In 1955, I learned how to walk to a Latin playlist
The earliest tunes I remember hearing were the Venezuelan rhythms of música criolla which the radio stations in Caracas played at night. Dad had an affinity for music—part genetic, his farmer father was a self-taught fiddler, and part born of listening to songs streaming across the South Dakota prairie night sky from Texas radio stations—and strummed Venezuelan tunes on his guitar. Mom, who had danced professionally in New York City and made every cha-cha partner look like a pro, played the smaller triple guitar, and even I got in on the act with maracas. This was our 1955 holiday card family photo. Looks like I was the lead singer, too.
I was just six months old when we arrived in Caracas for Dad’s first foreign service post and almost five when we left. With our maid Josefina as my doting caretaker, Spanish became my first language, and Latin American music became my first soundtrack, Mom’s cha-cha and rumba inspiring my toddler dancing. Apart from four years in Italy, the remainder of my childhood abroad was in Spanish-speaking countries—Colombia and Spain. Spanish is my intimacy language, the words coming from the deep well of home.
I was hard-wired to find a Latino husband, and tremendously lucky that he is kind, funny, loyal, and passionate about life. He’s also a drummer—maracas, bongos, and timbales occupy a corner of our family room, and salsa is the López soundtrack. Even our black Lab, Kumba, is tuned in—he was rescued from a Puerto Rican shelter and is completely unfazed by loud crashing and banging when my husband rocks out to music on his headphones.
In 2019, I re-learned how to walk to a Latin playlist
I learned to walk in Caracas in 1955. But I also learned to walk in Amsterdam in 2019 after a ruptured abdominal aneurysm and six weeks in the ICU sapped my body of the ability to move. Again, it was Latin music that inspired the movement, specifically the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. I downloaded the African singer Angelique Kidjo’s album, Celia, onto my iPhone, and my Amsterdam physiotherapist Gemma plugged it into the rehab gym’s sound system during my sessions. Gemma held me closer than my high school boyfriend’s slow dancing bearhug as I took my first steps.
La Vida es un Carnaval, Life is a Carnival, became the anthem of my recovery, its syncopated rhythm lifting my spirits as the lyrics gave me hope.
All those who think life is unfair need to know that it’s not like that, that life is a beauty, it has to be lived. All those who think they’re alone and it’s bad need to know that it’s not like that, that in life nobody is alone, there’s always someone.La Vida Es Un Carnaval, composer Victor Daniel
Watching Celia herself singing this song of triumph in the face of challenge brings me a new understanding of its meaning. A black woman without the duplicitous attribute of beauty, she made her way to the top of the charts in a male-controlled business despite a macho culture. When she points to heaven while singing ”there’s always someone,” you know she’s been propelled by an inner strength fueled by strong faith.
Today, I listen to Angelique’s version at least once a week while I walk Kumba. With every step I take, I give thanks to the higher power that kept me alive in 2019. Every day since I woke up in the ICU wonderfully thin (“Gosh, I can wear my wedding dress!” was my first thought, honestly) but unable to move (my second thought), I’ve been working my way back to life. Today, I am running, swimming, dancing. I am living life.
But I am also easily lulled into forgetting how close I came to not being here, taking my health for granted, letting life feel like a ho-hum grind.
Last weekend, I danced to La Vida Es Un Carnaval with my husband in my arms to the live music of Tito Puente, Jr. and his Latin Jazz Ensemble at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach. Gratitude. Joy. And a determination to live newly aware that every day is a gift. That every step is the beginning of a dance.