Celia Cruz’s service area invites you to walk the memory lane

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Artwork by Ruth Burrows

When Governor Phil Murphy announced last year that nine Garden State Parkway rest areas would be named after prominent New Jersey residents, I was thrilled to learn that the Forked River Service Area would be named after of a Cuban exile who occupied a special place in the life of my late mother: Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa.

While Mami spent her days in our ever-moving Union City walk-up — scrubbing floors, polishing furniture, and cooking — she would slip out of housewife mode when Celia was on the radio. She smiled, swayed and accompanied the music, sometimes turning down Ajax, as if brushing aside the pesky reminder of reality that clashed with her old-time dreams of singing in front of a crowd at the Tropicana.

Celia, who died in July 2003 of complications from brain cancer, had considered being a mother and housewife, but decided to pursue a singing career after winning a local radio contest in Havana. Celia married Pedro Knight, a trumpeter who became Celia’s manager. The couple, who lived in Fort Lee, never had children.

Do not mistake yourself. Mami loved being a mother and filled our lives with enough love, guidance and values ​​to carry us through after she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1975. But she lived her fantasy of a music career vicariously. through Celia.

It wasn’t just his music. It was his way of evoking cultural traits that resonated with the Cuban diaspora: the Cuban can-do spirit, passionate storytelling, one-liners, good-natured teasing, and candor that manages to land a soft touch.

As an adult, my mother having left too soon at 47, I found in Celia a source of comfort and connection with my ancestral land. I bought tapes and CDs from her and listened to 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 his songs that told me I was better off without him. When I felt sunny, I would blast “La Vida Es un Carnaval” (“Life is a Carnival”).

Celia takes me back to my childhood in a Cuban house. In a real sense, she brings Mami back. Like Mami and so many other women of her time, Celia was undeniably traditional in a sense – almost motherly watching over her husband.

But Celia was also ahead of her time, bulldozing barriers of race, fashion and the male-dominated world of salsa. Long before Lady Gaga and Cher, there was Celia, wearing an electric blue wig one day and a gold spiked one the next. She was a fashion provocateur, wearing oversized orange-rimmed sunglasses and dresses that went above 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, modest and charismatic. When I told her that 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 passing through. But for me, it’s a chance to remember Celia, Cuba and Mami.


Elizabeth Llorente is a longtime journalist and frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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