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Soraya Raquel Lamilla Cuevas





Soraya Survivor

Soraya, the Colombian-American singer-songwriter, is back after a three-year battle with breast cancer, offering up her most powerful release yet. Her triumphant return is inspiration packed with energy.

By Achy Obejas

She’s a woman who has already seen success with a capital “S” — a woman who has tasted international stardom and critical acclaim. She has achieved much of what she set out to do: promote Latin music, reach out to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences, take control of her vision, realize her own personal style, and win a Grammy.

Soraya is also a survivor. She is a woman who, at the peak of her musical career, detected her own breast cancer and then dealt with the many difficulties of surgery and chemotherapy treatments. She bounded back into public life and has devoted much of her time and energy to promoting breast cancer awareness, early detection, and fundraising for several breast cancer organizations.

She is also embracing her life and imbuing her music with renewed vigor, a fierce focus, and a rawness not evident in her previous recordings. Soraya is more centered, more balanced, and more poised to shake the world than ever before.

In this exclusive interview, Cuerpo finds Soraya in Miami’s South Beach, midway through the creation of her new album, El Otro Lado de Mi, and leaping wholeheartedly into a new life.

You began your career very auspiciously in 1996, with two releases — one in English and one in Spanish. And you got a couple of number one Latin pop hits. From there until 2000, you seemed to be putting out a record a year and getting good response to all of that work. What were you thinking about?

I never set out to be famous. I set out to make a living being a musician. That was my absolute number one goal. I didn’t want to have to do other things to pay my bills. I wanted to be able to do what I loved, and do it in a way that I could respect myself every day: not lose my values, not lose my intentions, not lose my vision, not lose my grounding — and yet not have to wait tables or have to take a nine-to-five job. So where I was at at that point was, ‘Okay, you know what? I’m doing okay, you know, I’m making some money, I don’t have to do anything else and I’m growing in amazing ways.’ I worked with Sting, I worked with a bunch of my idols and stuff. And I felt that my career was going in a really good direction, and what I wanted to do at that point was just slow it down just a little bit…I thought, ‘Hey wait a minute: It’s been a year and I’ve been home for fourteen days.’ So that’s not right…People in my band were, ‘Hey, do you remember when we were in the Italian Alps?’ No, when was that? And they were like, ‘Yeah, we were on the tour bus and we were crossing and we got stuck in Slovenia.’ And I’m, like, ‘I don’t remember that.’ And right when all that hit, I was like, ‘I love where this is going but I want to enjoy it, I want to savor it.’

You were 31 in 2000, which is a pretty crucial time for women. You had a great career going. You were living in South Florida, which is an exciting place, especially for young people. At that time, did you have a partner? Were you in love then?

At that point I was coming out of a divorce.

So when you discovered you had cancer, you were partner-less? That must have felt pretty intense not to be able to share that.

No, because I shared it with a lot of people. At that point in time it was the least of my concerns. I was just trying to figure out how to stay alive.

Tell me about your family.

In Colombia, my mom was a housewife. When she came here, it was completely different. I mean, my parents left everything. They didn’t come here with any sort of money in their suitcase or bank accounts. My dad came from a working class family. And when they were here, I just remember my dad working three or four jobs. In Colombia, [he was with] an exporting company. It kind of linked him into what he got into eventually. When we came up here, we lived in a very small apartment in a not so great part of town. My father was working all the time. It was hard to make ends meet. It was very, very definitely not a life of excess.

Was getting that first guitar a big deal?

It was a huge deal. We got that while we were in Colombia. But I never grew up asking for a whole bunch of stuff. And once we got here we knew the rules were different. My parents were very clear.

Your releases have been produced in English and in Spanish. I don’t think anybody else does that.

I just don’t believe in the whole crossover thing. As I was growing up, in my house, I was never allowed to speak English. That was the one thing my mom was really adamant about. Much more so my mom than my dad. My dad brought us here because he wanted the opportunity for his own family, he wanted the opportunity for his kids. He wanted me to have access to whatever it is I wanted to have access to, the same as my brother. He really made the sacrifices for that. He had a bit of the dreamer in him. For him it was important. He started studying English way before we came here, way before he brought my family here. I wasn’t born yet. But my mom was different. It cost her a lot to learn English. And in the house, she was, ‘Look, you’re going to school and you’re going to learn English in school, and I want you to excel in English but when you’re here in this house, you speak Spanish, you eat this way.’ I always joke around because I’ve never in my life had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I have this aversion to the smell of peanut butter. It was like a huge deal to have turkey. The first turkey (my mom) tried to do was a bit of a disaster. So we had ham.

I noticed you were on the “Desert Rose” anthology. And I know that you did a song with Andy, the Persian singer. Do you have some Middle Eastern background? Soraya is a very common name in the Middle East.

On my mother’s side, my maternal side is Lebanese. They emigrated from Lebanon, Christians who emigrated to Colombia. So I grew up with that kind of food too. Actually, that food has been intertwined in the Colombian culture, especially in Calí. I grew up learning how to make tabuli, learning how to make kibbeh, at the same as I learned how to make empanadas.

You have a song in your first album, “En Esta Noche,” which is about your mother and her bout with breast cancer. How old were you when it happened to her?

When my mom first got sick, I was twelve. But when she got sick again I was about 18. When she died, I was about — see, I block all these things out — it was 1992. I was 22.

With all these women in your family — your mother, your aunt, your grandmother — so dramatically affected by breast cancer, did you feel a little haunted? A little vulnerable?

I felt like I had to take care of myself. But I wouldn’t call it haunted, and I wouldn’t call it vulnerable. I don’t believe in that. Vulnerable prefaces victimization in a way. I didn’t feel vulnerable, I just felt like I had to be on guard, like I really had to just watch myself. You know, the guns are pointed. It was at the end of May. I was taking a shower and I was doing a breast exam…and something came up during my little check that wasn’t there and…it was one of those things. I’d just had a full check-up not even a half a year before…I’d had my full check-up at the end of the previous year. But this didn’t seem quite right. It just kind of snuck up. I was like, wait a minute. A: How did I miss this before? And B: When did it get here? I just picked up the phone and called my doctor. It was a Friday and I just said, ‘I need to see you Monday.’ And that was it.

Did you have any inkling how serious it was going to be?

I had no idea because, at the time, I was also running three miles a day…I was so solid. I wasn’t symptomatic. I assumed it was different because it felt different. But I didn’t assume it was a big deal because I was feeling great. The gut, I didn’t even have the gut on then, that frequency was off. I just went into auto-pilot. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’

You went in that Monday to your doctor then. How long did it take for the diagnosis?

It took me about five minutes for me to realize there was something wrong when he felt it and said, ‘Hold on.’ Then he made a phone call and said, ‘Let’s go, I need to take you to see a friend of mine.’

My understanding is that you did some really intense and aggressive treatment, that you did chemo and radiation.

Yeah, I did a whole bunch of stuff. It wasn’t my choice but, yeah, I choose to follow that. Now things have changed a lot. It doesn’t seem like that far back. But protocols have changed between 2000 and now. But because of all the factors — the genetic factors, my age — we had to be really strong and really, really fast. The tour was cancelled, everything was on hold. It was over a year. It was a really long time. I went to the doctor almost every week. My family was freaking out. It was very difficult and sudden; in a way expected, but unexpected so soon. They were just struggling to try and run along…that’s true of everybody in the last year that’s been involved in my life. Everybody took responsibility, which was really good because I couldn’t even add two and two together.

So you had a pretty strong support base with friends —

Small and strong. I blocked everybody else out. I closed the door on everybody else. I had a very short line of patience for anybody outside of my little circle, and I just cleaned house. There were a lot of people who were just hanging on at that point in my career and now they’re all gone. I played a lot of PlayStation. I did some swimming. I learned how to meditate. I learned how to breathe. And then I have a boat too, so I would go with my friend who’s a boat captain and he would take me out to the middle of the bay here and I’d just jump in the water. I would read a lot. I would do a lot of song writing. And then, once I got my bearings, I started doing some of my activism. It all started at that point. I never intended to, I didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to talk to anybody about it. But I sort of had to step up to the plate and once I did, all these people started sending me this stuff. I had no idea of the ignorance out there. It’s so damaging and so harmful. So then that whole thing started to change my vision and my view of things. And I said, ‘Okay, maybe I’m supposed to be doing something here.’ It took a long time to make that decision.

How did you tell your fans? And when did you tell your fans?

I told them that first week when I went to the doctor. I was home in a vegetative state and I leaned on my couch, turned on the TV and saw a picture of myself. It was a still picture, an awful picture, I don’t know where they get these pictures from but I was looking terrible. And then I hear this commentator saying all this bullshit about what’s happening, which is absolutely incorrect. A: How irresponsible as a journalist. B: How insensitive as a human being on this earth. And then (my) Web site just got slogged with all this stuff, people asking what’s happening. And I said, ‘Okay, I didn’t want to deal with this, I really did just want to sit here and disappear in my house…’ But I sat down, I handwrote out five or six lines about what I wanted to say, and we told my fans that way. I had a friend, a camera guy, and I said can we just do this…and then we just released that on video. And then we put out a press release saying, yeah, okay, fine, this is it, this is what’s happening. I’m going to be open about it, I’m not ashamed of it, there’s nothing to hide. I just need some privacy so I can deal with this thing. And then what happened afterward is what just blew my mind. Because beyond the fans’ responding — We had crashes for days. We had these letters, they were really long. I think I read almost all of them.

It was tiring at times but it was comforting most of the time. But what I started to learn that there were so many people out there — kids, husbands, brothers — had a lot of male perspectives, lots of male Latino perspective — writing me and telling me they couldn’t communicate with…whatever the relationship with the woman it was in their lives…they couldn’t communicate with her while she was going through this. Then I would have women writing to me going, ‘I don’t feel I’m like a woman…’ And here I am, I’m still trying to figure out how to get through this thing so I’m just going, ‘This can’t be right…’ So little by little I started to put the pieces together, made some phone calls. I was already working with The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

But you’re a writer. Surely you know that the very process of writing is often a process of discovery.

It helped me too. It helped me formulate questions I needed to ask myself. And they became questions that I turned around when faced with this crisis: Okay, what makes me a woman? What makes me female? What makes me who I am? What is my identity? What is it? When somebody asks you who you are, your first response is to say your name, and you tell your job, but we have to go a little deeper than that. I always tell people, when you go through something like this, don’t be afraid of it; just face it. Consider it an opportunity. You have to face that question and see what you’ll find. Because, you know, usually we just don’t have time for that. You just go around, do your thing. And then those of us who go through difficulties like this have to ask those questions to make that journey and…it sucks. I wish I could have learned it another way but this is what was dealt me, so this is what I have to do. But I use the opportunity to kind of go into areas that I never thought I would, at least not this early on in life.

I discovered how fragile one’s body is, and how fragile that whole balance is. But the treatment that I received is very rarely used now. You go through the hair loss, some women go through lumpectomies, some women go through mastectomies, some women go through reconstruction, some women don’t, some women go through radiation, some women don’t. It’s all very depending on the case. That’s why when I go out and speak, and especially to young women, I very rarely touch upon cancer until the very end, because the whole idea is self-esteem. It just so happens that cancer was the means that brought me to this discovery.

Did you ever think, ‘This is it?’

No. Not at one point in that time did I ever think it. I knew it was going to be hard, and I didn’t know how I was going to get through it but I didn’t give up on the possibility that it was going to work out. I’m not the kind of person that, when I hear bad news, I don’t jump off the ledge. When I hear bad news, I reach for something to hold on to, and then I think about it, and then I move on. So when I heard that news, I went, ‘This is really crap, this is a difficult situation, I’m up against a huge wall, I’m going to be stripped of all the tools I’ve used my entire life so what do I do?’ But I never thought that was it, that I was dying in six months. I never thought that. And I never even asked my doctors that. I always tell women, ‘Don’t ask your doctor how long do I have left, am I going to die?’ They don’t know. It’s an answer that they will never give you. Everything is possible. It could be possible that it’s an early diagnosis and a woman doesn’t react well to treatment. It could be an advanced diagnosis and a woman reacts beautifully to treatment. No one can tell you, so I chose not to go there.

A lot of times when things like this happen to people, in some ways they get closer to their mortality.

That’s a good thing. You have to realize that everything’s on loan. We’re all mortal. We’re all going to die, it’s just a matter of how and when. It also helps you to detach from things…you know, when you’re figuring out I’m not going to be able to get the car or the this…who cares? It’s the sum of the experiences, and the experiences themselves, that matter when you go through something like this. When you actually stop and realize, ‘Hey, I’m a mortal being’ — which we all are — then all of a sudden, the breaths that you take mean that much more. That’s what I mean about learning how to breathe, it’s just really clear. I had time to reflect on all those things and learn and read and ask questions and listen.

Did you pray?

I prayed every day. What I call prayer is my meditation. I don’t believe in written prayers, I don’t believe in words that are written by somebody. I don’t believe that there’s a code that you have to repeat twenty-five times. Basically, I believe a way to pray is to clear your mind, to focus on your breathing. Once you’ve cleared your mind of the distractions, of the things that bind you in tangible world, then you begin to pray. I would always just say, ‘Help me find the strength to get through this.’ That was my major prayer.