Celia Cruz — “La Guarachera de Cuba” and ultimately La Reina de la Salsa — was a worldwide icon due to her musical prowess, beaming personality, and her distinct style.
Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz was born in Havana, Cuba on October 21, 1925. She grew up in the poor neighborhood of Santos Suárez, which was a very musically diverse community. Cruz constantly sang, as a young girl and teen, often in cabarets and in radio talent contests. By the 1940s, Cruz won a” La hora del té” (“Tea Time”) singing contest. In 1950, when she was 25 years old, Cruz’ deep and rich alto singing voice caught the attention of La Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s most popular orchestra. This was very monumental achievement because she became the first Black Woman in that orchestra.
Celia Cruz would walk onstage with extravagant wigs that stood in a sky-high position on her scalp. This eventually would become her “brand” and she was often remembered for that. In addition to that, she would always keep a smile on her face that seemed almost permanently etched on. Her hits contain themes primarily of happiness and the sufferings of everyday life. Some examples of her most famous hits are, “La Vida Es Un Carnival,” “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” “Guantanamera,” etc. Cruz was also honored with an exhibit called ¡Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz. Although, the word azucar means “sugar” Cruz used it as a “battle cry and an allusion to African slaves who worked Cuba’s sugar plantations.” Celia Cruz had an innate joy and goodness that would eventually led her to great success.
Cruz’ album, Son Con Guaguancó, was her first major release as a solo artist in the United States. As Stefanie Fernández, a writer for NPR article about her life described this album and her music this way:
“The album’s name is a testament to Cruz’s attention to the fusion of genre, setting and identity. Cruz combines elements of classic Afro-Cuban son montuno rhythms with the faster, syncopated elements of the guaguancó subgenre that became her signature, incorporating undertones of rumba, mambo, cha-cha, guaracha and bolero. “I bring you this guaguancó that tastes of son,” she sings on the titular track. With Fania, “salsa” became an umbrella term for this fusion of West-African-derived, clave-centric genres with American influences like jazz and Nuyorican boogaloo….Ethnomusicologist and Yale University professor Michael Veal cites Cruz as one of the central figures of the West African diaspora in the Caribbean who “injected a folkloric sensibility of lucumí and santería into popular dance music.””
Cruz had a 40-year singing career, recording numerous albums in the 1970s-1980s and well into 2003 when she recorded her last song, “Ríe y Llora”. She made over 73 records and received critical acclaim for her work; with 23 of her records went Gold, and she also won several Grammys and Latin Grammys. She also delved in acting by appearing in several movies and telenovelas such as Mambo Kings, Valentina and The Perez Family. Cruz’ honors include earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and being awarded the American National Medal of the Arts by by President Bill Clinton. Celia Cruz received honorary doctorates from Yale University and the University of Miami.
Celia Cruz passed away on July 16, 2003 at the age of 77 due to complications after surgery for a brain tumor. On October 13, 2015, Celia, a drama series inspired by the legendary singer’s life, debuted on Telemundo. Cruz is an iconic figure who had a very successful career. She should be remembered as she is considered by many as one of the most popular and iconic artists in the 20th century. As stated by writer, Stefanie Fernández:
“For the Cuban-American community, Cruz became a symbol of pride and freedom, and she brought Afro-Cuban music to the world stage as a black woman in the face of widespread racism and sexism. Thirty years after she left Cuba — and 24 years after the release of her American solo debut — Cruz returned in 1990 to perform at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay and kissed the soil beneath her. Today, she is buried in New York with a fistful of Cuban earth.” The Queen Of Salsa’s own words have meaning even today:
“When people hear me sing, I want them to be happy, happy, happy. I don’t want them thinking about when there’s not any money, or when there’s fighting at home. My message is always felicidad ― happiness.”