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'American Diva' explores lessons to take from divas past and present

The cover of "American Diva" and author Deborah Paredez. (Courtesy of Norton and Sammy Tunis)
The cover of "American Diva" and author Deborah Paredez. (Courtesy of Norton and Sammy Tunis)

Here & Now‘s Deepa Fernandes speaks with author and writing professor Deborah Paredez about her new book “American Diva: Extraordinary, Unruly, Fabulous.”

Paredez tells the stories of great divas including Oscar winner Rita Moreno, singers Tina Turner and Celia Cruz, and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. The book explores the lessons they can teach the rest of us.

Book excerpt: ‘American Diva: Extraordinary, Unruly, Fabulous’

By Deborah Paredez

Prologue

Vikki Carr’s Voice

The sound of a diva’s voice was how I knew we were Mexican. Or, at least, how I knew we couldn’t hide it from the neighbors. My earliest childhood memories are suffused with the sounds of Vikki Carr’s contralto rising from my father’s turntable, spinning out past the flimsy screens. Her voice a swath of silk turned out, a bandera unfurled from the window.

In the spring of 1973, driven by his own immigrant aspiration and the Walter Younger–inspired dreams that emerged in those early years of desegregation, my father decided to move our family from the south side (“Mexican”) to the north side (“white”) of San Antonio. We landed in a newly built neighborhood of modest, one-car-garage homes that rimmed the outermost edge of a “good” public school district filled at its center with more spacious two-car-garage houses. We lived on that border.

Before our move north, we had lived on a street punctuated on both ends by properties owned by my maternal great-​grandparents: the “Bustillo Drive-In Grocery and Ice House” (think bodega crossed with juke joint) and a two-room house that my parents rented in the first years after they married. Nearly every house or vacant lot lining the street in between these points was owned or inhabited by someone to whom I was related by blood or marriage or habit. One long family line.

I don’t remember that first house or the countless times it flooded or the storm that soaked through the roof ruining my father’s prized collection of LPs and reel-to-reels and some of his stereo equipment, the flood that led him soon after to cross the tracks and drive the long stretch of highway across town to sign a loan and make a down payment on a thirty-year mortgage.

What I do remember is spending my earliest years at the ice house among extended family and the weekend regulars who’d lay down the burdens of their workweek over beers and card games or the latest Avon catalogues. There are more than a few family stories and snapshots of me as a toddler poised on a tabletop alongside half-empty bottles and discarded poker hands, surrounded by kinfolk all cheering on my efforts at dancing. Always in the background, blurry but visible: the jukebox that played accordion-driven conjuntos or the crooning harmonies of doo-wop or the plaintive longings of Vikki Carr.

Florencia Bisenta de Casillas-Martinez Cardona was born along the border in El Paso, Texas, in 1941 and became Vikki Carr somewhere along the way to recording artist fame, most notably for her soaring 1967 ballad, “It Must Be Him.” Legions of English-speaking fans from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations knew her as the classy songbird praised by Ethel Merman for her tremendous talent in the liner notes of Carr’s 1965 album, Anatomy of Love, and by Dean Martin who called her the best girl singer in the business. But, back then, in the early to mid-1970s, only a few of us were listening to her in Spanish.

In the midst of her English-language success and not long after signing with Columbia Records in 1970, Carr convinced Clive Davis to produce a Spanish-language album, Vikki Carr En Español, in 1972—a move that long predated the return-to-roots crossover endeavors of other Latin music divas like Linda Ronstadt and Gloria Estefan. This was also before, as Carr recounts, Clive Davis informed her, “I can only work with one diva at a time, and I have two.” So he dropped me. And stayed with Barbra [Streisand].

Of course, I didn’t know any of this back in the mid-1970s when I was just starting elementary school, one of the few brown faces warming the pale tint of the class photos. Despite my auspicious ice-house beginnings, I was now learning to leave behind any aspirations to stand on tabletops, any impulse to stand out at all. Well-meaning teachers praised my well-behaved, bookish manner, calling out my name in roll call, having long ignored the accent that was supposed to accompany the first “e” in the correct Spanish spelling of my name—/PAIR–uh–deez?/ or / PURR-ah-dehz?/—or foregoing one syllable altogether—/Perez/—before finally just settling on Parades (as in “Don’t Rain on My . . .”) or Paradise, a surname I could only have earned had I not let go of my table-​dancing dreams.

What I did know in these years was that when my father laid the needle down on the lead track—a plangent song called “Y volveré”—Carr would pull us in with her whispered valediction, Amor adios, and pull us out toward the swell of her overwrought command to suffer no more. The song dwelling in the moment of departure, reckoning with the end of love and the beginning of what comes after. A resignation toward solitude and a promise of return as the title suggests. I could not yet translate its meaning; for me as for many Mexican-​American kids my age, Spanish was the language parents spoke to keep secrets from the children or on phone conversations with grandparents. I could not yet hear the assurances offered by its future tense.

Carr’s voice was clear and pure and resonant, a struck bell meant to be heard from across a great distance. Or at least across the street. Her voice turned up to a volume that exposed us to others. A voice heard all along the block by trim white mothers who sat around kitchen tables ashing their Salems. A voice that carried three doors down where the Irish Catholic family ate cheese sandwiches cut into right angles or up the block where until the 1980s the only other brown family lived. A voice I knew the neighbors could hear. A voice announcing our difference. We were Mexican. We were the ones who turned up the music and put dancing toddlers on tables and unfolded lawn chairs on the oil-stained driveway while her voice spilled out its longings, its insistence on a brighter tomorrow, Quizás mañana brille el sol. We stayed outside past twilight. We turned the record over and played the other side. We knew both sides. We were Mexican. I was mortified. And I was mesmerized. Because, I mean, how could I not eventually surrender to that voice and those unabashed orchestrations supporting it? Her voice as virtuous as a telenovela maid. The strings so lush so fulsome so deliberate so deliberately sentimental. So Mexican. The melodrama of it all! I was at once drawn inside the cleared hollow made by her voice and deafened by its pealing truths: a beast inside the bell tower, I was filled with wonder and with shame, teeth shuddering from each strike. Her voice was irrefutable proof and proclamation of our Mexicanness. I cowered in its echo and I made it my home.

The sound of a diva’s voice was how I came to know my place in relation to others in the neighborhood. Which is to say how I came to know my place in relation to Americanness. In relation to others like me who are rarely invited to join the choruses of America’s anthems. But, divas help us, too, sing America. Or, as Rita Moreno once famously sang, América. The diva’s voice is the bell struck and the alarm sounded, the call for gathering and the call for escape. It is, as well, the very destination—the holy place or the other-place—to which her voice leads. The sound of a thing and the thing itself.

A diva is often known for the ravishing power of her voice. And, sometimes, for its tragic ravishment. Her voice is the source of her authority and her vulnerability. She contradicts herself, she is large, she contains multitudes. She holds a note and carries within it all of our dreaming and damaged and glorious and gutted bodies. Divas inspire those of us devoted to them to train our voices likewise, toward the achievement of capaciousness, of maximalist flourish, of more is more, and all of our outrageous overmuchness. To be the sound of the thing and the thing itself.

The sound of a diva’s voice is sometimes all we need to lead us through or to lead us out. And sometimes, the sound of a diva’s voice is what leads us back. Returns us to the long-​forgotten flooded house, the house flooded with the sounds of a woman’s woe and resilience. Vikki Carr repeats the refrain, “Y volveré.” Listening again to the song, I am struck by the way it ends, by the way its fade-out resists an ending, refuses closure. The fade-out, a common practice for popular tunes of its day, certainly situates the song in a particular soundscape of the early 1970s. But the volume diminishing on Carr’s voice as it crests with her promise of return as a bird in flight also suggests a defiance of time, a sense of the infinite. She has, perhaps, been singing all along, her voice carrying across a great distance.

Listen again with me now. I’m at long last able to translate the lyrics. Can you hear Carr sing about waiting for her lover’s return? On the surface, it sounds like rather standard lost-love song sentiment, her insistence on keeping, as she sings in Spanish, your light shining on my path. But let’s listen again. Can you hear it? Can you see it? I find myself lingering on that line, on that light, and I am overcome by a sense of synesthesia. I blink dumbly at the illumination emanating from the sound of her voice. She keeps singing, and her voice is the illuminated path. All I need to do is follow her.

Reprinted from “American Diva: Extraordinary, Unruly, Fabulous” by Deborah Paredez. Copyright © 2024 by Deborah Paredez. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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