Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

The Cuban-American Sound Machine: Nostalgia and Identity in the Music of Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan and Pitbull

Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

The Cuban-American Sound Machine: Nostalgia and Identity in the Music of Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan and Pitbull

Article excerpt

People in both of our countries have sung along with Celia Cruz or Gloria Estefan and now . . . Pitbull

-US President Barack Obama, 2016 (Flores 2016)

This article examines how Celia Cruz (1925-2003), Gloria Estefan (born 1957) and Pitbull (born 1981), each of whom represents different generations, immigration statuses, gender performances and racial identities, have employed their musical hits and public personae to simultaneously shorten and widen the 90-mile distance between the US and Cuba. These artists have curated unique musical careers cognisant of mainstream musical palatability and political posturing attendant to the eras in which they achieved their peak popularity. Their musical and political commentary parallels the evolving attitudes and identities of the Cuban-American community towards Cuba and its politics.2 Each successive artist is a little more ambiguous about his or her political leanings in the American political sphere, but all of them continue to oppose Cuba's Communist regime while trading in the musical currency of nostalgia for the Cuba of yesteryear. In the vein of Gustavo Pérez Firmat's watershed analysis of CubanAmericans' hyphenated identity, these artists demonstrate how Cuban-American identity exists in a liminal cultural space that lives in the present and plans for the future with one foot planted firmly in the fantasy of an Edenic past.

Celia Cruz: Raconteuse of Pre-lapsarian Cuba

Cruz was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1925 as Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso. She enjoyed a successful career in her homeland as the lead singer of the orchestra band La Sonora Matancera. She left Cuba in 1960, more than a year after Castro seized power, never to return. Successful collaborations in the US with artists such as Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colón led to her being dubbed the Queen of Salsa and the Queen of Latin Music. The former is a significant accolade seeing as how salsa has historically been and still is dominated by male artists. Cruz found success in the Spanish-language music market but was mostly unknown throughout the US English-speaking population (Steward 1999: 59). Despite her relative lack of name recognition, she was arguably the most famous Cuban-American since Desi Arnaz (of I Love Lucy) fame in the 1950s.

Unlike Arnaz, who was born and raised in Cuba but attended high school in the US, Cruz moved to the US as a 35-year-old. For this reason, I refer to her as a 'first-generation' Cuban-American immigrant. Like other post-1959 Cuban first-generation immigrants to the US, she was an exile. As part of this first wave of Cuban exiles, Cruz and her community hoped they would return to the Cuba they were forced to flee when the political situation made life untenable for them. She spoke idealistically about returning to a free Cuba and angrily about the Castro regime's denial of her request to attend her mother's funeral in Cuba. References to such travel denials surfaced regularly in articles about Cruz, which reflected public interest in the US embargo on Cuba. It also allowed Cruz a simple way to express her disdain for Cuba's political regime without making it the only reason for which she was known. In referring to themselves as exiles, CubanAmericans followed a pattern of older exile groups who differentiate themselves from other immigrants by describing the reasons for their move as traumatic ones that required special services and protections.

Despite her rejection of Cuba's Revolutionary identity, Cuban culture and nostalgia served as a marketable framework for her music. Christina Abreu argues that Cruz arrived in the US amid a 1960s American counterculture, wherein both Hispanics and non-Hispanics found Cruz's music anachronistic. It was not until a critical mass of Hispanics began to commercially and culturally 'Latinize' major cities such as New York and Miami that ethnic pride allowed for the widespread commercial success of Caribbean music (Abreu 2007: 94). …

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