In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the communications company Altice USA asked high schoolers (in the service areas of Optimum and Suddenlink), to compose an essay with the following instructions: “Name a Latino, past or present, with whom you would choose to spend a day and explain why.”
One quiet senior from James Madison High School, Genesis Diaz, took them up on their proposal by penning a powerful essay on the late Cuban singer Celia Cruz, and winning their grand-prize of $1,500. Not a small feat according to one Altice organizer, who says the company received over 700 submissions.
“I couldn’t believe I actually won!” Diaz told Bklyner. “I was very proud and very emotional. I feel like people take entertainment figures for granted. What people don’t realize that these figures are activists also.”
Her school principal, Jodie Cohen, believes a promising future awaits the exceptional young woman. “We are anxiously awaiting her acceptance to NYU,” Cohen said. “Having a student from our school being celebrated for writing such a remarkable essay is evidence of the students that exist in this building and how they share their opinions and use them to build our community as a whole.”
Gathered at her high school’s library and surrounded by classmates and school officials, Diaz was awarded her prize by Altice organizers and local Councilman, Chaim Deutsch. She then proceeded to read her essay aloud.
Diaz spoke of the singer’s revolutionary accomplishments and about being proud of her Afro-Latina background. Born in Havana in 1925, the star rose to prominence while in American exile after the Cuban revolution.
“She carried her African roots in her heart and through her lyrics,” Diaz said. “Celia told everyone, including me, how phenomenal and majestic it is to be unapologetically black.”
Diaz’s essay also makes mention of the way Cruz didn’t allow racism to deter her from creating the kind of music she desired. “Black has always been seen as a color of inferiority, which is why Celia Cruz’s early critics claimed that she did not have the right look,” Diaz said. “She wasn’t an ideal artist simply because of her African descent.”
Since those early days, the singer has been heralded as the “Black Queen of Salsa,” and become a cultural icon within the Latinx community. For Diaz, who created a school club about Hispanic, Black, and Caribbean cultures, Cruz is much more than a talented musician — she’s a symbol of representation and identity.