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Willy Chirino music exhibit showcases Cuban American ‘dream of freedom’

Willy Chirino and his wife, Lisette, attend the HistoryMiami Museum’s exhibition “Willy Chirino: 50 Years of Music” in Miami. (World Red Eye )
7 min

Vintage photos, yellowing letters and luxe concert attire illustrate Willy Chirino’s decades-long music career. But amid the plethora of shiny trophies and platinum albums now on display in a Florida museum, the Cuban American singer’s favorite is perhaps the most unassuming: his father’s old wallet.

Inside it, Chirino’s father carried a newspaper clipping detailing how his son helped rescue two men whose vehicle careered into a Miami canal in 1976. “No trophy or record could ever hold a candle to this moment in my dad’s eyes,” Chirino, 75, told The Washington Post. “It was like this proved that all that effort to immigrate from Cuba had truly paid off.”

The wallet and other personal items are part of the HistoryMiami Museum’s new exhibit dedicated to Chirino, which opened on Friday. And while it highlights milestones in Chirino’s 50-year career, it also showcases a story of hope familiar to many whose lives have straddled the Florida Straits.

Last year, Cubans took to the streets. Now they’re fleeing the island.

“Willy’s life is not only the story of Miami,” said HistoryMiami Executive Director Natalia Crujeiras. “It’s the story of the United States.”

That story began in Pinar del Río, a region in western Cuba and the heart of the country’s tobacco fields, where Wilfredo José Chirino was born in the city of Consolación del Sur in 1947. His childhood was filled with laughter, movie marathons at the local cinema and banging on pots and pans that became makeshift drums. “I was clearly obsessed with music even at that time,” Chirino said.

But Chirino’s world was turned upside down shortly before his 12th birthday when Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Panic about the nation’s future soon led to an exodus — including of over 14,000 children who traveled alone to the United States as part of “Operation Pedro Pan,” a bilingual reference to the magical boy who never grew up. On a plane bound to Miami, Chirino was among those who left everything behind in what’s considered one of the largest child-rescue operations.

“We thought it’d be temporary, that we’d return to a post-Castro Cuba,” Chirino said. “I thought I’d learn a little English for six months and come back home.”

Instead, it was a departure that had no return.

A year later, Chirino’s family reunited when his parents arrived in Miami. They began to put down roots in a city — then, largely a sleepy town of retirees — that would quickly morph into a melting pot of cultures following more immigration waves from Cuba and other Latin American nations.

Florida has long been a sanctuary for immigrants. That’s now being tested.

Soon enough, that cultural meshing permeated music, resulting in the “Miami Sound,” a unique fusion of Caribbean beats with rock, pop, jazz and disco that was popularized by the likes of Chirino, Carlos Oliva and Gloria Estefan. And for Chirino, it all started with “una mentirita,” a white lie.

“A group of friends [at school] wanted to form a band, and I told them I could play the drums,” Chirino said, laughing. In truth, he had never played the instrument; but he still ended up convincing them he could — the “mentirita” helped him land a gig in a Miami Beach club that paid $75 a week.

“That money,” Chirino said, “was a godsend for my family.”

His first album, “One Man Alone,” came out in 1974. Since then, Chirino has released over 20 albums. He won a Grammy in 2006 and has streets in New York and Miami named for him. Chirino’s music has made people sway their bodies all across the United States and Latin America.

The Miami Sound: Cuba Si! Cuba No!

Those international influences are peppered throughout the new exhibit, in photos and signed flags. The mementos from Chirino’s past illustrate immigrants’ ever-evolving stories, Crujeiras, the museum’s executive director, said — particularly at a time when an uptick in immigration has taken a prominent role in political discourse.

“For all of their complexities and flaws, Miami and the United States in general have both, throughout history, been fertile ground for people from all over to flourish, and find their footing and go on to do good,” Crujeiras said. “That’s exactly what this exhibit shows — that it’s important to understand the past in order to move into the future.”

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D), who attended the exhibit, said Chirino’s life “is a testament to the American Dream that so many seek each day.” His music, Levine Cava added, is the soundtrack of Miami-Dade’s history.

“The one I believe best represents Miami-Dade is ‘Pa’lante,’” she said of a song title that means onward or go for it. “It embodies the strength and resilience of our community, and how we will continue to blaze forward no matter what obstacles we face.”

Back in Cuba, Chirino’s songs and their political undertones became symbols of dissent, rallying cries for freedom and inspiration to flee the island in search of a better future, said Amalia Daché, an Afro-Cuban American scholar and higher education professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

For instance, Chirino’s widely popular song from 1991, “Nuestro Día (Ya Viene Llegando)” — which means “our day is coming soon” — became an anthem for a group of balseros, or rafters, who fled Cuba in the 1990s, Daché said.

“These balseros had been stuck at sea for over 48 hours and had joined with another raft, because they had lost their water and food,” said Daché, who compiled testimonies of Cuban refugees for a research project. “There was a moment where they felt as if they weren’t going to make it, and one of them says ‘No, no, no ya viene llegando’ [it’s coming] like the song. So all them started singing and hyping themselves up with Willy Chirino.”

“It was the most joyful and hopeful moment they had in their journey,” she added. “And just a few moments later, they said an American ship came over to help them. Now they live here in the United States.”

‘A powder keg about to explode’: Long marginalized Afro Cubans at forefront of island’s unrest

But singing Chirino’s lyrics also came with risks for those in Cuba, Daché said: “His music was banned, and you could be arrested because you’d be seen as someone who’s trying to escape or topple the government. In that way his music includes these iconic songs of resistance but also songs that represent an immense hope to experience the freedom he sings about.”

Chirino knows those stories well. He said a slew of rafters recounted their experiences when he held a concert for them in Guantánamo in 1994.

“Meeting people who threw themselves into the sea without even knowing if they’d make it was extremely beautiful and touching — I mean, that’s why I make music. But on the flip side of that: What about the thousands and thousands of them who did the same and perished into the ocean? What if it was my song that inspired them to take that journey?” Chirino said, his voice breaking.

It’s a thought that has weighed on him for decades, Chirino said.

“But I’ll never stop singing about Cuba. I’ll never stop singing to her either. As someone who has a voice, I will use it to elevate our pain, our joy and our dream of freedom.”