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July 25, 1991|ELENA KELLNER

"Music has been my hope. It has given me the courage to climb out of poverty and touch the universe," says Celia Cruz. With 20-plus gold LPs in a career that spans four decades, Cuba's "Queen of Rhumba" recently received the Nosotros' Golden Eagle award for "Lifetime Achievement in Music." Taking time out from a busy concert schedule, Cruz just wrapped "Mambo Kings," her first English-speaking role. The soulful love story--which takes place in New York in 1953--was scripted by Cuban-born screenwriter Cynthia Cidre, based on Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer prize-winning novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." The film stars Armand Assante and Spain's Antonio Banderas, with Tito Puente as himself, Desi Arnaz Jr. portraying his real-life father, and Cruz playing the owner of Harlem's Club Babalu. Warner Bros. has scheduled a November release.

Moving from mambos to mariachis, the popularity of recent mariachi fests in Tucson and Los Angeles has spawned the first Las Vegas International Mariachi Festival. Set for Sept. 14 at the Thomas & Mack Center, the festival features the famed Mexican mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan and Los Angeles' prominent Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez and Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Also on the bill are Juan Fidel, a gifted 13-year-old who--although blind since birth--plays 23 instruments; the 75-member Ballet Folklorico de San Juan, and Las Perlitas Tapatias, an all-female mariachi band. Miss Universe, Mexico's Lupita Jones, and singer Jorge Muniz will emcee. Part of the proceeds will benefit underprivileged children in the United States and Mexico.

Raul Julia has enthusiastically lent his voice to Spanish-language animated videos of the classic children's tales "How the Rhinoceros Got Its Skin," "How the Camel Got Its Hump" and "The Monkey People," which he also did in English. The Puerto Rican actor is in good company--Cher, Meryl Streep and others have narrated audiotapes and videos for Rabbit Ear Productions, which specializes in children's entertainment.

Coca-Cola's "MTV '91 Tour" will be going to the Irvine Meadows on Aug. 16. Among the featured artists in the rock extravaganza is Ecuador-born rap heartthrob Gerardo, whose bilingual hit, "Rico Suave," catapulted him into the pop music spotlight.

The world premiere of "Widows," a play based on the novel by Chilean author/poet Ariel Dorfman, is set for July 25. It tells of the "disappeared," people who have been seized by the military and have not been seen again. Although that has been known to happen in many Third World countries, the drama is set in a village of a war-battered South American country. Tony Plana ("One Good Cop," "Havana," "The Rookie") heads the multiracial cast in this sensitive story, which is scheduled to run at the Music Center's Mark Taper Forum until Sept. 10. The versatile actor has just completed Oliver Stone's movie "JFK" with Kevin Costner. And in the Lifetime cable TV series "Veronica Clare," the Cuban-born Plana plays a Los Angeles policeman of Polish extraction. The new series, slotted for Tuesday evenings, co-stars Mexican-American actor Robert Beltran.

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