As one of the first successful Latin crossover artists, Jon Secada dominated the pop music charts in the early 90s, releasing hits such as Just Another Day and Angel and winning multiple Grammy Awards. As a Cuban refuge, Jon understands that life is about starting anew and embracing opportunities, something he never lost sight of while achieving his dream of being a performer and while building new dreams when life took unexpected turns. In his debut book, Jon shares the lessons he learned that made him the resilient person he is today. His moving message reaffirms that wisdom and strength comes from constantly reinventing yourself and finding what you’re made of through doubt and hardships, growing from adversity, and having faith in A New Day.
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With a career spanning over two decades, Jon Secada has won two Grammy Awards, sold twenty million albums, starred on Broadway, and had numerous hits in English and Spanish, making him one of the first Latin artists to have crossover success. He lives in Miami with his family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Happiness is never complete or permanent. You can work with what you have deep down inside to make your problems as unimportant as you can, so you can move on. Just feel good about who you are spiritually.”
My father first gave me that advice during a particularly turbulent time in my life. I had reached a high point in my career, winning my first Grammy Award, while my first marriage was going down in flames. I hardly knew who I was anymore. Yet my father insisted on reminding me to keep trying and moving forward, even knowing that there will always be times of doubt and uncertainty.
As Cuban refugees, my parents instilled this thinking from the beginning. We had started from nothing, just clinging to the fierce resolve that our lives could only get better. Surviving meant embracing change with unwavering confidence, constantly reinventing yourself, and having the resilience to pick yourself up and keep going when life took unexpected turns.
My story is anything but easy. It is crowded with obstacles, skids, dives, and failures as well as success. It is a story about taking the opportunities that come your way and making the most of them, even knowing that disappointment, failure, and tragedy are also a normal part of life. The lessons in this book are ones I learned from experiences that tore me apart, lifted me up, and brought me back to the start.
It is true that happiness is never guaranteed—you will always face challenges that test your will. Strength is in finding what you are made of through hardships and your own fears and vulnerabilities. Wisdom comes from growing from those adversities. And resilience is built each moment of every day by constantly having faith in a new day.
My heart pounded and my mouth went dry as my footsteps echoed on the cobblestones of the narrow street threading through my neighborhood in Old Havana, Cuba. I was about to walk into a lion’s den. My tormentors would be lying in wait for me the way they did every day after school, ready to pounce. They’d call me names, chase me around, and threaten to beat me up.
I was just eight years old, short and shy and chubby. More than anything, I wanted to run away and hide. That had always been my go-to survival tactic.
But now my father, newly out of prison, was forcing me to confront my enemies. “I’m not going to let you run away from this,” he’d scolded as we left the apartment. “You’re not going to be bullied. You’re going to confront those kids, whatever happens. I am not going to let you live in fear.”
Easy for him to say! My father, Jose Miguel Secada, was a charming street guy, a hardworking, handsome hustler, in the best sense of the word. He seemed to fear nothing.
Dad had only an eighth-grade education, but he was keen on envisioning opportunities and taking advantage of them. He had grown up in a big family in Santa Clara, a village in the middle of Cuba, and he was a wonderful singer, like everyone else in his musical family. One of his sisters, Moraima Secada, even became an extremely popular international entertainer. Known worldwide as “La Mora,” she was a member of the first female orchestra of America Anacaona.
My father could have become a professional singer as well. He had the voice and charisma for it. Instead, his passion was entrepreneurship. He was especially proud of his own father, who owned a pastry business. My dad worked alongside his father and had named me Juan after his dad.
Then my grandfather died, the pastry business went down the drain, and my dad was forced to leave Santa Clara to find work. He came to Havana with his mother, who died in his arms overnight of a sudden illness, leaving my father an orphan in the city.
Dad eventually worked his way up to owning an oyster bar, a small stand on a street corner in Havana, and saw opportunities to expand it. However, he was frustrated by the restrictions that Fidel Castro began putting on independent businesses when he assumed power in 1959. Chafing at having his ambitions reined in, my father saw his dreams going up in smoke as he watched Castro’s regime strip away opportunities for entrepreneurs in the name of Communism.
Eventually, my father decided to leave Cuba. He would emigrate, and when he was financially able to, he planned to send for my mother and me. But his attempted escape by fishing boat to pursue his dreams was aborted when the authorities caught him offshore.
Emigrating from Cuba without permission from the government was considered an illegal act at that time. Families who wanted to leave Cuba had to apply for papers, and even then the government expected the head of the family to “give back” to the Communist Party first. As a result, my father was imprisoned and then forced into a work camp until the paperwork was passed for us to leave the country. He was in jail practically from the time I was a toddler until I was seven years old, leaving my mother and me to fend for ourselves.
My mother, Victoria, had an outgoing, loving personality and was also strong-willed. Like my father, she had come to Havana from Oriente Province, at the easternmost tip of Cuba, to make a better life for herself. She was a beautiful woman, Afro-Spanish as a result of her Cuban grandmother falling in love with a barber in the Spanish armada. Her father was also a businessman, but he died early on in a swimming accident. After her mother died young of cancer, my mother lived with her grandmother until she was fifteen. At that point her grandmother died, too, and she, like my father, became an orphan forced to make her own way in the world.
And so my parents—both strong-willed, good-looking, fiercely independent orphans—met, fell in love, and had me. My father had another family—an ex-wife, and a son and a daughter in their early teens—but I was my mother’s only child, and therefore her driving purpose in life was to make my life the best it could possibly be. Meanwhile, my father saw his job as providing for us, no matter what it took.
While we waited for approval to leave the country, we lived hand to mouth in a small apartment near Paseo del Prado, the shady mile-long promenade in downtown Havana that dates back to the eighteenth century. Because my father was imprisoned, he was virtually a stranger to me. But my mother and I spent a lot of time together. I rode my little bike in El Prado park or went to the movies. We also spent a lot of time along El Malecón, the esplanade built to protect Havana from the surf that became the poor person’s paradise, a favorite place to promenade or fish. When he got out of prison, my father tried to teach me to swim there in some of the little pools created by the rocks, but no matter how many times he threw me in, I never did get the hang of floating. I’m still a terrible swimmer.
In other ways, too, I was an outcast, which was partly why the bullies tormented me. I went to school close to our apartment, and my mother tried to protect me as much as possible from any brainwashing by Communist government propaganda, which had infiltrated the schools. I was small for my age but overweight, reticent to speak up in class, and terrible at sports. Although some of our friends supported our desire to flee Cuba, neighborhood committees monitored families that didn’t adhere to Communist beliefs and did all they could to make you feel fearful and alienated as a result of not falling in line with Castro’s regime.
In class, for instance, my teacher called my mother aside one day and said, “Your son is the only one who isn’t part of Los Pioneros,” the youth group established by Castro. The teacher explained that this was making me stand out as different, making it more difficult for me to make friends.
“How about if I just put the Pioneros emblem and the scarf on him for the sake of appearances,” she suggested, “so Juan doesn’t stand out as much? Then, when the group is finished with activities, I’ll take the scarf off him. Would that be all right with you?”
My mother was torn, but for my sake, she reluctantly agreed. However, while that may have smoothed things over for me a little in class, it didn’t help me in the neighborhood. We lived in one of the nicer buildings in inner-city Havana, but it was a tough neighborhood anyway. Many of the older, bigger kids saw me as an outsider not only because I was a shy, pudgy mama’s boy, but because my father had openly declared himself against the government. Ambition had no place in Castro’s Cuba.
So now here I was, deliberately walking toward my enemies, unable to bail and run because I was even more afraid of displeasing my father than I was of the bullies in the neighborhood. Dad walked with me up the street until we drew near where the bullies typically hung out. Then he disappeared, ducking into an alley.
“I’m going to be close enough to jump in,” my father promised, “but you need to deal with this on your own.”
Dad gave me a stick to hold as he left me there. A stick, and a script: when the kids confronted me and issued their usual threats, such as, “Where are you going? You can’t pass us!” I was supposed to reply, “Well, yes I can, because I’m going to kick your ass.”
I couldn’t imagine doing this. I was a dreamer, not a fighter. But I steeled myself against the attack and kept putting one foot in front of the other for the sake of earning my father’s respect.
Slowly I went around the next corner. Sure enough, there they were. The big kids headed straight for me, shouting, “Hey, you can’t pass us!”
Amazingly, something came over me. It was as if my father had given me a sudden infusion of his courage. I went nuts, completely berserk, running at them with the stick in my hand and screaming in rage and fear. “Oh yes I can!” I shouted. “I’ve got something in my hand, and I’m going to use it to make sure you let me pass!”
I was shaking with fright, but of course that made me look even more insane. My tormentors backed off and they never bothered me again.
My father had saved some money before he went to prison, and shortly after that incident we were able to finally buy our paperwork and airfare out of Cuba. Only certain countries accepted Cuban refugees in the seventies. My father had his heart set on emigrating to the United States, but since you could emigrate here only if you had family members who would sponsor you, we went to Spain instead.
On the day we received our paperwork, we drove to pick my dad up from the work camp as the neighborhood committee and government officials confiscated everything in our apartment. They even took our “food book,” where my mother had painstakingly recorded every food item we bought because groceries were so tightly rationed in Cuba.
The first two times we drove to the airport with our luggage, we were turned away—the government seemed to enjoy playing tricks on emigrants like that—and were forced to spend the night with friends in Havana because the officials had already locked up our apartment and removed everything we owned. We were essentially homeless, desperate to leave but at the mercy of bureaucratic whims.
We were turned away from the airport those two times. When we were finally given the word that our plane would depart, we returned a third time and boarded the plane to Madrid.
I was sad and scared to be leaving the only world I’d ever known. But as my parents led me up the boarding ramp to the plane, I felt a tiny flutter of excitement, too. My mother and father must have been experiencing a huge emotional upheaval as they went through the terrible process of giving up everything they had in exchange for freedom, but they made a point of acting and talking normally with me, enveloping me in a family safety net as a way of protecting me from the enormity of their own turmoil. They acted so matter-of-fact and poised as we headed into the unknown that an observer who didn’t understand what was going on might have thought we were just going on vacation.
I knew better, though. I quietly took my seat on the plane and pressed my face to the window, watching Cuba recede as we took off, knowing that a page had turned in the book of my life. I knew this was it, the end of my life on this island. We weren’t ever coming back. This thought gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I was old enough to understand that it was our only choice if we didn’t want to live under Castro’s rule.
By leaving Cuba, I had learned my first key lesson in life: face your bullies. Whether those bullies are kids or an entire government, the only right choice is to stand up and make it known that you are your own person, ready to face even the scariest, most uncertain future.
We were nomads without a home. I vividly remember sitting with my parents at the airport and waiting for someone to tell us what to do or where to go, feeling slightly sick with anxiety.
Of course, we were hardly alone in the Madrid airport. Between 1959 and 1993, about 1,200,000 Cubans left the island. My family fled the country in 1970 at the crest of this wave of emigration. So many Cubans were emigrating to Spain that it was like a cattle call, with herds of Cubans landing in Madrid. As soon as you arrived, your family was granted 5,000 pesetas by the Spanish government to help you survive, but that was it. You were on your own.
Suddenly, someone out of the huge crowd at the airport recognized my father. This man had known my father in Cuba and was now living in Madrid.
“What are you doing here?” the man called when he spotted us milling around with everyone else.
“Well, we are here because we’re here,” my father said. “We left Cuba. But now we don’t know what to do or where to go.”
Our acquaintance gave us the address of a pension house and said, “Here, try this place. It’s cheap enough that I think whatever money you have in your hand right now will cover your expenses while you get settled.”
The pension house was in Old Madrid. My family could afford nothing better than a small, shabby single room. There was no bathroom to call our own, only a communal bathroom for the entire floor. Still, it rapidly became clear that living in Spain presented such luxuries, it was almost a born-again experience for all of us.
The freedom of having nobody telling us what to do, think, or eat, and the bounty of having so many different foods available, became immediately apparent on the cab ride from the airport. Peering through the taxi window, I saw fruit stands filled with oranges and bananas and lemons. There were even giant, brightly lit supermarkets! I felt thrillingly overwhelmed by the sight of so many choices.
As we arrived at the pension house and climbed out of the cab, I spotted a candy store. I had never before seen so much chocolate! I asked my father if we could have some, and we both ate so much chocolate that day that we were nauseated afterward.
It didn’t take long for me to feel at home in our neighborhood. It reminded me in many ways of Havana, with its narrow cobblestone streets and ornate ironwork on the windows and balconies. Although I missed the pastel colors of Cuba and the tropical air, I was stun...
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