Celia’s Song [Canción]

The third Latin American children’s book recommended in this series is 

My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz

by Monica Brown, with illustrations from Rafael López.

The June 2020 webinar, “How to Talk to Kids About Race,” included two college-aged panelists. I mentioned Manny Leon in my previous post recommending Last Stop on Market Street. Today, I want to touch upon an important issue brought up by second year college-student and Chicago, Illinois resident, Kaseba Chibweth. She shared some of the feelings she had as a Black African American growing up in spaces which racialized into otherness. During the panel’s discussion on colorism and childhood, Kaseba recalled, “…going into middle school and dealing with jokes and certain comments…I didn’t know how to navigate that world. And, you know, being Black but also being African, those identities clashing together as well…I didn’t know how to navigate [that] in a predominantly white world that I was living in, crossing between my two cultures. I just wish there were more representation and that I saw more kids and people that look like me in the classroom.”  The identity clash Kaseba describes is one common amongst Black and Brown Americans living in predominantly white spaces. Frederick Douglass calls it living on “the color line” in “The Color Line” (1881). W.E.B. Du Bois calls it living with a “double-consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Gloria Anzaldua calls it living in “the borderlands” in Borderlands/La Fronters: The New Mestiza (1987).

While Kaseba was discussing blackness in relation to her own identity as a Black, African, and American person, she could easily be describing Black and multiracial children of Latin American descent.  Anti-blackness within Latin American cultures is part of a racist color-caste system designed to subjugate and oppress indigenous and African peoples, pacify mestizo communities, and empower Euro-Latinos to benefit from and wield power via colonially constructed systems. For Black Latin Americans who are descendants from enslaved Africans, cultural hybridity is the norm. When selecting a third book to recommend for this series, I considered Kaseba’s point on seeing blackness: “Representation inside and outside of the classroom is really important.” In addition to books, music can traverse the space between classrooms, homes, public social spaces, and the interior world of an individual child.

The book I am recommending today is My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz by Monica Brown, with illustrations from Rafael López. Celia Cruz is a Black Cuban icon. Her contributions to world and popular music span an over fifty-year career. What Brown and López accomplish with Celia is a win for positive Afro-Latina representation in children’s books. The sing-song cadence of lines in English, followed by their Spanish translation, invites children to discover Celia’s music for the first time, or re-discover it as the work of a vibrant Black Cuban immigrant.

Celia Cruz

Celia would be difficult for a very young or non-bilingual child to read alone because it presents the narrative in English and in Spanish, side-by-side. And, there is more text than is common in children’s books of this size and length. But, the kinetic nature of López’ illustrations would engage even toddler-aged readers who see color and emotion first. And, the text is complex enough to keep elementary school readers—up to age eight—fairly interested. Beginner-level Spanish language learners of all ages can use this book to practice pronunciation and reading comprehension.

In between telling Celia’s story, Brown interjects poem-like lines:

Boom boom boom! beat the congas.

Clap clap clap! go the hands.

Shake shake shake! go the hips.

Musical elements of text introduce the singer to the reader. Celia gives voice to the icon who declares: “I am the Queen of Salsa and I invite you to come dance with me.” Visually, the illustrations signal a tropical color palette of red, gold, orange, and green which frame young Celia’s raven hair and bronze-black skin. The textures of jewelry on her arm could prompt a child to begin to conceptualize and describe how surfaces feel: smooth, bumpy, and cold.

Celia’s description of her costumes introduces vocabulary words kids can build on: “My costumes are as colorful as my music, with ruffles, beads, sparkles, and feathers. They shimmer and shake as I move my graceful arms and legs to the beat of the tropics and the rhythm of my heart.” A teacher or parent could show child readers a video of Celia performing with her friend Tito Puento, one of  helpers who “brought a new music to the Americas—salsa—a music that blended rock with rumba, mambo with jazz.” The journey from Cuba to New York to Miami was not easy for Celia. But, she was a Queen in her lifetime. She was Black and Spanish-speaking. She was an American citizen.

Illustration by Rafael López

Celia highlights the performer’s azucar, her sweetness and energy, but it does not erase the challenges she overcame. We learn about Celia’s childhood in Havana, Cuba. She says of her railroad worker father, “Sometimes when I would sing with [him], the neighbors would hear the sound of my voice and walk over to listen to my melodies. We may have been poor, but music cost nothing and brought joy to us all.” López’ illustration for this moment shows young Celia and one of her brothers cradled in the arms of their father, as the railroad trains curve through the moonlight. The image reminds me of Celia’s 1974 performance of “Guantanamera.” The Cuban folk song draws its lyrics from poet-revolutionary Jose Marti’s Versos sencillos (1891). In teaching children about Celia, the book is opening up a conversation about the cultural impact of enslaved Africans throughout the Americas; without African music and beats, there would be no rumba, mambo, or Cuban folk music tradition which helped to create the hybrid musical palette Celia was known for throughout her career. In “Guantanamera,” Marti’s poetics become as free and musical as Celia’s voice.

Illustration by Rafael López

Celia does not ignore the limitations imposed upon her by the color-caste system. She shares that “Even though some people would not let me sing because of the color of my skin, I did not let this stop me from making my voice heard. I promised myself that I would keep singing and studying no matter what.” Celia shows children the value of perseverance over injustice. This aspect of the story provides an important didactic opportunity for parents and teachers to explain racism. A child reader may also ask or be asked to consider the following questions:

Why didn’t they let Celia sing?

Why don’t some people like Black skin?

Is it important to keep trying?

How does studying help?

Illustration by Rafael López

The answers to many of these questions lead to talking about Celia’s immigration pathways. She explains, “revolution began in my country. Like many others, I left my Cuba forever.” Today, the icon’s path from Cuba, to Mexico, to New York, and to Miami, makes her commercial success seem extraordinary. Immigrants are routinely demonized by many of our national leaders and marginalized by xenophobic policies. Today, Celia helps us understand the profound contribution immigrant, Afro-Latina, and Black citizens have on our dynamic American cultures. Teachers should not single out Black and immigrant children to speak on their potentially traumatic personal experiences. Rather, teachers should create a space for learning about Celia Cruz’ life and legacy, the concepts of revolution, displacement, diaspora, and cultural hybridity. Teachers may also want to use Celia as a platform for exploring various genres of Latin American music. Parents and kids may want to read Celia and then discuss their family’s musical heritage.

My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia teaches children that racism and national violence exist, that anti-Blackness exists, that immigrants and refugees are also artists and icons, and that music is free in a world which commodifies most practices. These are difficult truths for children to digest. But, Celia shows kids how music, words, and the visual arts are without borders.

Published by Clarissa Castaneda, PhD

Clarissa Castaneda, PhD is a scholar of Latine/Chicane American literature and cultures, indigenous literatures and cultures, film/television/visual/material cultures, archive theory, and poetics. Her dissertation, Latinidades and the Repository Function of the Poetic (2020), is available via ProQuest. And, “Indigenous Libretto and Aural Memory in The Sun Dance and El Circo Anahuac” is available in Displaced: Literature of Indigeneity, Migration, and Trauma (Routledge 2020). Dr. Castaneda is a lecturer in English at Cal Poly Pomona and a faculty associate in Film & Television Studies at Arizona State University. In addition to research, academic writing, and teaching, she is a creative writer, poet, and musician.

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