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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Happiness is never complete or permanent. You can work with what you have deep down inside to make your problems as unimportant as you can, so you can move on. Just feel good about who you are spiritually.”
My father first gave me that advice during a particularly turbulent time in my life. I had reached a high point in my career, winning my first Grammy Award, while my first marriage was going down in flames. I hardly knew who I was anymore. Yet my father insisted on reminding me to keep trying and moving forward, even knowing that there will always be times of doubt and uncertainty.
As Cuban refugees, my parents instilled this thinking from the beginning. We had started from nothing, just clinging to the fierce resolve that our lives could only get better. Surviving meant embracing change with unwavering confidence, constantly reinventing yourself, and having the resilience to pick yourself up and keep going when life took unexpected turns.
My story is anything but easy. It is crowded with obstacles, skids, dives, and failures as well as success. It is a story about taking the opportunities that come your way and making the most of them, even knowing that disappointment, failure, and tragedy are also a normal part of life. The lessons in this book are ones I learned from experiences that tore me apart, lifted me up, and brought me back to the start.
It is true that happiness is never guaranteed—you will always face challenges that test your will. Strength is in finding what you are made of through hardships and your own fears and vulnerabilities. Wisdom comes from growing from those adversities. And resilience is built each moment of every day by constantly having faith in a new day.
My heart pounded and my mouth went dry as my footsteps echoed on the cobblestones of the narrow street threading through my neighborhood in Old Havana, Cuba. I was about to walk into a lion’s den. My tormentors would be lying in wait for me the way they did every day after school, ready to pounce. They’d call me names, chase me around, and threaten to beat me up.
I was just eight years old, short and shy and chubby. More than anything, I wanted to run away and hide. That had always been my go-to survival tactic.
But now my father, newly out of prison, was forcing me to confront my enemies. “I’m not going to let you run away from this,” he’d scolded as we left the apartment. “You’re not going to be bullied. You’re going to confront those kids, whatever happens. I am not going to let you live in fear.”
Easy for him to say! My father, Jose Miguel Secada, was a charming street guy, a hardworking, handsome hustler, in the best sense of the word. He seemed to fear nothing.
Dad had only an eighth-grade education, but he was keen on envisioning opportunities and taking advantage of them. He had grown up in a big family in Santa Clara, a village in the middle of Cuba, and he was a wonderful singer, like everyone else in his musical family. One of his sisters, Moraima Secada, even became an extremely popular international entertainer. Known worldwide as “La Mora,” she was a member of the first female orchestra of America Anacaona.
My father could have become a professional singer as well. He had the voice and charisma for it. Instead, his passion was entrepreneurship. He was especially proud of his own father, who owned a pastry business. My dad worked alongside his father and had named me Juan after his dad.
Then my grandfather died, the pastry business went down the drain, and my dad was forced to leave Santa Clara to find work. He came to Havana with his mother, who died in his arms overnight of a sudden illness, leaving my father an orphan in the city.
Dad eventually worked his way up to owning an oyster bar, a small stand on a street corner in Havana, and saw opportunities to expand it. However, he was frustrated by the restrictions that Fidel Castro began putting on independent businesses when he assumed power in 1959. Chafing at having his ambitions reined in, my father saw his dreams going up in smoke as he watched Castro’s regime strip away opportunities for entrepreneurs in the name of Communism.
Eventually, my father decided to leave Cuba. He would emigrate, and when he was financially able to, he planned to send for my mother and me. But his attempted escape by fishing boat to pursue his dreams was aborted when the authorities caught him offshore.
Emigrating from Cuba without permission from the government was considered an illegal act at that time. Families who wanted to leave Cuba had to apply for papers, and even then the government expected the head of the family to “give back” to the Communist Party first. As a result, my father was imprisoned and then forced into a work camp until the paperwork was passed for us to leave the country. He was in jail practically from the time I was a toddler until I was seven years old, leaving my mother and me to fend for ourselves.
My mother, Victoria, had an outgoing, loving personality and was also strong-willed. Like my father, she had come to Havana from Oriente Province, at the easternmost tip of Cuba, to make a better life for herself. She was a beautiful woman, Afro-Spanish as a result of her Cuban grandmother falling in love with a barber in the Spanish armada. Her father was also a businessman, but he died early on in a swimming accident. After her mother died young of cancer, my mother lived with her grandmother until she was fifteen. At that point her grandmother died, too, and she, like my father, became an orphan forced to make her own way in the world.
And so my parents—both strong-willed, good-looking, fiercely independent orphans—met, fell in love, and had me. My father had another family—an ex-wife, and a son and a daughter in their early teens—but I was my mother’s only child, and therefore her driving purpose in life was to make my life the best it could possibly be. Meanwhile, my father saw his job as providing for us, no matter what it took.
While we waited for approval to leave the country, we lived hand to mouth in a small apartment near Paseo del Prado, the shady mile-long promenade in downtown Havana that dates back to the eighteenth century. Because my father was imprisoned, he was virtually a stranger to me. But my mother and I spent a lot of time together. I rode my little bike in El Prado park or went to the movies. We also spent a lot of time along El Malecón, the esplanade built to protect Havana from the surf that became the poor person’s paradise, a favorite place to promenade or fish. When he got out of prison, my father tried to teach me to swim there in some of the little pools created by the rocks, but no matter how many times he threw me in, I never did get the hang of floating. I’m still a terrible swimmer.
In other ways, too, I was an outcast, which was partly why the bullies tormented me. I went to school close to our apartment, and my mother tried to protect me as much as possible from any brainwashing by Communist government propaganda, which had infiltrated the schools. I was small for my age but overweight, reticent to speak up in class, and terrible at sports. Although some of our friends supported our desire to flee Cuba, neighborhood committees monitored families that didn’t adhere to Communist beliefs and did all they could to make you feel fearful and alienated as a result of not falling in line with Castro’s regime.
In class, for instance, my teacher called my mother aside one day and said, “Your son is the only one who isn’t part of Los Pioneros,” the youth group established by Castro. The teacher explained that this was making me stand out as different, making it more difficult for me to make friends.
“How about if I just put the Pioneros emblem and the scarf on him for the sake of appearances,” she suggested, “so Juan doesn’t stand out as much? Then, when the group is finished with activities, I’ll take the scarf off him. Would that be all right with you?”
My mother was torn, but for my sake, she reluctantly agreed. However, while that may have smoothed things over for me a little in class, it didn’t help me in the neighborhood. We lived in one of the nicer buildings in inner-city Havana, but it was a tough neighborhood anyway. Many of the older, bigger kids saw me as an outsider not only because I was a shy, pudgy mama’s boy, but because my father had openly declared himself against the government. Ambition had no place in Castro’s Cuba.
So now here I was, deliberately walking toward my enemies, unable to bail and run because I was even more afraid of displeasing my father than I was of the bullies in the neighborhood. Dad walked with me up the street until we drew near where the bullies typically hung out. Then he disappeared, ducking into an alley.
“I’m going to be close enough to jump in,” my father promised, “but you need to deal with this on your own.”
Dad gave me a stick to hold as he left me there. A stick, and a script: when the kids confronted me and issued their usual threats, such as, “Where are you going? You can’t pass us!” I was supposed to reply, “Well, yes I can, because I’m going to kick your ass.”
I couldn’t imagine doing this. I was a dreamer, not a fighter. But I steeled myself against the attack and kept putting one foot in front of the other for the sake of earning my father’s respect.
Slowly I went around the next corner. Sure enough, there they were. The big kids headed straight for me, shouting, “Hey, you can’t pass us!”
Amazingly, something came over me. It was as if my father had given me a sudden infusion of his courage. I went nuts, completely berserk, running at them with the stick in my hand and screaming in rage and fear. “Oh yes I can!” I shouted. “I’ve got something in my hand, and I’m going to use it to make sure you let me pass!”
I was shaking with fright, but of course that made me look even more insane. My tormentors backed off and they never bothered me again.
My father had saved some money before he went to prison, and shortly after that incident we were able to finally buy our paperwork and airfare out of Cuba. Only certain countries accepted Cuban refugees in the seventies. My father had his heart set on emigrating to the United States, but since you could emigrate here only if you had family members who would sponsor you, we went to Spain instead.
On the day we received our paperwork, we drove to pick my dad up from the work camp as the neighborhood committee and government officials confiscated everything in our apartment. They even took our “food book,” where my mother had painstakingly recorded every food item we bought because groceries were so tightly rationed in Cuba.
The first two times we drove to the airport with our luggage, we were turned away—the government seemed to enjoy playing tricks on emigrants like that—and were forced to spend the night with friends in Havana because the officials had already locked up our apartment and removed everything we owned. We were essentially homeless, desperate to leave but at the mercy of bureaucratic whims.
We were turned away from the airport those two times. When we were finally given the word that our plane would depart, we returned a third time and boarded the plane to Madrid.
I was sad and scared to be leaving the only world I’d ever known. But as my parents led me up the boarding ramp to the plane, I felt a tiny flutter of excitement, too. My mother and father must have been experiencing a huge emotional upheaval as they went through the terrible process of giving up everything they had in exchange for freedom, but they made a point of acting and talking normally with me, enveloping me in a family safety net as a way of protecting me from the enormity of their own turmoil. They acted so matter-of-fact and poised as we headed into the unknown that an observer who didn’t understand what was going on might have thought we were just going on vacation.
I knew better, though. I quietly took my seat on the plane and pressed my face to the window, watching Cuba recede as we took off, knowing that a page had turned in the book of my life. I knew this was it, the end of my life on this island. We weren’t ever coming back. This thought gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I was old enough to understand that it was our only choice if we didn’t want to live under Castro’s rule.
By leaving Cuba, I had learned my first key lesson in life: face your bullies. Whether those bullies are kids or an entire government, the only right choice is to stand up and make it known that you are your own person, ready to face even the scariest, most uncertain future.
We were nomads without a home. I vividly remember sitting with my parents at the airport and waiting for someone to tell us what to do or where to go, feeling slightly sick with anxiety.
Of course, we were hardly alone in the Madrid airport. Between 1959 and 1993, about 1,200,000 Cubans left the island. My family fled the country in 1970 at the crest of this wave of emigration. So many Cubans were emigrating to Spain that it was like a cattle call, with herds of Cubans landing in Madrid. As soon as you arrived, your family was granted 5,000 pesetas by the Spanish government to help you survive, but that was it. You were on your own.
Suddenly, someone out of the huge crowd at the airport recognized my father. This man had known my father in Cuba and was now living in Madrid.
“What are you doing here?” the man called when he spotted us milling around with everyone else.
“Well, we are here because we’re here,” my father said. “We left Cuba. But now we don’t know what to do or where to go.”
Our acquaintance gave us the address of a pension house and said, “Here, try this place. It’s cheap enough that I think whatever money you have in your hand right now will cover your expenses while you get settled.”
The pension house was in Old Madrid. My family could afford nothing better than a small, shabby single room. There was no bathroom to call our own, only a communal bathroom for the entire floor. Still, it rapidly became clear that living in Spain presented such luxuries, it was almost a born-again experience for all of us.
The freedom of having nobody telling us what to do, think, or eat, and the bounty of having so many different foods available, became immediately apparent on the cab ride from the airport. Peering through the taxi window, I saw fruit stands filled with oranges and bananas and lemons. There were even giant, brightly lit supermarkets! I felt thrillingly overwhelmed by the sight of so many choices.
As we arrived at the pension house and climbed out of the cab, I spotted a candy store. I had never before seen so much chocolate! I asked my father if we could have some, and we both ate so much chocolate that day that we were nauseated afterward.
It didn’t take long for me to feel at home in our neighborhood. It reminded me in many ways of Havana, with its narrow cobblestone streets and ornate ironwork on the windows and balconies. Although I missed the pastel colors of Cuba and the tropical air, I was stunned by the grand proportions of the newer buildings in Madrid, and by the vibrant pace of life in such a prosperous city. There were tall buildings and fountains and people in bright clothes rushing about. There were even brand-new cars!
Despite this abundance, however, my parents were still immigrants with no connections, limited finances, and little education. They had to struggle to find work in Spain. My mother eventually found a few cleaning jobs. Each day after school, I would walk to wherever she was cleaning and wait for her to finish so we could return to our room together. My father couldn’t find anything in Madrid. In desperation, he soon left Madrid for the Canary Islands to work in a resort as a cook—a skill he’d mastered in prison.
Thus began another period of painful separations for my family, as my father came and went from his job in the Canary Islands and my mother and I were left on our own in Madrid. Luckily, we were befriended by the wonderful family of la portera, the woman who managed the pension. Maria, her husband, Ramon, and the rest of their family and friends provided the comfort and warmth we needed to feel at home.
My parents fought for me to go to a private Catholic school, where I excelled and felt accepted. My mother and I also went to the central eating house set up for Cuban refugees by the Spanish government so that we wouldn’t go hungry, and there we met other Cubans and rejoiced in the common accent and stories from home.
Because I was Afro-Cuban and darker-skinned than many people in Madrid, I was a fascinating creature to the Spanish kids, especially once they heard my Cuban accent. They wanted to know everything about Cuba, and I appreciated their friendly questions. I felt safe wandering around the new neighborhoods, like some sort of explorer discovering a grand, historic Europe.
I was not growing much taller or much thinner, though. I was still short and even fatter than before. I had always longed to be a baseball player, but since I didn’t have the build or talent for sports, I began exploring my love of music. I had been surrounded by Afro-Cuban rhythms during my early childhood and must have naturally absorbed the musicality of my father’s family. But since most of what you heard on Cuban radio stations was controlled by the government, the music I’d been exposed to so far had been limited in scope. In Spain, I began discovering pop music at a time when many male Spanish vocalists were arriving on the contemporary music scene.
This was the very beginning of my musical curiosity, as I listened to the radio and heard songs and voices that connected with my heart and spirit. In particular, I learned to love Nino Bravo, Raphael, and Camilo Sesto. Whenever I had the chance to be alone with the radio in my room, I’d close the door and sing along to pop music.
Nobody ever heard me sing, so no one had a clue that I was beginning my musical education—not even me.
* * *
After eighteen months in Spain, my father became frustrated by his inability to find enough work to make ends meet. We still hadn’t met anyone who would sponsor our emigration to the United States, so he started methodically writing letters to the embassies of every country in the world that was accepting Cuban refugees.
We came close to going to Australia, where there was a government program that welcomed immigrants. That program included work placement, housing, and even education. A week before we were scheduled to leave, we received an unexpected response to one of my father’s many letters: the president of Costa Rica had granted him a visa.
My father, who believed in his own abilities enough to demonstrate confidence no matter how great a risk he was taking, jumped at this new opportunity. “If I can establish residency in Costa Rica, I can claim you and you can join me,” he told us enthusiastically.
So, once again, my mother and I were separated from my father. This transitional time was difficult, as my mother had to work extra jobs to support us. While we remained in Madrid for the next six months, my father traveled alone to Costa Rica and did what he did best: hustle. He found work as a cook in San José, and that job led him to meet another Cuban businessman who wanted to invest in a restaurant with him.
By the time we left Spain to join my father, I was ten years old. I was still introverted and shy, but I had made friends in Spain. I had been happy in Madrid and now felt the sharp pang of loss as we said good-bye to the city that had welcomed us. I knew we had to leave. At the same time, I wished with all my heart that my family had been able to make a go of things in Spain. I dreaded starting over. The only silver lining was that our family would be together again.
Soon after we joined my father in Costa Rica, our luck turned, thanks to Dad’s hard work: he was ready to take one more leap of faith in his own abilities by breaking off from his partner, going to a bank, and asking for a business loan. He had spotted a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a cobblestone street in San Pedro, a neighborhood just outside San José and close to the University of Costa Rica. He and my mother could turn this modest space into a cafeteria. Finally, at long last, he could live his dream to become an independent businessman.
We all had to pitch in. I went to school in Costa Rica, of course, but every free hour was spent helping my parents at the restaurant, serving tables or working the cash register the minute my homework was finished. We worked long days. Then we’d all get up the next morning and work the same long hours again. I had no time for friends.
I am telling the truth when I say I didn’t mind this one-dimensional life. Even then, at age eleven, I knew what a tremendous feat it was for my father to have opened this little restaurant. Plus, I had already absorbed the kind of work ethic from my parents that led me to share their drive to succeed. I was as proud and happy as they were when we were able to move from our tiny efficiency apartment adjoining the restaurant to a small house down the block. I felt like I’d helped make it happen.
My parents occasionally talked fondly of their Cuban childhoods and expressed a yearning for their villages or the people they had left behind, but they never expressed regrets about leaving the island. They were completely disconnected from what Cuba had become under Castro. For me, leaving the island had been like turning the page in a book, but for them it was closing the book entirely and putting it on a shelf. They were in exile and viewed that exile as permanent. They were fixed on looking forward and pursuing a better life.
The only exception to this was when my father received a letter informing him that Francisco, his son by a previous marriage who suffered from diabetes, had died suddenly due to surgical complications. I wish I’d had the opportunity to get to know Francisco, but I was too young to establish a connection with my half siblings before leaving Cuba. Francisco’s death didn’t hit me hard, but it was a devastating event for my father.
My half brother had been very supportive of what my father needed to do. Francisco had even written a letter to my father, saying, “I understand why you’re doing this. You should follow whatever you have in your heart.” Perhaps that made it even harder for my father to receive the letter about his son’s death. It was the first time I ever saw Dad break down, and witnessing this made me realize again how much my parents had given up to leave Cuba and rebuild their lives—and mine.
Of course, working together from sunrise to sundown, plus living in close quarters after spending so much time apart, caused my parents to fight. They were both passionate people and had always argued, but now the fights were nearly constant and often reached a fever pitch. Their arguments were mostly about work or money, but sometimes they were sparked by my mother’s jealousy over the attention my father paid to other women.
My parents had no choice but to fight in front of me. Our apartment was too small for them to have any privacy. I would retreat to a quiet corner and try to stay out of the way. The confrontations were loud and emotional, and occasionally my father would walk out.
But, no matter how heated the fight, he always came back, and the next morning we would open the cafeteria as usual and go back to work. Despite their differences, my parents did whatever it took to keep their business going, being very disciplined about working toward the common goal of achieving financial independence. I think all of us also recognized that we made up a tiny island, our little family of three. It was important to stick together.
Despite the fighting, there were certainly good things about being in Costa Rica. I liked school and I had started to make a few friends on the playground, even though there was no time to see them otherwise. Plus, the cafeteria was located near the University of Costa Rica in a neighborhood with lots of secondary schools. With so many teenagers coming and going, there was never a dull moment. Our modest little restaurant, where my father served Cuban-influenced cuisine as well as Costa Rican comfort food, enjoyed tremendous success. The place was always packed.
Because we were living and working near the university, my parents were also becoming increasingly attuned to the importance of education. We saw many students in our mini-restaurant and one of them, Manuel Costa, became a good friend. Manuel was a Cuban living in Miami who had come to Costa Rica to study dentistry. I was always a good student—I saw that as my responsibility to my family—and my parents now began talking with me about what I might be able to do as a professional with a university education. They even suggested that I might become a dentist like Manuel.
Despite our relative success in Costa Rica, my parents continued to view the United States as our ultimate destination. America represented the holy grail of freedom, education, opportunity, and happiness. I knew it would only be a matter of time before they managed to set foot on American soil.
When I think about the sheer courage it must have taken my parents to pull off such a plan to leave Cuba and make it first to Spain, then to Costa Rica, where they struggled to save enough money to move to the United States, I am stunned by their willpower and determination. My father, especially, showed me how you can envision a future for yourself, then lay down the stepping-stones and use them to make leaps of faith to success, turning your dream into your destiny.
After eighteen months in Costa Rica, my father sold his cafeteria. This gave us the financial freedom to buy tickets to the United States. Once again, I would have to start over in a new school filled with strangers, and this time I wouldn’t speak their language.
In the early seventies, Cuban refugees who landed on U.S. soil could ask for political asylum even if they had already become residents of another country. We still had our Cuban passports, so we traveled as tourists. This wasn’t an experiment, trial, or a vacation, however. Once again, my father had visualized our future and, with great confidence and determination, had worked hard to turn that vision into a reality. We sold almost everything we owned, packed up our few remaining belongings, and left Costa Rica knowing we were headed to our final destination.
By now my parents had made friends with other Cubans in both Spain and Costa Rica. Most of those immigrants, too, had settled on the United States as their ultimate dream destination. Now we followed them to Miami and found an efficiency apartment in Hialeah, Florida, just one room attached to the back of a small house owned by another Cuban family. We had traveled the long way around, but we had finally arrived in the country we would call home for the rest of our lives.
My parents had barely managed to complete grade school in Cuba and spoke no English. Fortunately, southern Florida was a mecca for Latino immigrants, so they could conduct all of their business and social dealings around South Florida with other Spanish-speaking people. Unlike most of the other Cubans we knew, however, we had no extended family in Florida. We were completely on our own. Despite the language barrier and the lack of connections, my parents miraculously both found work immediately: my mother in a clothing factory and my father in a restaurant.
They were away for long hours, and this left me to fend for myself. I too spoke zero English on the day we arrived. Combined with my innately shy nature, this made me feel anxious, deficient, and isolated. I knew my only chance of survival would be to learn English as quickly as possible.
At first my parents tried to enroll me in a private Catholic school, but it quickly became clear that we couldn’t afford the tuition. After a couple of months, they put me in Palm Springs Elementary School, which had a bilingual education program. They dropped me off once at the school, signed the forms, and then that was it: I was expected to navigate my way to school alone every day. I was held back a year, a standard procedure for immigrant children who were non-English speakers, so I was in sixth grade despite being nearly thirteen years old.
Of course, I was still one of the shortest boys anyway, and I was still overweight. On top of my struggles with English and the culture shock, this meant I was even more reticent about making friends, especially since I didn’t play sports. I had never felt more alone. In Spain I’d had friends, and in Costa Rica I’d had my parents and felt useful in the restaurant. In this new life, in this strange land, my parents were typically already off to work by the time I woke up and they didn’t come home until after dark.
I essentially became a hermit during that first year of adjustment, drawing into myself and avoiding any interactions with kids my own age. Whether it was because of the language barrier or all of the moving we’d done, my instinct here was to avoid contact.
With nothing to do after school, all I did was watch TV and listen to music on the radio. In a way, this turned out to be a good thing. If I’d taken a different path—say, if I’d fallen in with the wrong set of friends, or if I’d been noticeable enough to be bullied—my life might have turned out very differently. Instead, I became addicted to television, and TV was my best English teacher. I didn’t understand a word on the TV shows, but I watched them religiously when I got home from school. I became hooked in particular on soap operas like The Guiding Light, because the roles played by different characters—evil women and virtuous ones, villainous men and heroic ones—were all abundantly clear even if the language wasn’t, so the story lines were easy to follow.
I was also really hooked on game shows like Family Feud, because often they would flash the words they were saying right on the screen. It didn’t take me long to begin associating the words I heard with the printed letters I saw. The Carol Burnett Show was a huge part of my childhood, too, because I saw it as the complete entertainment package; looking back now, I realize that watching that show probably sparked my interest in being on Broadway later in my career.
The radio remained an essential part of my solitary life, just as it had been in Spain. I listened to my favorite radio stations whenever I wasn’t watching TV, with no desire to listen to any music in Spanish. Instead, I found myself drawn to American pop songs and imitating the singers to help myself learn English faster. In the early seventies, I was listening to everything from Elton John to Stevie Wonder, from Marvin Gaye to Barry Manilow. I made sure to copy the words and phrasings exactly whenever I imitated my favorite entertainers, trying to eliminate any Latino accent from my English.
My first musical purchase was a set of records that included a specific Elton John song: “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” I listened to that song over and over again, along with Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue.” Later, I would have the privilege of working with Melissa, and one of the first things I did was tell her how much that song meant to me as a child feeling lost in a big new country.
With no extended family, my parents and I had to entertain one another on holidays. We loved driving to northern Florida, to St. Augustine, which reminded us of Old Madrid, or to Daytona Beach, where we were thrilled to be able to roar up and down the white sandy beaches in our little Dodge Colt.
My parents still fought a lot, but I was used to that by now. In retrospect, I think they stayed together partly because they were afraid something would happen to me. Without the three of us together, they knew I would feel more lost than I already was in this vast new country. They were committed to keeping our family intact.
My father soon had the money to open a cafeteria of his own. There began another period of long work hours for all of us, as my mother and I worked alongside him to make it a success. We followed this pattern for many more years. Whenever Dad got tired of a particular business, he’d sell it and take a break, then open another shop somewhere else. His success in business, as modest as it was, filled him with an exuberant energy. He loved being his own boss and approached each new business venture with a sense of invincibility. His driving spirit to succeed never wavered.
One of the first things my parents did once they had enough money was to buy their own burial plots. “We want to make sure you won’t ever have to worry about our funerals,” my father said. They also took out life insurance policies with me as the beneficiary. Even in death, they were determined to take care of me.
By that time, I was a freshman in high school. I had survived junior high and I’d learned enough English to help my parents translate bills and school papers or tricky customer orders at the restaurant, although my mother somehow managed to make herself understood with Anglo clients.
I did well in school, and that was their barometer for my success as a child and theirs as parents. Besides, they were too busy working all day so they could put food on the table to worry much about what was going on in my emotional life. By the time I was fifteen, my parents even found jobs on weekends that took them out of town. I was left at home alone to soak up American entertainment for hours on end.
None of us had any sense that I was honing my musical sensibility or talent. However, looking back on that time now, I can clearly see that my musical education was ongoing as I sang along with my favorite performers on the radio or shouted out answers to questions on game shows, marveling at the exciting world of Anglo entertainment.
Although I never sang a note in public during that time, those early years in Florida represented the real beginning of my life as a singer. Throughout my early childhood in Cuba, Spain, and Costa Rica, there was something inside me that knew I could sing, but I was too shy and introverted to share that knowledge with anyone. I just kept singing on my own, imitating every performer as accurately as possible until American pop music had become a calling for me.
At the end of junior high, I had become even more self-conscious about my looks. I still longed to play sports and hated being so short and pudgy. I continued to prefer my own company.
Then, almost overnight, everything changed. My mother caught on to the fact that I wasn’t growing out of my insecurity, and she made me go on a diet. At the same time, I started a physical education class with a real hard-ass of a coach. I’ll never forget that guy’s demeanor because he was the first person to push me. I thought I hated him.
“Listen, Juan,” this coach said in his no-nonsense way, “you’ve got to get into shape and start competing out there with the other kids.”
Every time I had his PE class, there was no messing around. He was a true disciplinarian and we all dreaded his class and the torturous activities he dreamed up. “He’s going to kick my ass and I don’t want to deal with this,” I’d mutter every time I had to show up to that class, because it was like some nightmare of an Army boot camp.
Before long, though, I realized that, as horrible and sweat-inducing as those physical education classes were, I was starting to enjoy the exercise. Between that and the new diet, the weight started coming off. At the same time, I suddenly experienced a huge growth spurt.
Now that I was starting to feel better physically and inhabit my body more comfortably, I longed more than ever to play a sport—especially baseball, since that was the most popular sport in Cuba besides track and field. But there was no way to do this. For one thing, by now I was too old: all of the high school boys who played on the baseball team had started at young ages and were already highly skilled players. For another, my parents couldn’t possibly support my participation in any sport that required money for equipment or transportation to practices. They worked nearly every hour of the day and barely had time to eat and sleep. I was on my own.
Finally, though, I discovered an extracurricular activity near my house that I could get into and that my family could afford: tae kwon do. As I began taking classes at a studio within walking distance to my house, I rapidly became engaged not only in the physical workout but in the mental discipline of martial arts. And the more I practiced, the more powerful I began to feel as I gained the skills and control to protect myself and defeat an opponent.
By sophomore year, I was no longer overweight or the shortest boy in my class. That physical transformation gave me the confidence to start revealing my true passion—and some of my personality—through music.
I couldn’t contain my desire to sing anymore; it was almost as if the music was bubbling over inside of me. I had seen posters all over Hialeah High School advertising auditions for the next musical. But I told myself I wouldn’t try for that. I would just sign up for chorus. Even though I had no experience singing onstage, I had spent so much time mimicking songs on the radio that I felt sure I could do that much. I literally had a pep talk with myself, coaxing my shy, loner self closer and closer to the door of the music room one afternoon by saying, “Let’s see what somebody else thinks of my voice.”