Carmen Ramirez's love affair with the King of Salsa began with a blind date. It ended when she was blindsided by another woman who loved Hector Lavoe. Lavoe's life is the subject of the new movie El Cantante, a typically abridged Hollywood biopic starring celebrity couple Marc Anthony as Hector and Jennifer Lopez as Puchi, the woman Hector jilted Carmen to marry. Blink and you'll miss the unknown actor portraying Carmen. Director Leon Ichaso presents her as one among the gaggle of women chased from a recording session by the jealous Puchi. The real Carmen Ramirez, 58, now living in Spring Hill and happily married for 37 years, says that's not the way it happened.
Behind the movie's vibrant musical numbers and familiar backstage melodrama is her untold story, one that reveals more about Lavoe's tragic life.
Ramirez retains fond memories of Lavoe, who she said stayed in touch with her - and their son - throughout Lavoe's life.
"I wish they would've done a little bit more homework," she said. "I know you can't get an entire life into a movie. My problem is that they don't put out the pretty things about him, what a good man he was."
When they were set up on that first date in 1968, Hector was a 20-year-old jibarito - a little country boy - with a big voice and bad-boy charisma. Carmen Castro, barely 18, was a Bronx girl who thought Hector was too skinny, too "hillbilly" in his clothes and coarse manners. Besides, dating a musician didn't fit her strict upbringing.
Even so, she quickly fell in love with the man called El Cantante, when the singer was just starting to blend Latin musical styles into salsa, the new wave of nightclub rhythms.
A different view
Hector and Carmen dated for a year before she became pregnant. They named the little boy Jose, after Hector's brother. Hector had Carmen legally adopt his real surname, Perez, and promised they would marry the day after Jose's baptism.
But Carmen says the baptism party was interrupted by a telephone call.
On the line was Nilda "Puchi" Rosado (played by Lopez in the movie), who informed Carmen that she was pregnant with Hector's child. He was her man now.
"Someone had told me about this girl who was after Hector," Carmen said. "Because there were so many other girls after Hector, I just blew it over.
"But this girl seemed to be very insistent, pushy, and she wanted to get what she wanted."
Now what Carmen wants is to set the record straight, and that's why she's speaking out.
She also wants peace for Jose, now 38 and living in the Bronx, supported in part by royalties from his father's music catalog. His mother says he was "very hurt" after Puchi's daughter by another man exhumed Lavoe, who died in New York in 1993, for reburial in his native Puerto Rico.
She wants to end gossip that Jose isn't Hector's son, rumors Carmen says Hector blamed on Puchi, who died in 2002.
Carmen wants people to know the affectionate Hector she knew, not the self-destructive one moviegoers will see in El Cantante.
Not letting go
Hector's vices were as renowned as his verses. Leon Ichaso's movie depicts Hector's addictions - notably heroin - that led to his 1993 death from AIDS complications.
"He never did drugs when he was around me," Carmen said. "(Puchi and I) were two totally different women. I was raised in a Catholic school and was totally naive. She knew the way of life in the street, knew about drugs and all that stuff."
The movie version shows Puchi introducing marijuana to Hector and tacitly enabling his cocaine and heroin abuse.
Puchi's telephone call after the baptism devastated Carmen, but it didn't really surprise her.
"You know when a man falls in love," she said. "I noticed him changing on me. I don't know what she was doing to him, but there was no way in hell that I was going to hold onto him."
Yet Carmen didn't lose him entirely. Hector regularly visited Jose, and even Carmen's parents, after marrying Puchi, contrite after asking for Carmen's hand and then jilting her. For years he called Carmen behind Puchi's back or sometimes when he was with still another woman. One time she made Hector put one of his girlfriends on the phone.
"She was young enough to be his daughter," Carmen said. "She said they were in love, but I told her she was sadly incorrect. He's married with a son and has a son with me. There's no way he will be with you."
Carmen hoped Hector's persistent attention meant he would come back to her. She waited two years before dating anyone else, finally marrying in 1970. She became pregnant 16 years later, news that she said angered Hector.
"He let me have it," Carmen said: " 'How could you do that to me? You know I'm your papi and I'll always be your papi.' I said: 'Hector, you're 16 years too late.' "
In the end
Carmen kept in touch with Hector until the end. She recently hosted his sister Louisa during a Florida vacation and communicates with his brother Jose in Puerto Rico. She isn't certain that she'll see El Cantante, reluctant to watch "my first man" self-destruct again.
She knows the screenplay was presented to Lopez, who co-produced the film, by Puchi before she died. It is structured with flashbacks from Puchi's point of view.
In a telephone interview, Ichaso said he is aware of Carmen's relationship with Hector. He preferred focusing on Hector's music and the falling-star framework that succeeded with musician biographies Ray and Walk the Line.
"Could she have added something to the movie? She might've," he said.
"But we're trying to compress 20 years into a couple of hours. We couldn't have taken care of everyone. A lot of stories fell out of our narrative. You can't have it all."
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
Winesses to a fiery star's rise and fall
Carmen Ramirez isn't the only Tampa Bay area resident with personal memories of Hector Lavoe.
We heard through the salsa line that Brandon's Jon Fausty, 58, served as recording engineer for almost all of Lavoe's records. Fausty witnessed the vices that eventually led to the singer's death, but says "in the studio he was always prepared."
Roberto Ferrer, 64, a Tampa radio host on WQBN-AM 1300 was formerly an actor and singer whose backstage friends on the 1960s salsa circuit didn't like the brash cantante's attitude.
In the 1970s, Franco Silva, 44, of St. Petersburg crowded so close to Harlem nightclub stages that he could see Lavoe's green eyes behind his ever-present shades. Now Silva keeps the Latin music beat as a DJ with WMNF-FM 88.5.
Through their recollections, a clearer portrait of Lavoe's personality and musical influence emerges.
Silva said most Puerto Rican musicians in 1960s New York were actually "Nuevo Ricans," born and raised in the United States.
"They were trying to connect with the new music called salsa and along comes this hick showing them what being Puerto Rican is all about. Hector was instantly identifiable to the youth who were hungry to see somebody from their background."
Lavoe's appeal was earthy, even insulting on some occasions, according to Fausty.
"He was able to go in front of an audience, kinda tipsy, and he would curse at the audience, and the audience would love that. He just had the ability to communicate at the root level."
Sometimes that got Lavoe in trouble, recalled Ramirez's agent, New York-based Hector Leguillow. Once Lavoe called Latin concertgoers "a bunch of welfare recipients" and they stormed the stage, beating up the band and destroying their instruments.
Ferrer remembers a 1968 show at Manhattan Center when jazz/mambo legend Tito Puente had enough of the young headliner's attitude.
"Hector comes in saying, 'I'm the star, I deserve top billing.' Everyone was saying, 'Who the hell is this guy?'
"Tito told him: 'You're lucky. You should go up before me or Celia (Cruz) or anybody. We're going to leave you a hot stage and you won't be able to handle it.' "
Ferrer said Lavoe collapsed in mid set, an early public sign of his drug addictions.
Silva recalled walking with a friend in Harlem in the early 1980s as a gaunt man staggered through an area known for drug-dealing.
"My friend says, 'Hey, did you see who that was? That was Hector, Hector Lavoe.'
"Hector became the dude you saw flashing by when he came to cop'' drugs.
But drugs couldn't soothe the pain of a son's accidental death, or of Lavoe's AIDS diagnosis, leading to a 1988 suicide attempt depicted in El Cantante.
"We were amazed when word got to New York from San Juan," Fausty said. "He actually dove out of a hotel and landed on his back on an air conditioner and survived.''
Looking back on Lavoe's failed attempts to kick drugs and straighten out his life, Fausty sees a pattern.
"If you look at it, it's kind of the story of his life: trying to end something bad and not being able to."