When Celia Cruz returned to Guantánamo to perform for American troops in 1990 -- 30 years after she left her beloved Cuba -- she knelt, kissed the ground and said: "I have kissed the earth in name of all the Cubans in exile."
Until the time of her death to cancer in 2003 at 77 years old, the Cuban icon, whom Castro famously denied entry to Cuba to bury her mother in 1962, remained a dignified symbol of Cubans separated forever from their country. Cruz's two visits to the American naval base in Guantánamo were the closest she got to returning home. During one of those visits, she grabbed a handful of Cuban soil from the other side of the fence and kept it in a jar until her death.
It's buried with her.
Cruz's longtime manager and estate trustee Omer Pardillo Cid, 44 -- himself a Cuban exile from a different generation -- spoke exclusively with Billboard about what Fidel Castro's death would have meant for Cruz.
I was in Colombia with Celia's traveling exhibit and in the middle of a concert by [Cuban artist] Amaury Gutiérrez when I heard the news of Castro's death. I've never been so nervous in my life. My fingers trembled so much they couldn't find the keyboard. Obviously, as Catholics, we aren't celebrating someone's death, but we are celebrating what could be the future of our country. It's been over 50 years of dictatorship, and this person was the root of it all.
I was born in Cuba and left at 10 years old, leaving my mother behind. People who aren't Cuban don't understand our pain.
I think Celia could be relieved if she were alive today. Relieved because we're staring a new chapter. I'm not sure what she would have done, because the only thing Celia had left to do was return to Cuba.
Celia died in 2003, and at one point I asked her, "Do you feel the need to go back to Cuba?"
And she said: "Emotionally, I want to go back. But never under Castro's dictatorship. I will take the Cuba I have in my heart with me."
Back in 2000, when Celia was 74, she was already sick when she recorded the album Siempre Viviré. Angie Chirino, Willy Chirino's daughter, wrote a song for her called "Por si acaso no regreso" (In Case I Don't Return). It was a perfect song for Celia. When she sang it in the studio, it was the fist time I ever saw Celia cry at a recording; she realized she truly was never going back.
Celia left Cuba on July 15, 1960. She was going to tour with La Sonora Matancera in Mexico, and Rogelio Martinez, the director of the band, said, "I don't think we're coming back." At the time, of course, everyone thought the Castro regime wouldn't last.
Then in 1962, Celia's mom died, and when Celia requested permission to go bury her, the Cuban embassy denied her the visa. That's when she said, "If I can't return to bury my mother, I'll never return."
I've always thought that if they had allowed Celia to bury her mother, the story of Celia and Cuba would have been very different. Remember, Celia was Cuba's most famous artist; it would have been very important for the government to have her on their side.
Celia actually met Castro on two occasions. One time was at the home of the editor of Bohemia magazine. This was pre-revolution. Celia was singing at the piano, and Castro was already well-known. When he arrived, everybody got on their feet and went to say hello, but she stayed behind, next to the pianist. They asked her if she wasn't going to greet him as well, and she said: "No. There's something about that man that I don't like."
Then, in 1960, they hired her to perform at Teatro Blanquita. The night of the show, they told her Fidel was sitting in the first row and they wanted her to dedicate a song to him, "Cao cao maní picado."
"I didn't bring the music," she said.
She didn't want to bow to him. She told me he was sitting to the left, and she sang all night facing right.
Honestly, he never did anything against her. She just didn't like him.
Celia was never political, and she never sang political music. But she never hid her opinion either.
I would venture to say that when you mention Cuba anywhere in the world, the two names that come to mind are Fidel Castro and Celia Cruz. She represented the Cuban exile with dignity: a poor black woman who left Cuba and conquered the world.
Celia's love for Cuba was so big. And because she couldn't return, it became even bigger. Celia represents a free Cuba. Everywhere she went, she was the exiles' flag.
Some three years before she died, we went to San Francisco, and a very old Cuban woman, she was 96 years old, came up to Celia and said: "Please, let me touch you. I'm going to die soon and I can't return to Cuba. But if I touch you, I will feel I touched my Cuba."
It's one of my most cherished memories of her.
--As told to Leila Cobo