100 Refutations: Conquered Song

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On a January day in 1995, Celia Cruz was declared dead. When people read the news that the Queen of Salsa would never again sing upon a stage, they wept. They sat in bars, at kitchen tables and on their doorsteps, lighting candles and watching turntables spin. Black-vinyl mourning and the lamentation of congas and timbales slipping out open windows. Then, around 1:00am the next morning, Celia Cruz walked out of a show in Cali, Colombia to the news of her death in Caracas, Venezuela.

During an interview the following day she threw her head back in laughter. “Well…I’m not afraid of death, and if I’m dead, I’m dead,” she said, “But imagine that, they killed Celia in Venezuela and resurrected her in Cali.” And more than two decades later, in Richmond, Virginia, I replay the interview. Celia Cruz, beautiful black skin, copper curls, and laughter like light refracted through shards of colored glass. A Cuban Lazarus explaining how she told her friend to buy up some of those newspapers, so she could see “what it was like to be dead.”

When I tell this story years later, a friend shakes her head and says, “See? Nothing new under the sun. They write what they want. Always, from the very start—that’s history, right? Whatever the conquerors say it is.” EMPTY CONTINENTS DISCOVERED, EUROPE PURGED, WILD COUNTRY TAMED. BARBARIANS LUCKY TO BE CIVILIZED. SAVAGES GRATEFUL TO BE CHRISTIANIZED, EVICTED, DEPORTED, EXILED.

What are you gonna do about it?

I take a walk. Late at night when the Richmond streetlights flicker like lightning bugs in a gust of wind. And—far from my mother land and tongue—I hear Celia in my ear. “If I don’t come back,” she sings to Cuba, “this pain will end up killing me.” To the country where she was born and to which she was forbidden to return by the Castro regime, “If I don’t come back…” and I see her in my mind, in a photograph taken the only time she was able to return, or almost return. Because, someone explains, “Guantánamo Bay is neither here nor there.” It is an in-between place, a nowhere place, a no-place-at-all place. And yet there she is, in that picture, crouching beside a chain-link fence and filling a plastic cup with dirt. Because, “Guantánamo is Cuba!” Celia protested, “And I can’t wait to be back in all of Cuba, one day.”

Trumpets, bongos, and Celia’s voice like lightning striking white sand. “If I don’t come back…” Reverse roots from a scorched beach as she waited for Castro to reverse her exile. “If I don’t come back…,” music like violent, jagged light turned into smooth, curved glass, because Celia, regardless, did return. “If I don’t come back….” To Cuba, again and again, in song. “Bury me with the music.”

I tuck my hands into my pockets and feel something curling tightly around my chest. I imagine Castro at a desk, deciding, “She stays…he goes…she dies abroad.” I remember leaving Colombia for the first time as a child and thinking I’d never go back. I remember pretending to be too tired to leave my neighbor’s house that last night. I remember imagining I could go on pretending and I’d never have to leave at all. I remember crying and wishing I could fill a million cups with the dirt from my backyard, so I could become an in-between place too. I remember salsa wafting out of open windows; I remember Celia’s voice.

And then, “I want to tell you, my brothers…” the next track begins to play, “…a little piece of our history, of black history,” as I walk down Monument Avenue, past statues of only-half-dead confederate generals. “This is how it goes,” Joe Arroyo’s voice accompanied by the sounds of African, European, and indigenous influences melting like multicolored wax atop an open flame. “During the 1600s, when the tyrant was in charge […] an African marriage, slaves to a Spaniard,” Joe Arroyo singing the story of a pale, bare fist striking bare black skin of a woman as bare black hands strike bare leather drums. “And that black man,” he sings, “he rebelled.” Noise like fists pounding on tables, on coffin lids and history books. Bare feet on red dirt and Sab back in Cuba, arching his back and pulling on chains.

What are you gonna do?

In my mind I see Celia with a fistful of dust. “I’m not afraid of death.” Celia, in the shadow of Guantánamo Bay, singing Guantanamera, singing José Martí lyrics, singing, “My verse is a light green, it is a lit carmine.” Celia, with a suitcase full of sand and shards of colored glass, “If I don’t come back.” The sounds of trumpets and guacharacas bursting through the cracks of a fractured history that cannot contain us. Because the conquerors may write their histories, but the conquered sing their stories. Because, “If I’m dead, I’m dead…” Cars roll past confederate generals standing at stiff attention, a gust of wind, the flicker of lights, “But I’m not dead yet.”

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

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To help more directly, please visit:

Hispanic Federation: http://hispanicfederation.org

Hope for Haiti: https://hopeforhaiti.com

Salvadoran American Humanitarian Foundation: https://www.sahf.org

Bios

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

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Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V. (100 Refutations translator and editor) earned MFAs in creative nonfiction writing and literary translation from The University of Iowa. She is the author of Drown Sever Sing from Anomalous Press and Don’t Come Back from Mad River Books, as well as editor, with Sarah Viren, of the forthcoming anthology Essaying the Americas. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation work has been featured in journals including Bellingham ReviewChicago ReviewFourth GenreBrevityPoets & Writers, and The Sunday Rumpus, among others. She won Best of the Net and Iron Horse Review’s Discovered Voices Award, has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and is a Rona Jaffe fellow. She moved from Colombia to China to Columbus, Ohio to Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an assistant professor for Virginia Commonwealth University. Visit www.linawritesessays.com. ******************************************************************** Amanda Dambrink (100 Refutations co-editor) works as an editor for the University of Wisconsin's Continuing Education, Outreach & E-Learning program in Madison, Wisconsin. She also holds an MA in creative nonfiction from Ohio University, and her previous work has appeared in Prairie Margins and The Normal School, among others.

Copyright (c) Lina M. Ferreira C.-V., 2018.