Caridad De La Luz, a proud product of the Bronx, has been performing in NYC for more than twenty years. Primarily as La Bruja, a stage persona she created to present her spoken word poetry, comedy, and various musical shows, she has become an ambassador for Boricua culture in her native city. Her upcoming tribute to La Lupe (Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymond) is a reprise and expansion of a similar tribute she performed at the Caribbean Cultural Center in 2017. T.J. English, curator and host of the Dangerous Rhythms Latin Jazz series, caught up with Caridad at the restaurant Caravan of Dreams in the East Village. They were joined by Kelson, Caridad’s twenty year-old son.
T.J. English: La Lupe is such a monumental figure — musically, historically, culturally. What do you have in store for us? How do you go about embodying the spirit of La Lupe?
Caridad: Luckily, I’ve done a tribute to her before. The day I finished writing that poem that I recited at the tribute to her at the Cultural Center, I was channeling her spirit. I was really feeling her. I felt very emotional. I was driving and saw her name right there in the Bronx and it just all came together. The thing about La Lupe, aside from her singing, which is phenomenal, there’s a whole other component to her which is her Afro Cuban roots. So I intend to not only cover some of her music but to recite some poetry dedicated to her. And we will showcase also the music of Yoruba. Yoruba music. I’m bringing renowned percussionist Chembo Corniel with me. It’ll be me and him.
Surely you must also be bringing a curiosity and love for La Lupe that I would guess you’ve had for a long time.
Yes. Actually, the first song of hers that I ever sang was ‘La Tirana,’ and I sang that many times. I think I might have recorded it on my ’97 ‘La Brujería’ CD. You know, I’m Puerto Rican, but I’m named after the patron saint of Cuba. And my female musical influences are Cuban. Celia Cruz, La Lupe and Celina Gonzales. Celia Cruz I saw as a young girl. I saw her perform because my cousin is Eddie Montalvo, who is the conga player for Ruben Blades, Fania All-Stars. I met Hector Lavoe because of Eddie Montalvo. Eddie was the star of our family; he is the star of our family. So we always were connected. And salsa was huge in our house. That music was monumental. I mean, growing up, every party in our house was dancing all night to this music. And in my formative singing years, La Lupe always was part of that celebration.
People often attribute significance to her upbringing in Santeria, how that might have affected the trajectory of her life and influenced her stage presence. What do you make of that? To what extent is that important?
Well, she came from Cuba to here, and she really immersed herself in the religion. And, you know, you have to be careful. Like they say, “Con los santos, no se juegan (Don’t play with the Saints.)” If you’re with the wrong people, using those elements, it can drive you crazy. You can catch a bad spirit. And with La Lupe, she was, I think, already on a trajectory towards mental illness. I think she suffered immensely. I think it may have affected her and made her difficult to work with and made her, you know, susceptible to being misguided. I think she was taken advantage of. I think that she was traumatized. Later in life she turned from Santeria to Christianity. She was definitely searching for something.
It’s extraordinary to think that at the same time all that spiritual turmoil was happening in her life, she was finding this purity in her art. It seems that was her outlet. She was such a force, unlike anything seen before in the United States. And she happened to be part of that generation of Latinos — Cubans, Puerto Ricans — who were crossing over, flirting with that line and crossing over to U.S. culture. So she was doing Beatles songs and pop songs. She was interpreting that through her artistic expression. So for someone who was suffering, she functioned at very high level.
She did. For a long time, she did. But when you’re a pioneer in something like that, you have no guidance. There’s no map. I think that she had it really rough in that regard. I mean, when she was in Cuba, she was in an abusive relationship. She started singing with her first husband, and he cheated on her and told her she wasn’t good enough. So when she came here, she came with nothing and had everything to prove. And I think, given her history, that maybe she didn’t really love herself. I saw that when she was on the Dick Cavett show, on national television [which can be viewed on You Tube.] She was at the height of her career in the United States, but she seemed so vulnerable, unable to take a compliment from him. Her self-esteem was fragile.
So when you pay tribute to her and are attempting to harness her spirit, how far do you go? Do you just sing her songs, recite a poem, or are you trying to take on some aspect of her?
I’m singing to her to remind her of how beautiful and wonderful she was. When I’m doing it, I know that she’s hearing me. You know, the first time I wrote that poem to her and recited it and performed it, I recorded it on my phone. There’s one line where I say she was “loved and unloved,” and the recording goes, ‘whuuup.’ It makes a strange noise. It was almost like she was saying, ‘what?’ Right when I say she was loved and unloved, it picked up the reaction. Because, you now, that’s not something that a spirit wants to hear about themselves. It was very real. But I still put the salve on it and lifted her up. And that’s really what I’m doing. When I sing to her and I’m performing, it’s to lift her up.
Well, you are La Bruja, so I would expect some brujería.
There’s been so many paranormal experiences for me in my life that I can’t even question it. It just is.
One of the things about this music we call Latin Jazz is that it’s not just music, it requires a cultural and historical immersion into everything surrounding the music. It becomes a way of life. What are your feelings about that?
This music is my life. This is my music, and it’s my family’s music. And this is my community’s music. I’m from the Bronx, born and raised. I’m still there, with no intentions of leaving. That’s my last stronghold. So, I am a descendant of this music. And you know what’s interesting, the next generation always takes it further, is always expansive and does something new with it. I was born and raised in the Bronx when hip hop came along. I’m born the same year that hip hop was born. We were doing hip hop before it was even called hip hop. We were just rhyming and doing the backspins on cardboard on the sidewalk. Add to that the fact that El Condado de la Salsa was right there at Hunt’s Point, near where I grew up in Soundview. My parents met at a nightclub dancing. So I was like, you know, it’s just my destiny to sing this music and keep these songs alive, keep this story alive and be a bridge to this next generation. It gives me great pride to do it. I feel very powerful doing it. I’m not a trained singer. But I have that sentiment that’s in there, and I hear it, I hear it. I know that it’s not a perfect voice, but neither was La Lupe’s. She just gave it all she had from her soul. And I feel that when I sing, that’s where it’s coming from.
So this music and the culture surrounding it is all part of your inheritance. And you have found a way to make an interesting career out of it — a singular career. You do spoken word, you’re an actress, you do musical theater. You’re a very eclectic performer. Was this just you expressing yourself or was there some grand design or plan behind it?
No, there was no plan (hearty laughter.) There’s still not a plan. Maybe there is a little plan.
Well, do you have an agent?
You’ve never had an agent?
I’ve never had an agent. And keep in mind, when I created the persona of La Bruja, I also became a mother. My son was born in ’98. I started in ’96. Being a mother was more important to me than being a star in the commercial world. Don’t get me wrong: I loved what I was doing, I always have. I love musicals. Musicals changed my life. ‘West Side Story’ changed my life. Prince and the Revolution, ‘Purple Rain,’ that changed my life. I grew up loving all of it — the dancing, the singing, the acting. It was all natural to me. But I was a mom first. I actually made a wish on a pendulum to be a mother in Poland.
What? Tell me about that.
The first time I ever left the United States was in a musical. We auditioned at The Point, Hunt’s Point. It was a Polish director. I got the part, and we toured for a whole month all over Poland. Little theaters, big theaters, in Warsaw, Krakow. I’d grown up fascinated with the Holocaust. I actually believe that in a past life I was a Jewish woman that died in the Holocaust. And so, of all the places that I wind up overseas for the first time, it’s in Poland! I went to Auschwitz and had a very spiritual experience. Anyway, at that same time, I wanted to be a mom. So I went to this bar, it’s called Mózg, which means brain in Polish. And the bartender’s name was Leshic. He said, ‘This is a magic pendulum, anything you wish will come true.’ And I wished for a child. And lo and behold…
That’s all it took? No man?
(Laughing) Yeah, it was an immaculate conception. No. So, after my tour in Poland, I stopped in Austria, Switzerland, and met with my fiancé in Spain. And after a very romantic night that we had, I dreamed that an angel, blonde and blue eyed, came to me glowing and white. She said, will you take this baby? I said yes, and then she bent down and she injected me in my foot between my pinky toe and the other toe, really hard, and I woke up from the pain and I said to my fiancé, ‘An angel just injected a baby in my foot.’ And nine months later my son Kelson was born. He came out with blue eyes. People thought I had a Polish affair! We don’t have no blue eyes in my family. It was weird. And then a year later my daughter Karina was born. She was made in the Bronx.
Kelson: Also blue eyes. Strange. Two brown-eyed parents with blue-eyed kids. People made a big fuss about it.
So I had two children. My daughter, Carina, just graduated high school. My son is already performing. Sometimes we work together. I did a comedy show called ‘The Bru-Ha-Ha’ with a live band and both my children were part of the pre-show. Kelson sang ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Screaming Jay Hawkins, the whole nine yards, scared the hell of the audience.
Kelson: I had a great time doing it. Loved it.
So, you know, all this time I’ve stayed very close to home with what I’m doing but remained active and creative. Without leaving the nest or flying to LA to do auditions. Basically, what I book for myself is from word of mouth.
The average man, probably myself included, complains a lot about how difficult it is to sustain a life as an artist. But doing it with two children, as a mother, again, I have to ask, how were you able to do it? How were you able to maintain a career?
Well, luckily, my parents live next door. I had a home. I had a village close by. A very tight-knit village.
It takes a village.
Kelson: Yes, indeed.
And also, I would take the kids in the stroller and take them to the show, take them to the class, take them wherever. ‘Okay, here’s a job. Do the lights.’
Kelson: From the moment I could walk, I was lugging bags.
Nice. A stage hand.
Kelson: Oh yeah. And through that you absorb so much. Our first job was this one woman show that my mother has been working on for years and years, that was part of the Puerto Rican Travelling Theater, right?
Right. In 2009. ‘Boogie Rican Boulevard.’ And I had a sound guy who couldn’t get the cues right. This dude was messing up bad, real bad. It’s pissing me off. I was like, you know what? Give my son a shot, if he does well, the other guy is fired. That’s how it was. And that was his first job.
Kelson: My sister also worked on that show.
Yeah. My daughter was one of the characters in the show. She had everybody in tears. And so both of them were working with me, keeping it tight.
Kelson: I was eleven and she was nine.
So you took something that some would you see as a negative, the responsibilities of motherhood and how that might affect your ambition, and you turned it into something positive.
I love being a mother. That’s my thing. Some people just don’t love it. I love it.
A big component of what you do is your voice, a very distinctive voice, and the way you use it, the things that you insinuate with your voice, the layers of things you communicate vocally.
I always knew I had a different voice, from when I was little. I remember hanging out with my cousin. She’s five years older than me, and I always looked up to her. I would just stay quiet and tag along while she would rap with the boys and stuff. And one time she was talking to this boy, we were on the stoop at my grandmother’s house. And I spoke; the boy was like, ‘Damn, your voice is deep. You sound like a man.’ And that’s when I knew and was like, ‘Oh yeah, maybe my voice is deep.’ I hadn’t thought about it before. From then on, I knew, yeah, my voice is weird. Different.
Your confidence as a performer, where does that come from?
It’s a challenge, believe me. That night of our previous La Lupe tribute, I was scared shitless. Don’t think I was backstage going hehehe. I was shitting bricks back there and prayed to her. I’m telling you, I cried and everything.
No one would know that. You come out with supreme confidence. It looks that way.
That’s all acting. Yeah. It’s also once I get up on the horse, things are okay, but getting on the horse is scary as shit. Perfect example, when I did Def Poetry Jam, in reality, the way it was filmed, I was first. I have never shook so hard. Literally my knees were clacking. Never has that happened to me before. I was petrified. Originally, I had asked for a lavalier mic. I was so scared. I was like, no, I need a mic. I need to walk to something. It was like a security thing. The microphone really is a security thing for me. And if you look at it, I look cool as a cucumber. I tell you I was not. No one would know, but I was petrified. And that night of the La Lupe tribute, I was scared too. If I do one thing that isn’t the way I rehearsed it — sometimes I’ll get so nervous that my voice is almost like a bucking bronco and I have to try to hold the reins and control it; it’s my nerves. But I feel that La Lupe was that way too. I’m sure she was scared shitless sometimes.
I don’t know if you think about this much, but you must be aware of it. You have a very special rapport with your fans, the people who know your work and like your work and become a part of the community you’ve created. You seem to have a very special connection with those people. What do you attribute that to?
Love for them. My love for people, my love for humanity. I know there’s a lot of people suffering.
Is it a New York thing? Do you still have that connection when you go to Chicago or Philadelphia?
This is not a New York thing. This is a human thing. This is a being thing. You know? I can feel people. I can even hear thoughts sometimes. I mean it happens all the time with Kelson and my daughter. It’ll be a weird word that I’ve never said before that he was just thinking and I’ll just be like, ‘gazpacho.’ And he’ll be like, ‘How did you know I was thinking that?’ I don’t know why I said that. It happens all the time. It has happened with many people, like I just hear it. I hear things, I feel people. I’m an empath. I’m telepathic. I have compassion for people. I believe in people. I believe in the spirit of humanity. I believe in the light. I know that darkness exists, but I know all that darkness is really coming from trauma. It’s coming from lack of love. I can help people feel love and be loving and teach love. That’s how I can help the world.
It’s interesting that part of that — the trauma and lack of love — is something you identify in La Lupe as well.
I really feel for her. I wish I could have known her. I wish. I wish. But I know she knows me now. I know she’s listening. I know when she’s there. I speak to her. I speak to a lot of spirits out loud. I acknowledge them and keep them alive. You have to speak their names. It’s faster than any cell phone or anything. The word to the spirit. It’s just right there.
So let’s see if we can’t make her present at Zinc.
Oh, it’s going to be great. I’m really excited. I’m going to channel her that day. I’m going to meditate on her, talk to her. I’ll probably light a candle and do my thing, you know, my preparation, my spiritual preparation. Her patron saint is my patron saint. It’s going to be special.
(Come see Caridad De La Luz’s special tribute to La Lupe at Zinc Jazz Club in the heart of Greenwich Village, 82 W 3rd Street on Thursday, October 25. Sets are at 7:30 and 9 pm.)