Growing up in Cuba, Angela Alvarez wanted to be a singer. But after coming to the United States as a young woman, she found herself cleaning a bank in Colorado to make a living.
“Sometimes, I pinch myself,” Alvarez said from her home in Baton Rouge.
Alvarez composed her first song at age 14, then already proficient on piano and guitar. She also loved to sing.
When she graduated from high school, Alvarez told her father she wanted nothing more than to become a professional musician. He rejected the idea.
“You sing for the family, but not for the world,” she remembers him saying.
“I loved him so much,” Alvarez said. “I liked to be obedient.”
She put her professional pursuits aside and moved through life, getting married at age 19 and having four children — three boys and a girl.
Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, upending life as they knew it in their home country. Alvarez and her husband, Orlando — who was a sugar engineer — decided they would flee to the United States.
Given his profession, Orlando was initially forced to stay in Cuba. Alvarez took her children — the youngest was 4 and the eldest 15 — to the airport in May 1962, but officials also forbade her from leaving the country, saying she had missing paperwork. Alvarez made the impossible decision to let her children go alone to the United States.
“It was very hard for me,” she recalled.
It took several months before she was granted permission to leave Cuba, and once she arrived in Miami, she wasn’t financially eligible to reclaim her children — who were living at an orphanage in Pueblo, Colo. — through the welfare program they were assigned to.
Finally, after not seeing her children for nearly two years, she secured a job cleaning a bank in Pueblo and was able to spend time with her kids on weekends. She lived in a small basement apartment.
Amid her family’s difficult situation, Alvarez strived to fill her children’s lives with happiness, which she did through music. She invited other Cuban children living in the orphanage to join her family, and sang songs to remind them of home.
Alvarez’s husband made it to the United States in July 1966, and they eventually settled in Baton Rouge as a family. Life was good for a while, until Orlando died of lung cancer in 1977 at age 53. Alvarez also lost her daughter to cancer in 1999.
Throughout the many challenges Alvarez faced, she said, she leaned on music to cope with the pain. Over the course of her life, she composed a collection of about 50 songs, reflecting both the deep sadness and joy in her life.
“Music is the language of the soul,” Alvarez said.
But her music was only enjoyed by her family and friends, as her father had instructed her.
That changed about eight years ago, when her grandson Carlos José Alvarez decided to record her songs. Carlos, who is a composer, grew up listening to his grandmother sing at family functions. His career, he said, was heavily influenced by her.
Every time he would visit his grandmother as a child, “she would grab a guitar and she would sing,” said Carlos, 42, who calls Alvarez “Nana.”
As his grandmother was getting older, Carlos wanted to preserve her songs so her future great-grandchildren could marvel at her voice, which he described as “angelic and soulful.”
He brought a microphone to her house and asked her to go through her personal trove of tunes.
“I just did it for my family,” said Carlos.
In the process, though, he unexpectedly learned a lot of information about his grandmother’s history — including her undying hope of becoming a singer.
“I didn’t realize that these songs were like a diary of her life. It all made sense,” he said. “You can hear the life she has lived in her singing.”
“I got so inspired in that moment,” Carlos said, adding that he decided he would one day bring his grandmother to a recording studio, and produce a proper album of her work.
He knew what it would mean to her.
“I told him one day I would like to make a CD, because I would like that people know my music,” Alvarez said.
In the years that followed, Carlos was focused on growing his own career. He put his grandmother’s prospective album on the back burner until 2016, when his friend Misha’al Al-Omar asked him: “Are you waiting for her to die?”
The question “knocked me over,” Carlos said. He arranged to fly his grandmother to Los Angeles, where he lives, to record her songs in a professional studio.
“She was getting super lit up by it,” Carlos said.
“It was beautiful for me,” echoed Alvarez.
In addition to producing his grandmother’s 15-track album titled “Angela Alvarez,” Carlos — along with his family and close friends who were involved in the project — decided Alvarez’s story should also be the subject of a documentary film. A crew of musicians he had gathered to work on the album wholeheartedly agreed.
“This is too big to just keep it within the family,” he remembered thinking.
Cuban American actor Andy Garcia, who is a friend of Carlos’s, heard about the story and was moved. He offered to executive produce and narrate the documentary, titled “Miss Angela.” The film chronicles Alvarez’s life, her love of music and her path to pursuing a singing career as a nonagenarian.
Both the documentary and the album were released in 2021, and Alvarez was delighted with the outcome. Her dream of becoming a professional musician had been realized.
“I feel very happy, and very proud,” said Alvarez, who performed her first public concert on her 91st birthday. The audience was captivated.
In the past year, Alvarez’s career has taken off more than she thought possible. Garcia encouraged her to audition for the role of Tia Pili in the 2022 “Father of the Bride” remake — which he stars in — and she got the part.
Still, the ultimate achievement so far has been Alvarez’s Latin Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, which was announced in September.
“I thought it wasn’t true,” she said.
Alvarez is attending the 2022 Latin Grammy Awards on Nov. 17 in Las Vegas with her grandson, and she is scheduled to perform.
She said she hopes her story teaches people to “never say, ‘I can’t do it.’ You can do it. Always try.”
For Carlos, the nomination was also momentous.
“As a musician, we need to always celebrate the music that came before us,” he said. “The fact that she was nominated for best new artist, for music that she started writing in the 1940s, is just unbelievable.”
“The idea that at 95 years old, you can still be recognized for what you’ve done,” he continued, “that is the gold. We have won. We have won on every level.”