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Singer's legacy is her life

Soraya spent her time working for peace and breast cancer awareness. And as the disease was taking her life, she penned a message of hope.

Published May 19, 2006


In a world of over-hyped entertainment stars, singer-songwriter Soraya was a rare breed.

Besides being a successful crossover artist, singing in both English and Spanish, the Colombian-American was committed to social causes in both nations. Her songs addressed the political violence in Colombia. But she will perhaps be best remembered there and here as an arduous campaigner for breast cancer research.

The Miami-based singer lost her own 5-year battle with the disease last week at age 37.

A Latin Grammy award winner who worked with Sting, Michael Bolton and Carole King, Soraya had been enjoying a resurgence in her career after taking time off to deal with a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer in 2000.

Interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times in September last year, she spoke passionately about her peace advocacy and the need for reconciliation in Colombia. And as a spokeswoman for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, she was just as earnest in urging women to seek early cancer treatment.

"When you see children are kidnapped and life is devalued as far as it's gone, everybody becomes numb to it," she said. "There has to be some justice, and we also have to be able to forgive. It's an essential human quality."

After touring in South America last fall she quietly disappeared from the music scene again.

A spokeswoman for her record label, EMI Latin, said she died May 10 in a Miami hospital. Before passing away she still found time to speak to her fans, in a letter on her Web site.

"My journey today is not easy, but I want you to know that your unconditional support has always been in my heart," Soraya wrote. "As I said before, I've completed my dream and day to day I can't ask for more."

Born in New Jersey to Colombian parents descended from Lebanese immigrants, Soraya lost her mother and grandmother to breast cancer.

She made fighting the disease as much a part of her life as her music, inspiring others by her example.

"Her honesty and dedication, along with her incredible drive for life and her ability to concentrate on what really matters, has truly changed my life forever," Soraya's manager, Joyce Fleming, said in a statement. "We appreciate the opportunity to have learned from her wisdom and allowed it to enrich our lives."

The Komen foundation added its tribute. "Through the years, Soraya made Komen's mission her own, and her passing is a vivid reminder that our work is urgent and that we must strive harder to eradicate breast cancer once and for all," said Pat Tosi, the foundation head. "Soraya's legacy will live on as we fight to end the pain and suffering caused by this disease."

During her career Soraya won praise for her honest lyrics which drew on family experiences. Her debut album On Nights Like This En Esta Noche, was dedicated to her mother, who died in 1992. In the title song she describes how her mother inspired her.

"Sometimes it swallows me this space I feel inside/But I think of how strong you were and it helps me get by."

Soraya grew up in Colombia and picked up the guitar when she was 5. Later she studied and mastered classical violin. Like her more famous compatriot, Shakira, her music was influenced by her parents' Lebanese roots.

Soraya released four successful albums before her cancer diagnosis. She was already active in breast health advocacy because of her family's history with the disease. Her 2000 album I'm Yours/Cuerpo y Alma included breast health information in the liner notes; her diagnoses came in June that same year.

Her comeback began in 2003 with the release of her album Soraya, which won a Latin Grammy for best singer-songwriter album. Her inspirational song Por Ser Quien Soy (No One Else), became an anthem for breast cancer survivors and was distributed in a Komen foundation health kit:

"Came out of nowhere, shot through my heart now I'm breathing once again," Soraya sang in that song. "As I'm standing alone, face to face by myself, I thank the Lord I'm no one else."

Her last album, El Otro Lado de Mi (My Other Side), included the song Alma de la Calle (Soul of the Street) which told the true story of a Bogota shoeshine woman, Maria Amparo Amaya, who also is a published poet.

Soraya first learned of the woman through a newspaper article and decided to learn more about her.

"I was blown away, so I put on my investigator's cap and bought an (airline) ticket the next day," she said last year.

Her original intention was to spend an hour with her to "let her know she wasn't invisible."

Soraya discovered Amparo was used to attention, but nothing ever came of it.

"A lot of people gave her a lot of lip service," said Soraya. "I was the first one to say, 'Isn't she amazing,' and ask, 'so what next?' "

Soraya pestered the U.S. embassy to get a three-day visa for Amparo to come to Miami. "I wanted her to see a dolphin," she said.

She also arranged a poetry reading. "It was beautiful, very simple. It was first time she got to hear silence that comes before the roar of applause."

Soraya "came to my house and had coffee in the chipped cups that I have," Amparo told a Colombian newspaper last week. "I liked her simplicity. She received me the way I am. She even wrote a song for me."

Amparo returned the compliment last week with a poem dedicated to Soraya.

Today my soul is drenched

I thought it was true that her cancer was cured

Death isn't indifferent to doctors and song

Life is a paragraph of wind

That covers the notes and departs like rain rising to the clouds from earth.

David Adams can be reached at


Donations to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in Soraya's memory will help support educational outreach programs. To make a donation, please visit

[Last modified May 18, 2006, 11:38:29]

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