April 16, 2024
Florida Icon: Willy Chirino

Photo: Johnny Louis/Getty Images

"When I was 8-years-old I knew every Glenn Miller song," says Chirino.


Florida Icon: Willy Chirino

Musician, singer, songwriter, 1961 Operation Pedro Pan immigrant from Cuba, Miami; age 76

Art Levy | 10/11/2023

The small town where I grew up in western Cuba was surrounded by tobacco fields. When it rained, the smell of the earth mixed with the smell of the curing tobacco, and it was a beautiful smell. I can still remember it very clearly to this day, even though I have not experienced it since I left Cuba when I was 14.

Benny Moré was the most admired singer, performer in Cuba. To me, he was fascinating. I saw him live once in my hometown, and I fell in love with the experience. He got on stage, and everybody just went crazy. I wanted to be that guy. I want to be the guy who gets up on stage and the people dance and laugh and cry and get emotional and have a great time.

My father was a lawyer, and my mother was a pharmacist. They both graduated from the University of Havana. They knew about the world, and they knew what can happen due to politics. The idea was to get the children out before the Communist government could get ahold of them, because in that system the kids belonged to the government, not the family. That’s how I became part of Operation Pedro Pan. I was 14, but I was not scared. It seemed impossible that a Communist government could survive for very long just 90 miles from the United States, so, the idea was I would go to Miami, learn English, stay for a few months, and return after Cuba was free.

It’s the greatest feeling to be on stage. That’s not work.

When I was a kid, I had a horse. That horse was like a part of me. When I was 5-years old, they put me on the horse’s back, no saddle. I grabbed her by the hairs on the neck and just started running, like the horse was myself.

I was in Pedro Pan for about a year. We were taken care of in each and every possible way. A year later, my parents came from Cuba with my two sisters. They didn’t speak English. Miami was not a bilingual city back then. It was hard to get work if you didn’t speak English, so my parents relied on the most basic work. My father picked tomatoes in Homestead and worked in factories in Hialeah. My mother was a waitress. I had a paper route. I washed my dishes in school in order not to be charged the 50 cents for lunch. We held our heads up high. We did what we had to do to survive.

Music entered the picture again in Miami. I got together with a few friends in school and we made a little band. I was the drummer. As a 16-year-old boy, I was playing in nightclubs six nights a week. During my junior and senior years in high school, I was playing until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, getting home, taking a shower, sleeping for about an hour or so and going to school. Music saved us. I used to make like $70 a week, which was a lot of money. Music saved my family from a very rough economic situation.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I wrote this song, Nuestro Día Ya Viene Llegando (Our Day is Coming). The beginning of the song is the story of my life, which is the story of millions of people, not only Cubans, about a boy who had to leave his homeland to look for new horizons. At the end, there is a message of hope. The song became an anthem for the Cuban people. It touched their hearts. It’s a totally forbidden song on the island. The government won’t allow people to listen to it. If you get caught, you can go to jail or they’ll give you a beating. That’s very emotional for me.

Writing a song, you have to look for inspiration. It’s hard to come, but when it hits you — and it usually happens at night — then you start working on that idea. It’s like building a house. First you have the inspiration, the real estate, and then you build the lyrics, the melody and the harmonies until it’s done.

I hang around with a lot of people who know a lot about wine and gourmet food. I am not one of those guys. I’m happy with white rice, two fried eggs and picadillo.

Me, I am very aware of what is it that you have to achieve in order to be successful in music, and having a great voice is not part of it. The entertainment business is a business of communication. If you are able to create music that touches emotions, that makes people laugh, cry and think, then you are a successful artist.

When my mother became pregnant with me, she went to Havana to her doctor and he said to her: ‘According to your health and according to what I see, you cannot survive having a child. You have to abort.’ My mother said to him very clearly: ‘If I die, I die, but I’m going to have the baby.’ Thank God she didn’t die, but she was very sick. She had to be kept in the hospital for about two months. The youngest of my aunts, my mother’s sister, lived with us and she took care of me when my mother couldn’t. She became like my mother part two. She never married. She dedicated her life to me. She was very much focused on making me someone special. She taught me how to dream. She told me to imagine myself doing whatever it was that I wanted to do. Picture it, she told me, so that’s what I did, and it worked.

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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