Celia Cruz was known as “The Queen of Salsa” and several other titles symbolizing her tremendous impact on Latin music. She was colorful, stylish and confident, influencing generations of Latin music artists over the course of her five -decade career. She came to represent the many Cuban-Americans who escaped from the harsh regime of Fidel Castro’s rule to find freedom in the United States, recording over 70 albums.
She was born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alphonso on October 21, 1925 in Havana, Cuba. She was raised in a poor household of 14 children. Early on, she was known for having singing ability and, although her father Simon’s ambitions were for her to complete her schooling and become a Spanish language teacher, Celia’s desire was to get involved in the world of music. Simon was not supportive, so she appeased him for a season by going to a local teacher’s college, but she was never to finish her schooling there. One of her teachers there even encouraged her to be a professional musician, since she would make far more money at it than with teaching.
Celia started entering talent competitions and getting notice for her talent. When it was apparent that her career was starting to gain ground, she quit the teacher’s college and took music and voice lessons at the National Conservatory of Music in Havana. She eventually left there to concentrate solely on her singing.
At that time, it was not a simple thing for a female singer to triumph as a salsa singer, because female singers in Cuba were not always championed, due to the fact that the music scene was largely male-dominated. When she was hired as a lead vocalist for the band La Sonora Matancera, there was criticism from some fans, but the plucky Celia never allowed this to shake her confidence and determination to succeed.
She stayed the course and, before long, both she and the band became famous. She remained a member of La Sonora Matancera for 15 years. All would have continued to go well had not the Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro gained power of the country and turned it into a socialist, somewhat repressive state. Celia and the band defected in Mexico on July 15, 1960, becoming American citizens soon after and angering Castro. In what must surely have been a cruel act of revenge, Castro refused to allow Celia to return briefly to Cuba for her mother’s funeral in 1962.
Professionally, her career floundered in the U.S. during the early 1960’s, mostly due to the fact that younger Hispanic-Americans were choosing to listen to rock and roll, also because Celia stubbornly refused to sing in English, although she was quite competent in the language. She left La Sonora Matancera in 1965. Things improved immensely when she started getting involved with a new music taking root, called salsa.
Joining Puerto Rican bandleader and percussionist Tito Puente’s orchestra was one of the wisest moves she could have made, for it propelled her into huge popularity. She enthralled audiences with her husky voice, dynamic personality, energetic dancing, flamboyant outfits, high heels and wigs. Her trademark shout during performances was “Azukar!”, the Spanish word for “sugar”.
Celia was the ultimate entertainer and she was one of the reasons that more young Hispanic-Americans began to embrace salsa and its ethnic roots. She was a hot ticket in the New York Latin jazz world, but was particularly worshipped in Miami. The Cuban exile community there readily identified with her because she represented the rich culture they had had to leave behind in order to escape Castro. In spite of the fact that she continued singing only in Spanish, it wasn’t long before those outside the salsa genre took interest. A force such as Celia Cruz could never be ignored.
She became a part of the Fania All Stars, a group composed of salsa musicians from various groups who were a part of the Fania record label and toured part of Europe and Latin America. She made television commercials, appeared in movies, such as The Mambo Kings, sang with younger singers inside and outside of the salsa genre and won numerous musical awards. She was given the National Medal of Arts award in 1994.
Celia was honored and treasured tremendously by her fellow musicians and fans, so they were deeply saddened when she died at her Fort Lee, New Jersey home on July 16, 2003 of a brain tumor.
There was a huge outpouring of grief and her body toured a number of American cities, in order to allow her fans to pay tribute to her. Afterwards, she was laid to rest, buried with a handful of Cuban soil, as she had never lost her love for her native land.
The younger musicians who have been so positively affected by her are committed to carrying on her legacy, something that would make Celia very happy.