them anymore. So I have them and right now I’m wearing a black pair – the only pair I own; imagine if I can’t get anybody to make them for me.
MP: (Laughing.) What will you do?
CC: I’ll have to paint another pair I have. But I still have other, I do.
MP: And could you talk to me about the use of wigs onstage, in concerts, and at shows?
CC: Well, look, I’ve been using wigs since I came to the United Status. First of all, in Cuba, they weren’t that popular and besides, on top of not being that popular I was embarrassed to wear them because everybody was going to notice that it wasn’t my real hair. In any case….
MP: Why was it so embarrassing in Cuba?
CC: Well, not everybody wore it; today anybody will wear a wig, so I, even though I don’t like to be like everybody else, and nowadays it doesn’t bother me, I mean I just came out in a magazine wearing eight or nine wigs. I’m happy that people ask me about my wigs, but it used to embarrass me. I was always very …I had, well when I worked at the Tropicana somebody sold me one and I put it away and then I came, I left Cuba and the wig stayed there; I don’t know whatever happened to it. Anyway, now I have a girl who does my hair, her name is Ruth Sanchez and she gives me different hairdos with the wigs; she can also dye them any color….
MP: And this hairdresser is in New York?
CC: She lives in New York.
MP: And she was the one who combed the wig that you donated?
CC: She was the one who combed it….
CC: Yes, exactly. Of course, I had to leave but I’m sure if I had stayed she’d be doing something else with my head, you know? Like I was saying, I just came out in a magazine where they had me wearing about around nine, really pretty….
MP: And how…?
CC: Well she’s given me various colors to wear; she’s given me red‑no red that’s not true—she’s given me lilac, she’s given me blue, she really likes me to wear white ones, which I don’t like, but anyhow, she likes white ones … gold, brown, light brown, red, not tomato red but more like a brunette, which I’ve been called been before. And I like them all except for the white ones. I like it in person but not in photographs. It doesn’t really….
MP: But you look great in person.
CC: Yeah, it looks good, it looks good.
MP: Um, could you talk a little about the relationship between aesthetics and performance, and the use of your very particular outfits, shoes, your wig, and the connection between all that and the music you sing?
CC: Well, listen, I don’t pick an outfit according to, according to what I’m going to sing. For instance, when I’m going to a theater like Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, um, a little while ago I did a show at the Jackie Gleason Theater with the Florida Symphony Orchestra, where I wore a bata. So, in places like that it’s worthwhile wearing it because you stand out, right? And if I’m going to do a concert with the philharmonic or a symphony orchestra, as the case may be, I know I’m going to sing some slow, pretty Afro Cuban number, where I can move my body, the train of my dress, and walk across the stage and put on a show, and all that. Nowadays though, I dress like any other singer except that yes, I do like to wear a lot of glitter.
CC: I love glitter and shiny colors, too. There are those who say that bright colors make you look youthful. I don’t do it for that; I do it because I like it. Even when I’m 90 years old, if I’m still singing I’m still going to wear bright colors. Even if people criticize, right?
MP: I’d imagine so.
CC: Yep … so my clothes have nothing to do with what I’m singing. If I like a dress, I’ll wear it. The bata is the exception, which I’ll wear for a serious concert where people are really watching me instead dancing. That’s when I’ll wear the bata.
MP: Over the course of your career, so many years in Cuba and other countries…
MP: …overseas, um, do you see any connection between the Latino aesthetic onstage, at concerts, and in relation to, for example, Americans or other performers?
CC: Well, let me tell you something, a lot of Americans‘and I hope that whoever is listening forgives me—dress very poorly, really poorly. No way; I’ve seen people with a tuxedo jacket, jeans, and then a pair of sneakers. It seem to me that … and the bands, the orchestras even, dress very badly, so in my opinion the audience deserves respect and let me tell you, personally, it hurts or rather, it would really hurt me since it’s never happened, for me to be on stage and for me to see someone in the balcony dressed better than me or even who stood out more than me.
CC: Well because generally a person… I remember when I was in Cuba, when for example you had a teacher, and there used to be teachers who dressed very well, they’d dress really nice, with a hat and all, or there’d be someone in the street and you’d say, “wow, they really look like an artist.” Meaning that even if we are all equal, people put artists on a bit of a pedestal.
CC: So it’s not right that you perform somewhere where they are charging money, any amount, and you go worse dressed than the people who come to see you. I’m very critical of that. As an example, I’d use Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Dean Martin and a couple others, who always come, or rather who came onstage impeccably dressed. Frank Sinatra would come out impeccably dressed with his tuxedo and after three of four numbers, if he’d sweat, he’d rip off his bowtie. The first photo they’d take, they’d take ahead of time. I think that should be emulated. I think that the audience must be respected. If there’s anything I’ve earned from my audience and my fans it’s that – respect. I’ve always tried to change costumes, I’ve always tried to come on stage dressed perfectly; now, the girl who travels with me does my hair and makeup. I think that the audience deserves it, that you show them respect starting right there, even before. You have to show up on time, not that the show starts at one and you arrive at two….
MP: That looks really bad.
CC: All that, even if people don’t believe it, the audience notices it; that’s why a lot of artists don’t last what as long as I’ve lasted. You know what I mean? That’s why people are so interested, “oh look at the shoes, look how she came out, look at all the wigs she’s got.” All that’s lovely and I think that artists, especially Latinos, need to respect it. Not all, there are some who dress really well who come out flawlessly. But there are others, my dear, who come out, that if I had my own orchestra, whoever wore sneakers, I’d kick him out. (Laughing.) Honest! Anyhow, in my case, I don’t have my own orchestra, and to have a poorly dressed one backing me, me, elegant in the front with all those sequins; Pedro, my husband, couldn’t possibly come onstage with any old suit. He comes out with his nice jacket or a tuxedo because he needs to be on par with me. And so for the people backing me to not wear any socks, and not…. (Laughing.)
MP: But at the same time, you’re known not just for your elegance…
MP: And how well you dress, and the respect you show the audiences in that respect…
MP: …but also because of the manner in which you dress, your combination of all these elements…
MP: Are very particular…
MP: …to you, and I’d like for you to talk a little about, in other words, if you see that uniqueness and how would you contrast it with other singers or other styles since you know how unique your look is.
CC: Well, listen, you know that to each his own. There are a lot of folks who don’t care if a performer wears shoes or not, right? There was a lady named Pearl, Pearl Bailey…
MP: Pearl Bailey.
CC: Pearl Bailey would come out elegantly dressed and in the middle of the show she’d take her shoes off and you know, she looked lovely. People were delighted when she’d take off her shoes and put them to the side. Everyone’s got their own style. And you want me to tell you something? I’ve never heard anybody criticize that, it’s me who is critical of it because that’s how I am, that’s how I think that the public should be, should be given a kind of priority. Today tickets are worth five dollars, people are paying sixty, seventy, eighty-five, fifteen hundred, you know? I think, well as an example, a little while ago a kid, over the phone, I’m not sure if it was a child or somebody older because you know some people over the phone have a very young-sounding voice, this is while I was in Venezuela, asked me why I wore so many sequins and so much glitter. And I said that if I didn’t shine, the outfit wouldn’t shine. (They laugh.) Honest! Of course, it was a silly question; people dress however they want, right?
CC: On stage though, for shows, I think that you need to come out like the public deserves and according, really to their expectations. In the end you realize that yeah, it sets you apart, you know, “look at the singer, yeah sure, sure, but I like him because he has a great voice or whatever.”
MP: Were you influenced by any female singers with an aesthetic similar to yours?
CC: No, not at all. I’ve always liked it this way. Look, the first bata that I had made for me, not that ones I’d rented from those places before, but that first one I had made, that bata in those days cost $42.
CC: And I was earning $21 a week, so I’d be broke paying for them but I wanted to come out looking good. You know what I’m saying? So that’s me. Nobody taught me to be that way, or anything. And so, when I was able to do it, I started ordering clothes, and clothes, and clothes, and clothes so I wouldn’t have to repeat outfits.
MP: But this was nobody’s influence but your own.
CC: Nobody’s, nobody’s.
MP: It was your own sense of style…
CC: Nobody but own.
MP: So that…
CC: That’s how I liked it.
MP: But you had to have had some special connection with the audience in order to know that they were receptive to that…
CC: Nope. None at all.
MP: It was just something you had.
CC: Something I had.
MP: Because it is very particular to you, as I’m sure you know.
CC: Yeah, that’s just something in me, to like changing clothes. Imagine, when I was really young, I’d go to dances, they were called giras in Cuba, that were those dances held on, for example, October 10th, which is a national holiday, the 20th of May, a national holiday, so they’d have these giras from noon to five in the Cuban beer gardens and every time I went to one I’d wear a different outfit. So my little girlfriends would wear – on loan - whatever I’d already worn because I was not going to repeat my outfit. (MP, laughing.) So that’s always been my nature. Always been my nature.
MP: And what, for example, do you think about singers like Albita, about the evolution of her wardrobe and the different successes she’d had during the course of…?
CC: Yeah, sure, I think that she, she’s also one of those who comes out without their shoes on. I’ve seen her a few times and her way of dressing is pretty different than mine, wouldn’t you say? She’s more, she hardly wears dresses, she wears pants and all that, and she, even when it’s an up-tempo song … well she’s does more of a son thing.
MP: Uh-huh, sure…
CC: You know, more of a sonera. But anyway, the audience, has, has had an affect on her style of, maybe her style of dressing, I don’t know, but it has affected her act.
MP: A lot of articles have come out about…
CC: Yeah, yeah.
MP: But now she’s changing.
CC: Yeah, right?
MP: She’s wearing more dresses, and…
MP: And her aesthetic is changing.
MP: And I’m asking because there are a lot of artists whose style changes considerably, but you’ve stayed more or less, I mean you have a lot of wardrobe changes, but your style remains pretty stable.
CC: Sure, sure, sure. Very stable, it’s true. Anyhow, silly, look, when I started, I was very slim, truly slim and I could wear whatever I’d find in the store. Today, I need to have clothes made for me. I can’t say that I’m just going to wear something; I need to have it made to my size because I’ve gained weight, weight that I can’t lose just like that.
MP: You look great.
CC: Because my … would suffer.
MP: Your throat…
CC: My vocal cords…and people have never been demanding about my weight, or my figure, or my face, or my body or anything of the sort. What interests people about Celia Cruz are her vocal cords and that’s what I take care of.
MP: And a lot of other things too.
CC: Yeah! (Laughing.)
MP: For sure.
MP: Could you talk to me about how, over the years, gaining weight has affected you, and about how, um, well, getting older and having…?
CC: Well, the years don’t really worry me because luckily, I have old records at home and I’ve noticed that my voice hasn’t changed much…
MP: No, it hasn’t changed…
CC: It hasn’t changed much – a little deeper since I’m older – but I can tell you that I sing Yerbero Moderno in the same key that I recorded it in the 50s…
CC: I sing Burundanga in a higher key than when I recorded it. But a lot of numbers from, from the era with the Sonora [Matancera] and from the era with Pacheco around 74, like Quimbara, Toro Mata, all those I sing in the same key. So basically, I’m not worried about my voice. Weight, I’m not too worried about losing weight because I know that a lot of singers, like for example Mario Lanza, when they made him lose weight for a movie, and they were paying ten million I think, poor guy, he lost the weight but he died.
MP: And Pavarotti too.
CC: They were making Pavarotti lose weight too, right?
MP: No, but imagine, maybe if he lost weight his voice would go too.
CC: Maria Calas, remember they said that she took a pill with a tapeworm in it so that she could lose weight but when she did, her voice was not that same. (MP, laughs.) So as long as the public doesn’t mention it, and I have gained a lot of weight…. I’d see myself on TV; I’d go to Puerto Rico; I used to do a lot of TV in Puerto Rico, Noche de Gala and all that…
CC: And when I’d see myself, oh my God, good Lord; but that’s me seeing it, nobody told me, “Celia, you’ve gotten fat.”
MP: No way…
CC: Not even, “Celia, lose some weight,” nothing. So all that helps. It helps me not to worry. However, that doesn’t mean that I want to get huge, so that I look bad, right? So, that said, if I gain weight, because I don’t … you know food’s what’s fattening…
MP: Of course…
CC: Pero los artistas nos enfermamos como cualquier hijo de vecino y allá en el medio que tú dices, como me hizo uno en Miami, pobrecito que se lo agradezco, estábamos 30 de diciembre y yo trabajaba el 31, y yo estaba fónica y él me dijo no, tienes que cantar, puá, me puso cortisona, y la cortisona te tiene cinco años aumentando de peso.
And artists get sick like anybody else…
And like what happened to me in Miami, poor guy, I appreciate it, it was the 30th of December and I was working on the 31st, and I couldn’t sing and he said, “no, you have to sing” – zap! – He gave me some cortisone, and cortisone makes you gain weight for like five years. Avoid salt; personally I love salt, but if you keep eating it you’re all the worse. You know, a lot of artists—myself, and also folks from Hollywood,—don’t want to get fat but if they get sick and they need to work, they need to get healthy. So when I’m there, and there’ve been a number of occasions where I’ve been pretty heavy, I have close fitting dresses made for me, like caftans which are always in style…
MP: And you always look good…
CC: You know what I mean? It always looks good. You know, I always work things out. Look at her laughing… (She laughs.) Now listen, I don’t want anybody making me a really tight outfit….
CC: Well, I don’t want my fat rolls to show…. (They laugh.)
CC: No, no mijita, entonces todos, al caer, chaquetas como esta, ¿te das cuenta?
No way, honey. So all of them, are jackets like this one, know what I mean?
MP: Was there any time in particular—during one of your performances, that is—that has any special significance for you, having to do with your outfit and your relationship with the audience? Some moment where someone has been wowed by what you were wearing? some incident…?
CC: Let me tell you that the batas have always attracted a lot of attention. And in Mexico! I was in Mexico in 1957. It was when I first broke through with a bolero called Tu Voz. Back then I worked at a spot called El Afro. And I´d wear the Cuban bata that´s on the cover of a record called La Tierna, Conmovelo…, Tierna, Conmovedora, y Bamboleadora Celia Cruz. And can you believe that the owner of the place whose name was, or rather is Agustín Barrio Gómez, wouldn´t let me take off the bata?
CC: Every day I had to come out. “No, you have to wear it because Agustín Lara is coming today. Look, you have to wear it because my uncle is coming today.” And he wouldn´t let me take it off.
MP: The same one every day?
CC: Every day the same one, the same bata.
MP: And how did everybody react?
CC: Well they … the problem is, anyway the same people don’t go every day, it was them, the company…
CC: Who’d say, “no, no, no, she’s got to wear the bata.” And I’d be about to come down the stairs with a dress on and they’d say, “no, no, no, she’s got to wear the bata.” (They laugh.) Because I’ve always looked good in batas. And I’ve had some really beautiful ones made for me. As for the rest, no; nowadays I dress like anybody else. Whichever dress I like. right now I’m having a coat made for me, uh, from a material that’s really in style right now, like a zebra print in black and white. I saw it in this magazine that I like so I’m having it made…
CC: So you see, there’s not so much of a reaction unless I put on a bata. I mean, some dresses do make an impact: “Celia, that’s so beautiful.” But it’s when I wear a bata that people really pay attention.
MP: And that bata with the Cuban flag? What’s the story of that bata?
CC: Well, I was going to work, almost always on May 20th, which is Independence Day for my Cuba, from before. In Miami they have a celebration in Bayfront Park. So, two years in a row, I had it made, and since it’s for Independence Day I had it made like the Cuban flag. And I’ve got two. I was already thinking since we’ve been talking to see about sending you one.
MP: I’d love it.
CC: Yes, but it was only for that. Because also I don’t like … you know, it’s my flag and I don’t need drag it out for anybody. But since I know that a lot of Cubans go there I put it on.
MP: But you’ve never worn it onstage.
CC: Well, uh, I did wear it last year when I worked at Lehman College; I put it on.
MP: Sure, in New York.
CC: Yeah, in Nueva York.
MP: And what was people’s reaction there.
CC: Well, I don’t know, I got the same applause as always. But I don’t know if it was for the bata.
MP: Well because when I saw the photo in a Latin magazine…
MP: It really moved me.
MP: It was quite spectacular.
CC: Well, that was called, “A Woman” or “The Woman and her Music”. The applause I received at the time was incredible, thank God, and I can’t tell you if it was related to the bata since there weren’t only Cubans there. When I come out with the bata generally it’s for the public that I know is there who are Cubans. But, on this occasion at Lehman College, which has an incredible stage, I was going with Rogelio from the Sonora Matancera, and so, I thought I’m going to wear the bata. You see? And it always attracts attention however, I’d be lying if I told you that the first applause was for the bata, because I was here and they were there. (She laughs.)
MP: But the bata doesn’t stand alone. It’s not the same to see it on its own as it is when you wear it.
CC: That’s true…
MP: It’s the ensemble of everything…
MP: And the bata doesn’t just inspire or make an impact on Cubans…
CC: Of course. No, no, I know it doesn’t…
MP: Other people too.
CC: It doesn’t just make an impact on Cubans, other people too; it’s true. That’s why I’m telling you that when I left Cuba it was more important for me to wear it than to wear it inside of Cuba because any dancer, any singer on television would wear a bata. But outside, it’s a different audience that was going to see me.
MP: And about your relationship with Tito Puente, because Tito Puente has a very unique way of acting and playing and being on stage. He, he also has a very special way of expressing himself there…
MP: On top of it, he’s also very elegant.
CC: Tito, well, Tito and I have a friendship that’s like brother and sister, it’s true. And I’d say that, despite me having started with Sonora Matancera and having worked with them from 1950 till 1965, I’m sure that I’ve worked more times with Tito Puente than with any other orchestra.
MP: You’re kidding…
CC: So Tito Puente, first off, I admire him, I admire him because he is a great musician, he’s a great human being, and he’s a fan of mine too. When I arrived in the United States, Tito had four of the songs that I sung in his repertoire. So much that when I’d go the Palladium to rehearse with him, “Caramelito” and all that, there was once somebody in the booth who said, “hey, it’s all Tito Puente songs.” And he told him, “no, I play all of her numbers.” So, um, I admire him in another very personal way. Tito Puente, who like you said had his way of acting and all is to me a gentleman on stage. I sing with Tito Puente; Tito Puente, when I finish, applauds me. Tito Puente would never come up front to make a spectacle and steal the show from me. You know what I’m saying? The only thing he does, once he knows I’ve finished my performance, which, during which of course we’re in contact, even though Pedro directs me, and he loves it that Pedro directs me, and he stays behind. And then, he leaves his drumsticks on top of the timbal, he gives me his hand and then he leads me, we, the two of us, walk across the stage. That’s all Tito does … as for the rest he is an absolute gentleman and I give my respect to the maestro Tito Puente.
MP: Do you think that his stage manner has to do with, rather, is more common among people of your generation and Tito’s generation, than among the younger folks who are playing Latin music nowadays or do you think that…?
CC: No, it’s that the folks who nowadays are playing Latin music generally don’t accompany artists like me, soloists, they have their show, and they, well, and they never work with, the only one from the new generation who I work with…
MP: José Alberto…
CC: Is José Alberto “El Canario.”
MP: Who is very good.
CC: Who also is very good and who I love a lot because he helps me a lot. For example, on Saturday we’re going to Houston; right now, I’m certain that today, today is Thursday, Thursday right? Tomorrow, José Alberto will be rehearsing my numbers. When I get there, he’ll say, “Miss Celia, whatever you want, it’s all ready.” He does his performance and afterwards he’ll take off the shirt that he got sweaty, put on another one, and he’ll keep singing with me. You see what I’m saying? But the other groups, generally, they do their show, I can’t tell you what they’re like, because I’ve never performed with any of them. And I imagine that, I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe they’d be different than with other people because of how I am, how I approach groups like José Alberto, like the one who accompany me. I put on my music; if I see that one number is a problem I say, “Pedro, get rid of that one and put on another.” That’s why I have such a big repertory. If, let’s suppose a musician makes a mistake, I would never make a bad gesture, because I make … the musician makes a mistake, I make a bad gesture and it’s possible that due to my gesture, the audience realizes that he made a mistake. If I don’t make the gesture, maybe the audience won’t even know that he….
MP: They almost never notice…
CC: No, no, they don’t notice. And that’s why the audience, rather, the musicians almost all want to work with me because I, rather they, feel happy to perform with me. Some weren’t even born when I started. “Ma’am, this is so huge for me. When I was little I always dreamed of…” you know what I’m saying?
MP: And with whom, uh, with which orchestras do you sing with other than Canario’s?
CC: Tito, el Canario, when I go to Miami there’s a group called
“la Inmensidad” who have my music there for when I go, which I have to avoid sometimes because the airfare is too expensive. I have a group in Miami “la Inmensidad”…
CC: In Spain there’s one called “Canayón”, now renamed “Azúcar”. In, where else? In Los Angeles there’s somebody named Yari Moré who is Colombian and who is very good. In Puerto Rico, um, there’s another group called “Concepto Latino”.
CC: And they all have my music. So, when we go over there, “OK, Yari, look, rehearse,” Pedro tell him.
MP: And your relationship with your husband, Pedro Knight.
MP: Um, is really interesting.
MP: Because you too are very tight, you … work very well together and you can see a really incredible chemistry…
CC: We’re each other’s accomplices. (They laugh.) He…
MP: Could you talk a little about that. Because he’s also been a very big influence, I believe, in your, in your artistic career.
CC: Well, look, when I started with the Sonora [Matancera] I was already singing. I met Pedro there. So, what was my reply to Miguel when…? I met him there; that was in 1950; we got married in 1962. And afterwards, I kept working even though, because I was not a fixed singer with the Sonora [Matancera], I was, I’d say, a guest performer…
CC: Me, I went to see Rogelio to tell him that I wasn’t contracted by the Sonora [Matancera], my contract was with Radio Progeso and CMQ. When I had a contract in Venezuela, I’d leave. When the Sonora [Matancera] had their singers, Bienvenido, Celio González, I’d leave, I’d come back … when, that time in Mexico I told you about….
CC: I’d go; I’d come back. Then, when Pedro marries me, in ’62, he keeps working with the Sonora Matancera and me too. But in 65 I got angry at the record company…
CC: …because they weren’t promoting me.
CC: And I’d record and record, I had to keep singing “Yerberito”and I said, “Hey, Mister Siegel, I don’t…,” of course, encouraged by Pedro, “if you don’t promote me, I don’t want to record anymore here, let’s finish the contract.” And so I owed him five records.
MP: Oh my God … a lot.
CC: So he made me, he made me record them, he made me pay for them. And from there I went to, to Tico…
MP: Tico Records.
CC: I came in with Tito Puente. But then the contracts would come in when I’d record with Tito, and the contracts would come in for me to perform with Tito Puente. So Pedro, or I had to go myself alone and Pedro stay with the Sonora [Matancera], or me not go. So Pedro left the Sonora [Matancera] to start traveling with me. And that’s when he became my representative and with some groups, not like today that I have set groups in different places, let’s say in Venezuela, in Colombia, Pedro would play the trumpet until one day, a gentleman named Ría Vílez proposed that maybe I should let Ralph Mercado manage me. And so yes, in all my contracts throughout the world, when it’s time for me to travel, Pedro has to come with me; if he doesn’t go, I don’t go. Even till now, if he doesn’t go, I don’t go. So, now Pedro isn’t my manager, only my musical director but he handles the talking … the contracts … he handles the music, a million things. I only do the singing now.
MP: But throughout the years, how did the relationship evolve? Because it’s a lot years if you’ve been together since the fifties.
CC: Well, very nicely, very nicely….
MP: Especially as it relates to career.
CC: It’s been really good because he, imagine leaving the Sonora [Matancera]…
CC: To leave with me. What does he deserve in return? The best in the world. Besides me loving him very much, besides how well we get along, and we’ve never had any problem with respect to … for the same reasons that we are together. You know where there would have been a problem? If I’d gone traveling around and he’d stayed in the United States. You know, with the Sonora [Matancera]. But ours is a very stable relationship. We’ve been married for 35 years. It was our anniversary the other day. We’re the same sign, and they say that two Libras don’t get along but it’s not true. Yeah. I don’t know if it’s because my [sign is] ascendant and his descendant, but…. (They laugh.) We get along great. There hasn’t been, everything that’s been, for example, the first two years, when you get married, are the, are two years first for adjusting, right? Because it’s not the same when you are alone in your own house than when you find yourself with another person who maybe has different habits … who, well for example, who snores. You know how much Pedro used to snore? He doesn’t snore anymore. (MP laughs.) Or maybe I don’t hear it anymore. He’d say, “listen lady, get to sleep fast because I’m gonna snore.” It’s not bad to snore because as they say, people snore when they are tired. Now he doesn’t, he hardly snores; I don’t even hear it, if he snores I don’t hear it. But these things, no, you have to adapt to these things. Just the first two years, from then on….
MP: That’s great, how interesting…
CC: It’s all been…. hey, we have incredible communication because that’s how he, when we got married he told me, “look, whatever you don’t like about me, tell me. And I’ll also tell you what I don’t like about you.” And that’s how we’ve been. One thing though: never in public. Suppose that Pedro, I don’t know, anything, I would never say “listen…,” no. Once we get to the hotel, or home, that’s when…
CC: …we sort it out, because they stuff you don’t like you don’t forget about. I’m forgetting stuff now (MP laughs) but if he does something that I don’t like, when I arrive I tell him, “Pedro, before I forget, look, this, this, this, and this.” When we do business, for example, when we bought a building in Miami and it didn’t work out for us, you know because they ripped us off, we had to return it and everything, but we were both in it together. We were both in together meaning that when it flopped, he didn’t blame me and I didn’t blame him.
CC: Another example, he’ll go buy a bag of sugar and he’ll come and say, “honey, should I buy it?” “No, Pedro, don’t buy it because we can’t eat it.” So he won’t get it. That’s how, that’s the way we relate.
MP: But that’s really unusual …I n relationships.
CC: Unusual, right?
CC: That much so, you think?
MP: Well, especially since you have worked together so many years…
CC: Yes, yes…
MP: Because I imagine that that’s the only work that…
CC: That we’ve had, yes…
MP: That you’ve had…
MP: And that’s incredible.
MP: You don’t think it’s incredible?
CC: Sort of but look … mmm … I have a friend in Miami who got tired of her husband and he had money and she didn’t work and he liked to fish and she wouldn’t go and…. (MP laughs) I just don’t understand since the best part of life is being together. I criticize those folks, including my friends too, where she goes on vacation and afterwards he goes on his own. I don’t know if it’s me; you get married to be together. I, I don’t get that. Nonetheless, I think that we, the daughters of Catalina Alfonso, that was my mother’s name, are lucky; my sister, the eldest, just had her 51st wedding anniversary.
MP: Good Lord.
CC: I’ve got 35 years and my sister Gladys who is in Miami just had her 29th wedding anniversary. It’s three of us, and look, 29, Gladys? Didn’t Linda say that she was 28? Mhm. Linda was born a month later. Linda is the one who brought the kids last night.
MP: Oh yeah…
CC: She’s my sister, my sister’s daughter, Linda, she’s 28. And my sister has been married for 29 years; her anniversary was the 13th of September. La Niña, my sister, hers was on the 24th of April; she just had her 51st wedding anniversary. And Pedro and I had our 35th anniversary on the 14th.
CC: So in other words… I don’t know.
MP: And could you talk a little about your relationship with your sisters when you were growing up in Cuba.
CC: [They were] Great…
MP: And over the years…
CC: Great because, um, we were four. Gladys, la Niña, who is the eldest, I’m the second, then comes Bárbaro, who’s in Cuba, and Gladys, my sister.
MP: You have a brother?
CC: A brother, yes.
MP: In Cuba?
CC: In Cuba, but, um, my family has always loved me a lot. You know? Because I was very, I was good. Yes, and on top of it, on top of it, well, being an artist, imagine, having an artist in the family…
MP: Who’s so famous…
CC: They all adore me. And besides, I was really good, or I’ve been really good to my family, you understand? As I prospered, how can I tell you? I lent a hand to my family as much as I could. And so part of the love they have for me, and also gratitude; um, when I’d travel, I’d travel with a lot of suitcases, everybody there in the house, with suitcases helping me….
MP: Yeah, sure…
CC: And the suitcases wouldn’t close and they’d sit on top of them. My family is a very good family, you know? My whole family is great.
MP: And do you ever speak with your brother?
CC: Um … I talk … the thing is, I call my cousin Nenita’s house; it’s really Nenita who’s become the head of the family. I have an aunt who is 93 years old and who doesn’t want to die without seeing me. I’ve brought her five times and so, when I call Nenita’s house, Bárbaro doesn’t live there, Bárbaro lives in my house. So I tell Nenita, put my aunt Ana on, because otherwise, I have to talk to Barbarito, Lourdita, everybody, even with the little chicken. (MP laughs.) Yeah, so for example, my 93 year old aunt doesn’t realize and so somebody gets on the phone, “oh, Aunt Celia…,” I don’t know who it is, they don’t talk, and listen, long distance phone calls aren’t that cheap.
I prefer to talk to her not just because of the expenses because one day I called and honey, the little one got on. Right then, the line got cut off. And this was when it was a big effort to call Cuba. And so the next time I told her, “Ana, when I call you, first speak with me and then put whoever you want on,” because I wasn’t able to talk to her, you know? So imagine, 93 years old, she calls, “Nenita, how’s the little chicken?” (They laugh.) “And yeah…” Anyway, Nenita told her, “he’s around somewhere.” And they’d already eaten him. Because, imagine…. (They laugh.)
MP: And your…
MP: Has your brother ever come to visit you here?
CC: Yeah, I brought him. I brought him, I’d say, in around 94. I brought him with my cousin Nenita. Because now, when I bring them, when I can bring them, I bring them in pairs … for example.
MP: And it was his first time.
CC: For Bárbaro, yes.
MP: And how was it
CC: He loved it. “I’ll be back!” [he said] when he left, “I’ll be back.”
MP: How long since you’d seen him?
CC: Since I’d seen him? Well, I left in 1960 and I brought him in 1994. Imagine.
MP: But it had to have been a very emotional moment.
CC: Very nice. They arrived, I wasn’t in New York. Gladys, my sister, was still there. And they arrived before I did … but it was really lovely. And that aunt that I was telling you about, I’ve brought her five, five times. I’m bringing her through Mexico because it’s very … more difficult to come to the United States, to see if I can see her for at least a month, like I told her.
MP: And are you going to bring your brother again?
CC: No, darlin’, no. It’s costing a lot of work. And, and I can’t make myself crazy over it. Remember that there are some…
CC: …treaties and he’s already seen me and I’ve seen him…
MP: And how long was he here?
CC: Um, six months.
MP: Wow, a long time.
CC: Yes. In this country they’ll give you six months.
MP: Half a year…
CC: Yes. They give him six months, Cuba gives him one month, so every, every time you have to pay in order for them to extend the…
MP: And he’d never come before?
MP: So, it had to have been an incredible experience for him.
CC: Yes, he came to Washington and everything.
MP: How incredible…
MP: Well, Celia I really appreciate this…
MP: That we, um, that we were able to talk…
MP: And that we were able to converse, and well, thank you very much.
CC: So now you have some translating to do, right?
MP: Yes. (They laugh.)