THE FUNERAL PROCESSION OF CELIA CRUZ
© PJ Hayward, New York, 2003;
Recently I was reminded of the irreplaceable loss, in July 2003, of one of the most beloved and extraordinary performers of our time, the legendary Cuban Queen of Song, Celia Cruz.
Celia would strut, run, dance or sashay onto the stage, where her remarkable energy and passion, together with her famous cry of “¡Azúcar!” would electrify her audiences wherever she went. Even if, as in my case, you had only listened to her CDs or watched her on TV, it was impossible not to leap out of your chair and do some shimmy-shakes when Celia would take the microphone.
Celia’s funeral services were to be held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on New York’s famous Fifth Avenue. Preceding the services, a long procession had been scheduled that would start somewhere uptown and end in front of St. Patrick’s massive bronze doors. As fate would have it, in 2003 I was working in a building on 52nd Street, next block over from the cathedral.
As the hour approached for Celia’s services to begin, I and a few of my co-workers stole a few moments away from our desks. We went and huddled together on a small balcony overlooking Fifth Avenue, hoping to catch a final glimpse of one of the world’s most spectacular icons.
The experience was so moving, so unparalleled, that when I got home from work that evening I penned the following account in my journal:
Celia’s funeral procession made its way down Fifth Avenue in the middle of a colossal summer thunderstorm. As far as the eye could see, all up and down the Avenue, the crowds were tightly crammed and stuffed together behind police barricades. Even down the side streets the people were packed and stuck to each other like sardines in a can.
Throughout the torrential downpour some of the people carried umbrellas but most of them just stood exposed to the elements without cover. The people’s love for Celia was so strong that to them, the weather seemed nothing more than a summer shower. As though Celia’s voice was speaking to them from beyond, with every crack of thunder the crowd went crazy, wildly jumping up and down and screaming “Celia!! Celia!! Celia!!”
Through the driving rain from somewhere uptown, the funeral procession gradually began to arrive. Leading the procession was a troop of motorcycle cops, somber and respectful this day as they drove slowly down Fifth Avenue. Following them came a huge sanitation truck overflowing with media crews; hanging from every possible foot or handhold, many of them looked as though they would soon topple off the truck as they tried to keep their grip while still capturing images of the riotous, leaping throng.
Rolling leisurely behind the media crews as though it were a beautiful, sunny day, came a big, vintage Cadillac convertible with Cuban flags draped over the front and back. Sitting in the front seat of this car was a woman who my friend said was a once constant companion and friend of Celia – Castro had apparently allowed her out of Cuba to attend this funeral. In the back seat of the car were some family members I think – but I didn’t see her husband Pedro among them.
Walking slowly behind the Cadillac came a crowd of people, trailed by an empty black hearse (I guess to carry Celia to her final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.) Following the hearse were scores of limos, all heaped with towering mountains of flowers and arrangements in every variety, size, shade and hue. It was a phenomenal sight, almost indescribable. If the teeming crowds were not evidence enough, this procession of enormous floating gardens was affirmation of the massive outpouring of love and respect for this One-of-a-Kind human being.
At long last from down the Avenue, like a mirage in the mist, gradually emerged Celia’s incredible glass carriage. Prancing regally in front of the carriage were two magnificent white horses, the tall white plumes atop their heads somehow remaining feathery and light in spite of the drenching rain. The carriage driver too, wearing top hat and tails, seemed oblivious to the weather.
The carriage itself was like something from a fairy tale. All white with white wheels and sparkling glass panels on the sides, it was covered with more massive mounds of fabulous flowers. Inside the protective glass panels in plain sight for all to see and pay their respects, Celia’s casket rested on fluffy, white satin cushions. You knew that inside lay one of the most adored, influential and energetic musicians in recent times – a woman who had given joy to millions of people all over the world.
My God – what emotion!
As the carriage approached our block, the frenzied throng of people on both sides of the street became hysterical. People everywhere were screaming and praying and crying all at the same time. They were waving Cuban flags, pictures of Celia and home-made signs – reaching out to touch the air as close as they could to the carriage and Celia passing by. I believe the only thing keeping the crowd from becoming a mob was their respect for Celia and the solemnity of the day.
Then finally, almost an anti-climax, behind the glass carriage came a line of limos so long I couldn’t even see the end of it.
Two o’clock arrived. That must have been the time for the funeral service to begin because people started gushing out of the limos to walk the remaining half a block to St. Patrick’s.
All the people below were shielded by umbrellas, so even though I had my Grandmother’s theater binoculars, we couldn’t make out the faces of any of the supposed luminaries, movie moguls and musical legends that were flowing out of their limos directly below us.
Today’s outpouring of love, respect, mourning, hysteria and physical energy was unlike anything I have ever experienced before and probably will never experience again. To me it exemplified the Power of One, and how profoundly one individual can influence a nation and a world.
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