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Latin Music Museum Honors Cuban Pete In NYC

By Gene Roman

June 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved.

In an East Harlem gym decorated with the posters and portraits of many of Latin music’s founding fathers and mothers, including Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Machito, Danny Santos and Ismael Rivera, the community gathered on June 14, 2002 to honor and acknowledge the cultural contributions of legendary Mambo Master, Pedro "Cuban Pete" Aguilar on his 75th birthday. Mr. Aguilar, stood elegantly throughout the evening in a dark suit and gold tie with a large lapel pin spelling out the words of his singular passion, MAMBO, as a large audience of former students, admirers and new fans showered him with much deserved praise and recognition.

Once referred to in LIFE magazine as one of the "greatest mambo dancers ever," Cuban Pete was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New York’s El Barrio. His first dance teacher was his mother, Nellie Trujillo Masdeu. He was also fortunate to have studied for two years with the great modern choreographer and dancer, Katherine Dunham.

Modern audiences may know him best for the work he has done behind the scenes in various motion pictures, including the hit movie, "The Mambo Kings," whose stars-actors Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas-were his willing pupils. Cuban Pete’s thorough understanding of the era depicted in the film influenced everything from the dance style to the clothes to the interior look of the Palladium, and helped insure the authentic story and visual texture.

Most recently, he helped make history in the preservation of clave (the rhythmic foundation of latin music; its "metronome") by blending it with ballet. Pete was the consultant and instructor for the Miami City Ballet’s innovative work, "Mambo No. 2am," a mambo ballet created by Edward Villela.

As to the origins of his nickname, Mr. Aguilar explained to me that it was bestowed on him after winning a dance contest at the Palladium by then owner, Tommy Morton. The name became permanent when bandleader, Desi Arnaz, who had written the mambo classic, "Cuban Pete," publicly announced it.

His longtime partner and manager, Barbara Craddock, a mambo aficionado since the Palladium days of the 1950’s, who also serves as the informal curator of the Cuban Pete legacy says that his "genius lies in the strength of his timing and his ability to hear different layers of music and translate it to dance." They met while dancing at Anthony’s in Hollywood, Florida on September 2, 1998. Ms. Craddock had no trouble recalling the specific date of their first meeting. "He took two steps with me," she affectionately recalled, and said, "I want you to be my partner."

So while most of us listen to the bass or piano to help guide our dancing, Pete has the unique ability to hear all the different layers of music at once. "I listen to it all," he told me. In his public performances, Pete told me that people would often ask him to repeat the steps he had just done. "What steps?," he would answer. Like his great teachers and heroes, Dunham, Puente & Machito, Pete will not enforce a strict, rigid choreography that does not allow for the dancers version of the jazz solo. "I trust the sound of what I’m listening to. If I can be possessed with the music and let go-magic happens." Pete combines his masterful technique with the inspiration provided by the fiery rhythms of the Afro-Cuban sound to create dance magic.

This signature style has made him into an icon on the dance floor and continues to confirm his titles, "Maestro of the Mambo" and "Prince of the Palladium". His illustrious career also includes two White House performances for Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson; a command performance for Queen Elizabeth; a performance at Madison Square Garden for Prime Minister Ben Gurion of Israel; performances on both coasts with Machito, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Rodriguez, and appearances on hundreds of local, national and international television and radio programs.

What many people do not know about Pete is that he is a diabetic, and that he has developed innovative dance programs to improve the quality of life for chronically ill patients. His programs uses dance as a form of exercise to help control blood sugar levels, raise endorphin levels (to battle depression), and maintain strength and endurance. He has taught this program in Florida and California, and has presented it to the American Diabetes Association for their seal of approval. Along with his partner, Ms. Craddock, they also host ‘sold out" dance workshops coast-to-coast.

This memorable evening, which included the teaching of a master class and performances by local groups, The Side Street Kids & Mambo Mamas, was hosted by RAICES, a program of The Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, established by Ramon Rodriguez, Louis Bauzo and Joe Conzo to document the roots and evolution of Afro-Caribbean Latin Music in New York.

The next RAICES event will be the October 5, 2002 opening of a major exhibition on the history of Latin music at the Museum of the City of New York. For more information, please call: 212-427-2244 x. 578.

Cuban Pete can be reached through Craddock Management/Cuban Pete Enterprises in Miami Beach, Florida-Telephone:305-931-3336/Fax:305-933-3357 For a visual overview of this mambo master, log on to his website:

By the time this article goes to print, the Bravo TV network would have aired a two- hour documentary on The Palladium Story (1947 through the Sixties) featuring the most famous Mambo dancers and every great Mambo orchestra that graced the stage of the Palladium Ballroom. Check your local listings or for a rebroadcast of this program.

Gene Roman is a contributing writer for Latin Long Island Magazine. He can be reached at

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