Las Salseras Extraordinaire: For Isabel
A beautiful tribute to a Latina mom who loved her salsa!
Belisa Serna Mayorga, Spicy Cilantro
Originally published at Spicy Cilantro
Published on LatinoLA: November 13, 2012
I was seven years old the first time I laid eyes on a salsa album – Celia Cruz y Johnny Pacheco's "Tremendo Cache" album. I remember the cover so vividly; brownish mauve with what I thought looked like two very glamorous cartoon characters. It belonged to my dad's girlfriend Isabel. It was 1979. My dad was a busy, hard-working college professor and single father of two who ended an 18 year marriage with my mother Evelyn two years prior.
On this particular day I was hanging out at Isabel's place; a small yellow house off Freeport and 1st Avenue. She was so hip with her bright yellow, blue and red tube tops, bell bottom jeans and light brown hair done up in her signature bun style. She had a slight Spanish accent and was the best example of a kick ass woman I dreamed of becoming She was in her mid-30s, educated (an AA, BA, 2 MAs and a Ph.D. from Stanford all by the age of 35), independent, happy and in love with my father. I watched her move throughout the house – cleaning, cooking Chicana and Spanish rice, and blasting that brownish mauve album I first saw when I walked in.
I sat on her 70s mustard-colored couch entranced; what was this music and why is Isabel dancing like that, and is my dad really dating this amazing human being? And then it happened – Isabel reached for my hand and took me on a journey that still lives on today – she showed me how to dance salsa.
Celia and Johnny's "Cucala" was playing. I watched Isabel in complete awe; moving her feet, swaying her hips, spinning around and smiling. "This is salsa music. It's the happiest music you'll ever listen to," she said. I pretended to know how to dance to music with such fast beats and rhythm, and lord knows I had no clue what the songs were about; the Spanish language was something I never mastered.
We danced for what felt like hours; it was our very own salsa night club. I followed her lead and never stopped. I allowed every last string and percussion note to wash over me never losing sight of my maestra. Isabel had a way with her body that made me understand why my dad was in love with this beautiful creature.
To Isabel's surprise, I asked her play that album each time I came to visit. I couldn't get enough of it. The sound of Celia's voice intertwined with horns, timbales, the piano, guitars, and congas; it's as if I'd lived my entire seven years with this music. I felt every beat from the top of my head to bottom of my feet. I was a skinny kid with no hips, but when I heard that music I found ways to shake and move what I had. It was a spiritual experience; the awakening of my soul.
My obsession became an addiction when I begged my dad for a turntable that Christmas. I had to have one so I could take Celia and Johnny home with me. He did and I did. Isabel gave me Celia and Johnny for Christmas, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Isabel and me
In 1981, dad and Isabel married; we became a family of four. Life was new, different and difficult. We moved into a new home on Cutter Way, a home we made many memories in, salsa music at the very heart of them all.
Isabel was right – salsa music is the happiest music I'd ever encounter. Celia, Johnny, Tito, Fania All-Stars, Poncho Sanchez, Eddie Palmeri, Oscar Deleon – all of them have served as the soundtrack to my life. Anyone who really knows me, knows my love for this music is real. I was that teenager who had Prince and Janet Jackson albums right next to my Celia and Calle Ocho albums. I was that college Freshman who introduced her dorm roommates to salsa. I was that young woman who fell in love with her future husband because he took her salsa dancing every Friday night (among other reasons).
During some of the toughest moments of my life salsa music provided a safety net; one that I often fell completely into. When dad was dying, I played his favorites – Santana and Poncho Sanchez – I would do silly dances for him while he held Andrés in his arms. When Isabel told us she was dying, we cried a lot, but in our most private moments we played Celia and wished for 1979 again.
During my time at City Hall I believed I was performing an act of public service by playing my salsa playlist during the work day so as to lighten the mood. It rarely worked, but until the very end I played my salsa music because it allowed me to escape the madness.
My love of salsa music is now a part of my children's lives. How could it not be when my salsa playlist includes over 200 songs and at least 20 different artists? Every now and then when we're cleaning the house or just killing time, I take my boys into my arms and swing them around the same way Isabel did with me. They laugh at me, but how proud am I that they can dance salsa? Very proud!
I owe Isabel so much. She rescued my dad, brother and me during a time of despair; she showed me what an independent woman looks like; she proved to me time and time again that as a woman I can do it all and have it all. She loved my father intensely and completely; there was no "Joe Serna" without her. She put up with so much shit because she loved us unconditionally, and she introduced a young, lost girl to a world filled with salsa music, and for that I'm forever grateful.
Where ever you are my sweet mama I hope you're dancing to Celia and Johnny; moving your hips, smiling without a care in the world. We'll be together again someday. Until then, save the last salsa dance for me.
Belisa Serna Mayorga, Spicy Cilantro:
Belisa Mayorga is a community activist and Spicy Cilantro blogger, writer who is passionate about education and public service. She lives in Sacramento with her husband Edgard and children, Andres (13) and Emilio (10).