Juana Bacallao 

Juana Bacallao, alias “Juana La Caliente” and “Juana La Cubana”, will soon celebrate her 90th birthday. You would think that, by now, the eccentric lady known black goddess of Cuban cabarets would be enjoying placid retirement from show business. The fact is, however, that Juana Bacallao is still setting fire to Havana dancefloors with weekly performances at one of Havana’s premier cabarets, El Gato Tuerto. 

Legend has it that the famous Cuban musician and entertainer Obdulio Morales discovered Neris Amelia Martínez Salazar—an orphan who was making a living as a housekeeper in 1940s Havana— when he overheard her singing to herself while mopping a staircase. He asked her to audition for a role in a show that he was putting on at the Teatro Martí and renamed her “Juana Bacallao”. “I used to say, ‘What an ugly name!’ and Obdulio would tell me, ‘Well, that’s the name that’s going to make you famous,’” she recalls.

It took years for Juana Bacallao to obtain the artistic recognition she deserved. Her appearances were proscribed from both pre and post-revolutionary TV stations for their alleged vulgarity. Still, she managed to make quite a name for herself, wreaking wonderful havoc at popular joints and local celebrations. She eventually made it into Havana’s most prestigious cabarets— Tropicana, Copa Room, Parisien, Salón Rojo … — and shared the stage with Benny Moré, Bola de Nieve, Meme Solís, Celeste Mendoza, Nat King Cole, Omara Portuondo and Elena Burque. 

“I’m worldly!” she says without a hint of false modesty. And worldly she is. Her shows have taken her to the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, France and Spain. One time, during a show in Las Vegas with Tropicana, she realized that Michael Jackson was sitting on the first row. Another pop culture icon, Beyonce, came to pay her respects to the living legend that is Juana Bacallao at El Gato Tuerto during her much-mediatized visit to Havana.  

“Only the divine God will retire me because I have enough health to stay on the dancefloor,” she concludes. “But if people don’t like you, you better step down. I’ll never make a fool of myself.”