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Portraying Celia: The Role Of A Lifetime (Or Two)

Aymée Nuviola portrayed Celia Cruz in the Cuban telenovela <em>Celia.</em>
Courtesy of NBC Telemundo
Aymée Nuviola portrayed Celia Cruz in the Cuban telenovela Celia.

Sometimes destiny seems to drop a little hint of goodness you could never imagine coming your way. For Cuban-born Aymée Nuviola and Puerto Rican-born Jeimy Osorio destiny played out to the tune of Celia Cruz.

Aymée Nuviola was a young singer with Pachito Alonso's orchestra when she met the legendary "Queen of Salsa" at a wedding in Mexico. It was a brief encounter that sparked an affinity between the two Afro-Cuban singers who were far from their homeland. Cruz offered up a little career advice and as she was leaving, took off her big, stone earrings and gave them to Nuviola.

Whether Cruz was symbolically passing the torch, or honoring an unspoken hermandad (sisterhood), it struck Nuviola. "It was a beautiful moment," she recalls. "She was very kind," contrary to things Nuviola had been told in Cuba. "I felt that she was special .... And when I saw her spontaneous gesture I did the same; I took my own off and gave them to her." She says of the exchange, "It surprises me even today."

Some 20 years later, Nuviola would have more to wear than those earrings – she would be donning Cruz's entire persona. She was one of two actresses who landed the role of a lifetime playing the late icon in a Telemundo broadcast docudrama simply titled Celia. Nuviola was cast as the maturing singer to appear about two thirds of the way into the ambitious 80-episode series chronicling her life.

Meanwhile in Paris, emerging singer and professional actress Jeimy Osorio was between gigs and celebrating the New Year when she "asked the universe for guidance." The next song that came up on her playlist shuffle was "Yo Viviré," Cruz's post-Cuba "I Will Survive" remix affirming her resilient musical strength. It was 12:00am. Osorio says she "just knew" it was a sign. Months before, she had met a couple of guys at a gathering who asked her to sing a cappella. Unbeknownst to her, they were the producer and casting director of Celia. Their phone recording of her singing became a sort of pre-audition. She had been singing Cruz songs for a recent role she held. Just 18 days after her "sign," she formally auditioned and was later offered the role of Cruz as a young rising star.

When it aired in 2015, the series put a powerful spotlight on Afro-Latinas and on the racism and machismo Cruz had to navigate through in a male-dominated industry. Both actresses related to obstacles presented in their parts. For the younger Osorio, one of those was withstanding parental discouragement from following her dream as a performer. By the time she auditioned for Celiashe had roles in musicals and on such telenovelas as Una Maid en Manhattan and Porque El Amor Manda.

Unlike Osorio, Nuviola was a novice at acting. It was her musical chops that caught the eyes of the director and casting director, along with having uncanny parallels to Cruz's life. "We are both from poor neighborhoods of Havana," she says. "We were teachers. We are Afro-Cubans with all the pros and cons that that brings. We both won singing contests that helped us succeed in Cuba very young. We were immigrants in Mexico and the United States and then we achieved success outside of Cuba with years and much, much sacrifice."

She got off to a fearful start, but by the second day in a production that — just for the section she appeared in — took some eight months, Nuviola was more at ease. "When I filmed for the second time, I felt that Celia was inhabiting me." The scene was an intimate backstage conversation with her husband before walking out to a packed Yankee Stadium concert flanked by the Fania All Stars. "She talks about her love for him, about the family and about the show" while sitting at the make-up mirror. "And she sings a little bit and dedicates the song to him."

What led up to that moment was an entire year of preparation sandwiched between international concerts. Nuviola describes a meticulous undertaking. "I watch[ed] many of her videos, interviews, photographs, her many anecdotes about her personal and artistic life." She wanted to capture Cruz's "great love for her husband" and also looked for similarities between Cruz and herself. "I want[ed] everything to flow naturally," she says.

It was an extraordinary assignment for a new actor to inhabit probably the world's most well-known and respected Latin music performer. Cruz's remarkable career generated over 70 albums, numerous Grammys and Latin Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, inductions into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and the International Latin Music Hall of Fame and an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History aptly titled after her signature phrase, ¡Azucar! (Sugar!)

The theme song of the series is her popular "La Negra Tiene Tumbao" (The Black Woman has Rhythm). It is among a number of Cruz's signature songs that were re-recorded for the series, which was produced in Colombia by the production company Fox TeleColombia and the broadcast network RCN.

Another singer was a key member of the portrayal: Patricia Padilla, whose voice was a close match with Cruz's powerhouse low alto, was brought in to record the singer's repertoire. Osorio says she and Nuviola interchangeably recorded vocals with Padilla. When the actors sang on camera, Padilla re-recorded their vocals to their movements. And when Padilla's vocals were leading, the actresses had to lip-sync to them.

Jeimy Osorio as Celia Cruz in the telenovela <em>Celia. </em>
/ Courtesy of NBC Telemundo
Courtesy of NBC Telemundo
Jeimy Osorio as Celia Cruz in the telenovela Celia.

Cruz was widely known for Cuban son. Her embrace of many other pan-Latin rhythms primed her international rise as the "Queen of Salsa" during New York City's salsa explosion in a male-dominated arena. What was striking about Cruz was her ability to explore, evolve and adapt while staying true to herself. Despite adversity, nothing seemed to dampen her reverence for life or the contagious joy that lit up the stage and the spaces she shared with others.

Nuviola says that it was a "great honor ... to be able to play the role of the greatest Latin artist of the 20th century," and that letting go of her character was a shock. Playing Cruz required tapping into the twists and turns in the life of a joyous soul that had been forced into exile and the rage of being barred from attending to her dying mother. "When the cameras were turned off for the last scene we recorded I felt that they took 'me' away in an instant! Something that had taken me months to make mine, and something that lived in me," she says. "... my nails, my hair, my clothes — everything. In only an instant I had to leave everything that I had built. I was sad, too."

Both actresses say that beyond the series, Cruz's legacy has had a profound effect on their lives.

"She is not only greatness as an artist but she had an immense charisma," recalls Nuviola, who helps to preserve her legacy by adding a medley of Cruz songs to her shows. "She helped those in need ... [like her work with] the non-profit institution named La Liga Contra el Cancer in Miami that helped hundreds of cancer patients every year .... She transmitted happiness and joy and hope."

The advice Cruz offered her so long ago when destiny smiled down at them? "She advised me that I had to be strong in this career and take care of myself to be able to achieve success."

According to Osorio, the long hours of filming "felt really light" because of the reverence and respect for Celia that flowed on the set. She says that working on Celia was a "parte aguas;" a life altering experience. That "every day was magical. I felt her all the time. She's an energy — she's not just a performer — she's a living energy. An instrument of peace. She was a product of self-love, love for her people, love for her country, love for everyone."

"She made herself be respected in a world of men. Her message is that you can do anything," Osorio says. We don't need to be empowered — we're already powerful. Knowing that I am the owner of my story and I can create everything I want, I haven't stopped dreaming since Celia."

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