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Joe Cardona, a Miami filmmaker, is pictured in mirror with a photograph of "Queen of Salsa" Celia Cruz, in Coral Gables, Florida, March 25, 2008. (Donna E. Natale Planas/Miami Herald/MCT)
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MIAMI - Ten years ago, two young documentarians from Miami nestled a letter to Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa, into a round, disc-shaped film canister, and sent it to her in New Jersey. They wanted her permission and cooperation to do a documentary on her life.


Cruz was so touched that she immediately agreed to let Joe Cardona and Mario De Varona - the minds behind Kids in Exile Films - into her life.


“I still have that film canister,” said Celia’s long-time manager, Omer Pardillo-Cid. “I remember Celia said that if Joe and Mario took such care to send her a letter, they would be the right ones to do this.”


This week, when the lights dim at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and the audience gets a taste of the “azucar,” or sugar, that “Celia the Queen” sprinkles over them, it will mark the end of a decade-long artistic odyssey that saw life, death and everything in between.


In the past few years, Cruz has been honored in exhibits at the Smithsonian (which was done with Cardona’s help), at the Bass Museum of Art, and in an off-Broadway play in New York called “Celia: the Life and Music of Celia Cruz.”


Back in 1998, Cardona and De Varona had only a couple of films under their belts. Celia’s career was slumping, but their admiration for her overcame any doubts. They spent days with her, probing deeper into her world than anyone with a camera ever had: behind the stage, into her personal life, even getting her on camera with her wig off.


Then things started to fall apart. De Varona left KIE films to take a job in advertising. Cardona took on other projects to make ends meet. And in 2003 Cruz died. “Celia the Queen” seemed doomed. Cardona pondered offers to relocate to California. But he stayed in Miami.


“It’s about a commitment,” Cardona said. “When you decide you’re going to be a filmmaker, there’s some things you’re going to forgo. Broken relationships come with the territory. Stability is the main thing you lack. There’s nothing more romantic than making an independent film because you’re doing it on sheer faith and hope.”


Five years had swept by, and the footage collected dust as the dream of a grand film on Cruz’s colorful life seemed to pass with her. Cardona’s office in Coral Gables, a loft-like space with exposed ducts and concrete floors, movie posters and graffiti on the walls, slowly emptied out, leaving him alone with his dreams and his raw film.


The vast crowds and outpouring of emotion during Cruz’s funeral confirmed for Cardona that her life story was worth interpreting for an American audience. Hundreds of thousands of fans clogged Fifth Avenue in New York, and Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, forcing police to shut down the main drags.


Jorge Plasencia, CEO of the marketing firm Republica and a friend of Cruz who helped plan her funeral, said the massive crowds confirmed what Cruz’s fans always understood: She was larger than life, and Cardona and De Varona were in a unique position to explain why.


“Celia saw these two young guys that were very tied to their roots, very passionate about where their families came from,” Plasencia said. “She trusted them.”


By 2005, Cardona set out to find investors so he and De Varona could finish the film. He also wrestled with different groups of people who had a stake in Cruz’s estate to finalize the rights to use her music in the film. That issue alone sucked up precious funds on lawyers and trips to New York and Los Angeles.


One group of wealthy prospects wanted too much control and lost interest in the project. Another group played up their wealth and connections only to see their money evaporate in Miami’s real estate bust.


An unexpected hero stepped in to give “Celia the Queen” its final push: actor Andy Garcia.


“We were at the end of our rope,” De Varona said.


Garcia said Cardona and De Varona’s struggles to produce the film in Miami underscores the disjointed and unsophisticated level of support and interest in films in South Florida. Garcia’s own film, “The Lost City,” took 16 years to complete. He said that while it is the fate of all artists to struggle, more investment from Miami’s financial community would help propel the local film industry.


“There are many stories to tell and many talented artists who would love to participate in them,” Garcia wrote in an e-mail to the Miami Herald. “But without the proper financial support these stories will never get told. We as a financial community need to support these artists and not put the fate of our stories in the hands of other sources that do not have the understanding or passion for them.”


Garcia helped the film because of his love for Celia Cruz, and because of what “Celia the Queen” will mean to future generations.


“Celia’s legacy is monumental, her reach was much greater than her grasp as she influenced the world with her music, her talent, and just as important her humanity,” Garcia said. “Her love of Cuba and its culture and constant position against the tyranny that has ruled that island, along with her music, will continue to inspire future generations.”


Garcia matched the filmmakers up with Antonio Gijon, a Spaniard with a passion for film who had distributed Garcia’s “The Lost City” in Spain. Gijon, President and CEO of HispaFilms, the biggest film distributor in Spain, agreed to meet Cardona and De Varona at the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne one day last year. When the two directors showed up, Gijon was nowhere in sight.


“I thought, this guy is just another fly-by-night,” De Varona said.


But Gijon was at the back of the hotel, waiting patiently for the fashionably late duo.


“Money puts things in motion,” Gijon said. “I interviewed with Joe and Mario and I immediately saw that passion. Celia Cruz has always been a mythical person. Celia is our goddess, our Greek goddess. They got me excited about it.”


In the film, Cruz ponders her fame, her life, race, the state of the world. In one part, she talks of her legacy.


“I want to be remembered as someone joyful, happy, a woman who enjoyed very much what she did in her life; a good friend, a good sister, a good wife and a good everything with lots of azucar!” she says, then tells the filmmakers, who are smiling. “It’s OK to laugh.”


Gijon eventually invested about $1 million to help finish the film, Cardona said.


Well, almost. “Celia the Queen” premieres Saturday at Tribeca. Cardona and De Varona vow they will finish the editing no later than Friday.


Last year, Cardona’s wife gave birth to his first daughter. The baby was born three months premature, and doctors thought they might lose her. But Cardona had faith; she made a full recovery.


There was only one name he could give her: Celia.

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