It's a long way from Havana to the covered deck of a Mexican restaurant on JFK Boulevard in Sherwood, but on a recent Saturday night when the temperatures would dip below 40 before morning, the Cuban band CruzWay was there and bringing the Latin heat. Bathed in a Home Depot spotlight before a crowd of 25, lead singer Anibal Cruz II — blessed with a golden voice, perfect pitch, an easy smile and the good looks of a businessman in a Spanish soap opera — was right where he wanted to be: onstage, and surrounded by family: pianist Anibal Cruz III, bass player (and Anibal III's fiancee) Irisley Luis, drummer Alex Cruz, keyboardist (and Alex's fiancee) Liset Mercantete, and singer and guitarist (and Irisley's brother) Jorge Luis.
As they sang, working their way through Cuban favorites and peppy, salsa-flavored, odd-until-you-hear-them covers of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," Sinatra's "My Way," and the Bee Gees' "How Deep is Your Love?" their voices were a rolling-R dream of harmony, the sub-tropical beats tending to catch in a listener's shoulders and hips and start them twitching. Nine members and three generations of the Cruz family — the band, plus Anibal II's wife, Enely, and his parents, Martina and Anibal Cruz Sr. — live in a three-bedroom house in Sherwood. They admit that, living in such close quarters, egos get bruised. But up there before the crowd, all that falls away and they seem to float in a bubble of pure, familial joy, moving together, speaking the unspoken language of a band — nods, smiles, glances, speed up, slow down, louder, softer — alongside the dervish language of Latin music, which needs no translation.
In his native Cuba, Anibal Cruz II was trained as a physician and worked for 14 years as a gynecologist, a profession shared by his wife. As strange as it might sound to American ears, Cruz and his wife couldn't survive on the salaries they earned as doctors in Cuba. Each made the equivalent of $19 U.S. dollars a month, an income that left them so poor they couldn't afford a refrigerator or television set.
"I've loved music since I was a little child, but I preferred to be a doctor," Anibal II said. "After 14 years practicing as a gynecologist, I stopped, because of the Cuban economic situation. I started to sing."
In 2003, Anibal II, who had grown up in a musical family, made the decision to abandon medicine and turn full time to his second and more lucrative love. Singing in a tourist resort in Cuba, Anibal II was soon making $300 a month in tips alone, a relative fortune. Things got better still for Cruz after he signed a contract to perform at a hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in August 2006, playing four shows a week backed by the Cuban band Oasis.
Though he was able to send money home, it would be a year and a half before Cruz himself would be able to return to Cuba, an agony for a family that had always been close-knit. "It was really hard," Anibal Cruz III said. "Even in Cuba, we were in different parts of the island. My brother was in one province, my grandfather was in another, I was living in Havana, and my father was in Mexico. We were broken apart."
In 2009, after overcoming a mountain of red tape, Anibal Cruz II was able to bring his wife, Enely, to Mexico to be with him. Over the next three years, the nine members of the Cruz family were brought out of Cuba. The process was something of a bureaucratic nightmare. "Officially, you can't just decide to go from Cuba to Mexico," Anibal Cruz III said, "You need a strong reason, and a permit from both the Mexican government and the Cuban government."
A year of playing in Puerto Vallarta as a family band followed. Eventually, however, the Cruz family decided to come to America. "We had a lot of reasons," Anibal Cruz II said. "We came here looking for a better future, especially for my children, my future grandchildren."
In April of last year, a few days after Jorge Luis was finally able to join them from where he had been staying in Colombia, the family loaded up and went to the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo. Once there, they crossed into Laredo, Texas, where they declared that they were Cuban nationals seeking asylum in the bosom of the United States. Fellow Cuban Mary Koch and her husband, Little Rock attorney Reggie Koch, met the family at the border and soon ferried them to Little Rock. Once in Arkansas, with the help of the Little Rock arm of the non-profit League of United Latin American Citizens, the Kochs helped them get set up. As CruzWay, they've been doing gigs at restaurants and festivals pretty much ever since, their bookings snowballing to the point that they sometimes perform at three venues or more in a single weekend.
Living and working together, especially with such close confines at home, has been hard. Anibal Cruz III said that in the beginning, living with his parents and grandparents was something of a "generation clash." Still, his father, Anibal Cruz II, sees even the tough times as a blessing. "It's a blessed opportunity to be together," he said. "Today, I am feeling like a very privileged person. I have my father with me, and I have my sons with me, I have the rest of the family with me. It's a very blessed time for me."
America, Anibal Cruz III said, is a place where a person can speak his mind and choose his own path, an option that just wasn't available in Cuba. Cruz III, a classically trained pianist, will be following his path to Boston next year, with a jazz piano scholarship at the Berklee College of Music, secured with the help of a former keyboardist for Carlos Santana. Though the family said they may return to Cuba someday as visitors if the political situation there improves, they plan on staying long term in Arkansas, where the audiences and friends have shown CruzWay and their music so much love.
"A lot of people are curious. They feel an attraction about the music," Anibal Cruz III said. "We were really surprised to find the Hispanic community so large here. We didn't know that, so we found the warm heart of the Latin culture, and we found the interest and the curiosity of people who have never experienced our kind of music, our culture, our way of living. ... It's really a privilege to be a musician — to entertain and make peoples' lives better. You can change peoples' lives."