Once upon a time, in a country far, far away, my husband and collaborator, Tico Torres and I were starving artists living and working in London. It was 1988. One gloomy November day, after an uneventful interview at British Vogue, we rode the endless escalator exiting the underground at the Tottenham Court Road station. On our way up we were taken aback by a huge poster announcing Celia Cruz in Concert at Hammersmith Palaís! Homesick as we were, we decided to track Celia down so we could meet her.
After a few hours of detective work and countless calls to area hotels, we finally located her! We boldly asked for Celia Cruz, not knowing that she was checked in as Celia Knight. Miraculously we were connected directly to her room. A gentleman, who we later realized was Pedro Knight answered the phone. We told him that we were two Cuban-American boys from Miami who would like to meet Celia Cruz. He said, “One moment please” and a few seconds later we heard that unmistakable voice, “¿Si digame?”
We explained that we wanted to meet her and she invited us to her hotel the very next day. She was having a press junket for the British media but when everyone left, she asked us to join them in their suite where we had tea, scones and cucumber sandwiches with the Queen! We were never able to have tea with HRH Queen Elizabeth but, we did have tea with our Queen. She invited us to her concert at the Hammersmith Palais but, we said we really didn’t have the funds to go (¡con una mano alante y una mano atras!) At that point, we were eating bread and mayonnaise alone for weeks at a time! She said, “Let me see what I can do”. The next morning, Celia rang us at our flat in Earl’s Court to let us know that we had two tickets waiting for us at Will Call.
When we arrived and got our tickets we realized they were VIP All Access Passes! Tico was nervous but I insisted we go up to the sound booth overlooking the entire audience with a perfect view. That was the first time we ever saw Celia perform. After the concert we went backstage and hung out with her and Pedro. They treated us like family. We couldn’t have imagined that this was the beginning of a 15 year friendship and that we would have the honor and privilege of photographing and documenting so many amazing moments of Celia and Pedro’s life. Enough to publish an entire book!
Tico and I arrived from Cuba on the Freedom Flights. I was raised in Little Havana and Tico in Hialeah. Our parents always listened to Cuban music and Celia was always at the top of the repertoire. We wanted to assimilate and become “Americanized”, so listening to Cuban music was not our thing. Yet, after seeing that poster at the exit of the underground, something just clicked. To this day, we credit Celia with bringing us back to our roots. She brought us home. Every time we saw Celia perform, it made us feel so proud to be Cuban.
This collection of photographs are a small sample and record of the precious moments we spent with Celia and Pedro, but more importantly it is a personal tribute to the incredible woman who reconnected us to our past and our heritage.
Here, we’ve created not only an exhibition of our photos of Celia, but a vivid installation, so that you, the spectator, can feel as though you’ve entered our studio on Grove Street in Greenwich Village, Studio 9, which Celia visited often. We’ve included many personal items that inspire us as well as momentos from our friendship with Celia and Pedro that are very dear to us.
We sincerely hope the photographs bring you as much joy as they did us when we captured them.
Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte and Tico Torres Greenwich Village, New York City, 2018