Angela's traditional father forbade singing and then the Cuban crisis forced her to become a cleaner at a bank in the US.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 11, 2022. It has since been updated.
As a young child in Cuba, Angela Alvarez wanted to be a singer. But her traditional father forbade it and then the Cuban crisis forced her to become a cleaner at a bank in the US. She never thought she would be able to go back to her dream. Now, at 95 years old, her dream is not only true but she has also been nominated at the Latin Grammys. “Sometimes, I pinch myself,” Alvarez told The Washington Post. When Alvarez was 14 years old, she had already mastered the piano and guitar, but her father turned the notion of her becoming a singer down. “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 decided to abandon her career goals, getting married at the age of 19 and had four kids: three boys and a girl. When Castro took power in 1959, Alvarez and her husband, Orlando, a sugar engineer, chose to leave for America. When she didn't have the documents to leave and Orlando couldn't leave yet, Alvarez made the unthinkable choice to allow her kids to travel to America by herself.
When she finally left months later, she was unable to see her children, who were then residing in a Pueblo, Colorado orphanage, since she had no financial means and no job. After nearly two years, she found work cleaning a bank in Pueblo, she could finally see her kids again. In July 1966, Alvarez's husband arrived in the country; they finally made Baton Rouge their home. Life was wonderful for a time until Orlando died of lung cancer at the age of 53 in 1977. In 1999, Alvarez lost her daughter also to the disease.
Alvarez shares that she relied on music to help her deal with the agony during all of the hardships she faced, singing songs about her native Cuba. She wrote over 50 songs during her life, each one capturing the great grief and love she experienced. “Music is the language of the soul,” Alvarez said. But as her father had told her, she only let her family and friends listen to her music.
About 8 years ago, all that changed. Carlos José Alvarez, her grandson, a composer, grew up listening to his grandmother sings at family occasions. His career, he stated, was profoundly inspired by her and he decided to record her songs. The 42-year-old, who calls his grandmother “Nana,” says he recalls his grandmother's “angelic and soulful” voice every time he would visit as a child. “She would grab a guitar and she would sing.”
As his grandmother aged, Carlos wanted to "preserve the family legacy," and so one day he decided to buy her a microphone and asked her to go through her tunes. “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 told him one day I would like to make a CD, because I would like that people know my music,” Alvarez recalls telling her grandson. In 2016, he made plans to bring his grandma to Los Angeles to record her music there. “It was beautiful for me,” Alvarez shared. Carlos has helped his grandma produce a 15-track album, titled "Angela Alvarez, Carlos". He decided that that was not enough and that she needs to tell her story. Andy Garcia wholeheartedly agreed to produce and narrate the documentary, "Miss Angela," which chronicles her life, music, and career as a 90-year-old.
“I feel very happy, and very proud,” said Alvarez. She performed her first public concert on her 91st birthday, leaving the audience mesmerized. Alvarez's career has soared more than she could have imagined in the last 12 months. In the 2022 "Father of the Bride" remake, in which he starred, Garcia pushed her to try out for the character of Tia Pili and she was cast. Nevertheless, Alvarez's nomination for Best New Artist at the Latin Grammys, which was made public in September, is his greatest success to date. She hopes her story teaches people to “never say, ‘I can’t do it.’ You can do it. Always try.”
The nomination was also significant for Carlos, who feels like they've already won. “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.”