For more than 30 years, Marisela Verena has steered her career along less-traveled roads, always willing to endure bumpy journeys in order to set her own direction.
She was, in the early 1970s, a fledgling singer-songwriter intent on carving out a space for herself as an artist with a nueva trova/nueva canción style and approach, at a time when many in that Latin American folk/protest genre felt contempt for Cuban exiles like herself who were unsympathetic to Fidel Castro's regime.
For years she lived in her beloved Puerto Rico, even though other places would have been better for her career.
In the early 1990s, after having built a solid career, she exiled herself from the concert stage and the recording studio for a long five years, writing for others, such as Celia Cruz and Gilberto Santa Rosa.
Throughout her career, she has eschewed flashy singing, cultivating an unadorned style to accentuate the lyrics.
''I'm satisfied because I have been able to do what I love. My career is a calling, not a profession. As a profession, this can be a bad deal,'' says the 54-year-old. "But I have a full and complete sense of personal satisfaction.''
''It's often hard to find record labels for her work, because her songs aren't mainstream commercial,'' says Miami-based entertainment businessman Pepe Horta, who was the executive producer of her 2004 album Somos los que Andamos (We Are the Ones Who Move).
''My support is based on the quality of her work, not on her record sales".
Of course, sometimes the commercial and the artistic feed off each other: Somos los que Andamos, which includes the hit Nosotros los Cubanos, (a send-up of Cuban hubris that nonetheless ends on a patriotic note) has been cracking the Top 60 in the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart this year.
Verena left Cuba in 1962 at age 11 as part of the Pedro Pan movement.
The bug to become a professional singer-songwriter bit Verena when she was a university student in Miami, and, feeling the city offered little chance for her career, she moved to Puerto Rico in the early 1970s.
There she honed her craft in bohemian clubs with her own compositions and songs from nueva canción stars like Joan Manuel Serrat and Violeta Parra. Mainstream pop turned her off, and she felt an affinity with poetic, socially meaningful songs.
Making ends meet as a nueva trova/nueva canción artist was hard enough in the early '70s, even for those who fit the genre's ideological requisite of unconditional support of the Cuban Revolution. The genre wasn't a favorite of the mainstream recording industry.
But Verena faced an even steeper hill. ''Certain elements vetoed me automatically for being a Cuban exile,'' she recalls. 'They stamped a sign on my forehead that said 'despicable gusana' [exile worm] without giving me a
In Puerto Rico, Venezuela and other places, this discrimination kept her out of university festivals, excluded her from clubs and even put her at risk, such as when the Old San Juan La Tea got bomb threats for booking Verena in the early 1970s.
Undeterred, Verena built a career in Puerto Rico, expanding her reach from nightclubs to radio and television, and eventually moving to Spain in 1975, where the CBS label signed her.
Six years later she returned to Puerto Rico. ''Spain held more promise professionally, but Puerto Rico was more important because of the many friends I reconnected with.'' There, during the '80s and '90s, she released several successful albums. She began recording about Cuba in 1989, penning songs such as Son de las cuatro décadas (Song of the Four Decades) and Memorandum para un tirano (Memo to a Tyrant).
For the past two years Verena has been spending most of her time in Miami, the place for Latin music now, she says.
But she has been what's known out there as good. ''She has always been a first-class songwriter and a singer with a very distinct voice,'' says Juan Estévez, president of Miami-based Pimienta Records, the label that issued Somos los que Andamos. "Her style is like trova mixed with Cuban son. Trova has never been very commercial, but that's her style and she does it very well.''