The Legends of Our Times

Chente y Celia: los padrinos de nuestra cultura

By Al Carlos Hernandez
Published on LatinoLA: July 19, 2003

The Legends of Our Times

It is ironic that the Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz passed a few days after we had a chance to see the great Vicente Fernandez in a rare concert.

Both of these artists are much more than performers. Their musical legacy will stand the test of time, both viewed as cultural icons. There was the maternal Celia, who represented the Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean life experience. And then there's masculine Vicente, the Mexican Cowboy in all of us, personifying the macho state of mind.

Latino Americans have a great and diverse heritage to draw inspiration from. For us, it's Vicente Fernandez rather than Frank Sinatra, Celia Cruz instead of Celine Dion. For many of us, these giants -- through their music and public life -- speak volumes about our foundational life experience and visceral identity.

My wife, a few family members and some old friends from radio attended the Vicente Fernandez concert at the Oakland Arena. The place was filled with well over 10 thousand people. The cheap seats were 55 bucks, while floor seating went for a $140 per folding chair. Dancing in the aisles was prohibited but when the music started, it couldn?t be helped or halted.

The beauty of the evening was the fact that a major venue could sell out, exclusively through the use of Spanish media. This to me put some meat on the demographic numbers about the growing Latino population, I saw them, I was one of them and this is the future.

There was no pyrotechnics, platforms lowered from the ceiling, folks popping up through the floor. Just suddenly and casually, Vicente -- Chente -- the star of countless movies, a lifetime of hit records, and a Mexican national institution, simply walks out on stage wearing a red sombrero during the last song by opener Band El Recodo, and started to blow.

A wave of people stood to their feet, with squeals of awe and delight. His presence, his vibe lit up the facility. It was time to hold court.

His voice was strong and commanding. It never faltered and after two hours non-stop, he seemed to get stronger, often times challenging the audience to provide the chorus. Twenty-something songs later and they still knew the words.

I spent more time watching the crowd than the stage. It was painful, yet inspirational, to see small groups of young men, quite obviously sojourners from Mexico, with their lives and their loves way back home, arms draped over another?s shoulder, singing along and screaming gritos, as Vicente fired off round after round of heartbreaking hits. Songs I am sure that their parents danced to, poems that spoke to their inner being, he mirrored their identity.

He celebrated their plight, killing them softly with his songs, telling there whole life with his words. Vicente was home.

I had seen Celia Cruz in performance on many occasions and even had the chance to meet her once during a radio station tour. She was a poised, elegant and gracious lady who wore her success well, while maintaining a certain sense of humor about what she did and how she presented herself. No one could do it like Celia, and even if you didn?t understand the words it didn?t matter. She sold the joy, heartbreak, angst and emotionality of her life experience. You couldn?t help but like her.

Celia represented a break from the traditional Latina stereotype. She was a mature, black Latina that sold the sensuality of the music and not the didactic sexuality of the culture. Always a lady, she knew how to work it, with a unique style and comfort without being crass or bawdy.

There will never be another Celia Cruz.

What I find most meloncholy is that Vicente and Celia -- for middle-aged folks such as me -- is a link that we shared with our parents. For many of us, artistically, Vicente was our surrogate macho Dad, and Celia was our sensual yet stalwart Mother.

Many of us have come to an appreciation of the fact that we love the notion that our most favorite songs are spoken in another language, the Mother language, and it 's OK to celebrate this diversity amongst our non-Latino friends. I remind them that John Wayne was married to a Mexicana.

?Azucar, machos!

About Al Carlos Hernandez:
Al Carlos is a national columnist and a screenwriter.

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