See Cuban Pete's
Official Website HERE
A Visit with Cuban
into “Cuban Pete” (literally!) in a very clumsy but fortuitous
manner at Starfish in Miami Beach the night of his birthday
Harlow’s band was jamming and the dance floor was packed. A friend of mine and I were dancing the
Casino-Style Salsa that is dominant here in South Florida
and we were executing a move called “El Melón” which
requires 5 quick turns in a row, when he accidentally
let go of me. The
centrifugal force propelled me right into Cuban Pete...and
when I realized who I'd bumped into, I wanted the floor
to open up and swallow me!
I apologized profusely but he kept right on dancing
with his beautiful partner, Barbara Craddock.
Shortly thereafter the World Latin Dance
Council representative took over the microphone and delivered kudos galore to
this marvelous man who has given so much to the dance world for contributing to
the preservation of “Clave”. As
he accepted the award, instead of enjoying the well-deserved limelight, he
humbly asked those present for a round of applause for the dear friend he had
just put to rest, Tito Puente, the King of Mambo.
on this page courtesy of Pedro Aguilar
Cuban Pete and the King
was born June 14th, 1927 in Puerto Rico, as Pedro Aguilar, one of two twin
brothers, but soon thereafter moved to New York. His brother died of pneumonia when he was just an infant. His
early life was tumultuous and from age 3 to 5 he went to live with his uncle Joe
in Washington, D.C. There he learned how to dance to El
Manicero and used to perform on a small platform in his uncle’s place of
business. He returned to his parent's house, but at age five and a half, he, his
brother Antonio, and his sister Socorro were removed from his parent's home by
the court and went to live at the Mount Loretta Orphanage in Staten Island, NY. Shortly
thereafter they were placed with a Jamaican woman as a foster mother, in spite
of the vast cultural differences.
woman ruined me,” said Pete.
“She was an angry woman, ultra-strict, and she
was physically violent with us.
That was the worst time of my life.”
Pete and his siblings put up with being locked
in a room all day on weekends when she wanted to go out,
not to mention the psychological games she played with
them and the routine physical abuse. After
years of this treatment, Pete decided he couldn't take
it any more.
At age 13, he took his siblings and made his way to see Sister
Cathy at the Foundling Hospital Headquarters to tell her of their dire
situation. She responded by removing them from that
household, and then sending them to live separately with different foster
parents. “I went ballistic. I blamed myself for the separation,”
he said. “Every time the social worker would come to do an inspection, I'd ask
about them (his brother and sister), and they’d always tell me that I couldn't
visit them. So I asked for their address so I could
write them a letter. When I got the
addresses I took off and scoured the city until I found them.”
insistence, all three children were placed together at the Foundling Hospital,
where they stayed until he was 19. He
could have left when he turned 18, but he didn't want to leave his brother and
sister behind. “My childhood was a nightmare, but the only good thing that
came from all those horrible years was my education. I got a really good education.”
time, his mother had remarried and together with her second husband, Bobín
Masdeu, they fixed up a three bedroom apartment on 111th Street, near Lexington
and Park. Finally the court allowed
her to bring her children home.
returned to the nest a very angry young man. Living
in the orphanage had taught him to earn respect for himself with his fists. He
funneled that energy into boxing, but at the same time his mother taught him
danzón and bolero, and he credits her for his success. Within
the extended family there were parties every weekend and everyone danced. Miguelito Valdéz, a former boxer from
Cuba, told Pete one day that he should get out of boxing and just dance. On a whim, Miguelito entered Pete in a
contest and he won $1,000! That was
in 1950, and from that moment on he decided to stay in the dance world where he
could make money by doing something he loved. But
for Pete it wasn't easy leaving the scars behind, or “taking the spots off,”
as he says. Some of those scars are still with him
today and clearly visible as he talks about his early years.
happiness really came when I danced. Tito
used to tell me 'Listen to the Clave' and he kept me dancing. I
owe a lot to that man, along with Machito, Bobby Escoto, Marcelino Guerra and
Pérez Prado, “The Prez”. They
taught me to listen to the Clave; it is our metronome. Dance
pulled me away from all the bad things that happened to me as a kid.
I discovered myself through dance, and learned how to love. As a kid growing up I didn't know who I
discovered his background one day after a triumphant performance. Noro
Morales was playing at the Conga Room in New York and Desi Arnaz was there. Tommy Morton presented Pete and his
dance partner, Millie, saying, “Here he is again, Pete! No,
no, no, CUBAN PETE, King of the Latin Beat,” referring to a
popular song of the era by Desi Arnaz. After
that, everyone referred to him as Cuban Pete, but his mother didn’t like it a
him down in the kitchen and said, “What is it with this 'Cuban Pete' stuff?
You're not Cuban. You're
name stuck anyway. He had spent a good part of his
childhood in a black Jamaican family, going to school with the inner city kids,
but he wasn't black, he was Latino. He didn’t even know how to pronounce his last name
correctly. But once home again, the
music and culture drew him back in. At
the Palladium there were people of all races. Segregation
and prejudice, rampant throughout the nation, didn't exist on the dance floor. Millie, who later became his first wife,
was Italian. It wasn't until they
came down to Florida to dance that they realized that people looked at them
strange. In the dance world there was equality
and peace of mind, but on the streets in the racially charged sixties, that
certainly wasn't the case.
of the obstacles, he and Millie married and had a daughter, Denise, who still
lives in New Jersey. Pete later divorced Millie, although
they are still on good terms, and even today get together and dance
occasionally. A second marriage produced a son, Pete,
Jr., who lives in California, and a third marriage produced another daughter,
Petrina, who lives in Florida.
Dance?” I asked him.
smiles and laughs to himself. “Yes, the girls dance, especially
Denise. ¡Baila como ella sóla! Petrina dances very well too, just not
Latin.” But somehow Pete Jr.
missed out on the family’s legendary dance genes.
first child was born, I danced like I've never danced in my life. Millie
was in and out of the delivery room in 45 minutes. She was amazing! When I saw Denise for the first time I
was the happiest man on earth. I
danced with joy at the birth of each of my children, but I've never matched the
performance I gave that first time.”
the years from 1969 - 1982 working steadily for Warner Brothers. “I've
been lucky in my life,” he says. I
did choreography, played bit parts, solos, speaking parts and as an extra. In 1982 there were major cutbacks in the
film industry and Pete was let go. He
moved to Florida to be closer to his youngest child, but spends time in
California and New Jersey with his other children as well.
my visit with Pete he mentioned his children time and again, and it became clear
to me that he considers them to be the greatest blessing in his life and
certainly they give him the greatest joy. He plays down his own achievements such as having danced for
the Queen of England back in the mid-50's, or having appeared on the cover of
Life Magazine. There's even a book
about him in the Lincoln library.
man who had very little formal training in dance, who dances from the heart,
became the choreographer for the movie The Mambo Kings and taught
Antonio Banderas how to dance, among many others! He
credits Catherine Dunham, a Haitian dance teacher in New York for having taught
him technique, interpretation, and how to present himself on stage. He
only studied with her for a year, but that was enough of a solid base for him to
build on to create his own unique style.
luckiest man in the world,” he said. “I'm
a Puerto Rican kid from 111th Street who grew up in an orphanage, and today I'm
sitting on the top of the dance world.”
STILL GOING STRONG!
Cuban Pete continues to teach!
-->> Pete still teaches
today with his partner and manager, Barbara Craddock.
He and Barbara have also developed a program for blood sugar
control using dance as a form of exercise, as well as a program that
raises endorphin levels, while fighting depression and maintaining muscle
strength and endurance. This
program additionally benefits osteoporosis and its prevention. The program is currently being reviewed by the
American Diabetes Association for endorsement.
Miami, Florida, June 14, 2000