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Celia Cruz

Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso aka Celia Cruz
October 21, 1925 – July 16, 2003
Nationality: Cuban
Notable: Singer

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Show Notes

Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso was born in Havana, Cuba one of her parents’, Simon Cruz and Catalina Alfonso, four children. The family lived in Santos Suarez, a low-income neighborhood that was also home to many musicians who played a variety of musical styles. Exposure to these early influences would have a tremendous impact on Cruz’s future.

As a teen, Cruz was enrolled at Havana’s Normal School for Teachers where she studied to become a literature teacher. At the time, teaching was a common career for women and the track that Cruz’s father thought would be best for her. Yet, Cruz had already begun to make a name for herself locally as a singer.

A cousin would bring neighbors to listen from outside the house while Cruz sang her younger siblings to sleep. She began performing with El Botón de Oro (The Golden Button) at local venues and was entered into a radio station singing contest by her cousin which she won. Cruz’s mother encouraged her in singing and supported her now regular appearances on weekend radio competitions around the city.

In line with her father’s wishes, Cruz initially enrolled at the National Teachers’ College after high school. As her music performances brought greater notoriety she continued her education but switched to the National Conservatory of Music. Ironically, it was while enrolled at this school of music that a professor gave Cruz their blessing and encouraged her to leave school and focus on her singing career full-time.

Cruz became a recording artist in 1948 but her career began to truly transform in 1950 when she joined La Sonora Matancera. The orchestra had been created 25 years earlier but Cruz was its first Black lead singer. There was some unease about her becoming the lead in part because of the belief that the group’s records wouldn’t sell because she was a woman. But Cruz would prove to be more than capable of fronting the highly popular band. While being a member of the band would make Cruz famous she would in turn take the band to new levels.

The band spent the rest of the decade touring Cuba, North America, and Central America. They performed as headliners at nightclubs and made regular appearances on radio and television as well as in multiple Mexican movies. Cruz would become synonymous with guarachas, a style of Cuban music that features a fast tempo and descriptive almost narrative lyrics.

While in Miami, Cruz adapted “¡Azúcar!” (sugar) as a catchphrase, she had uttered this in response to a waiter who asked about her coffee preferences. Cruz began to use the phrase as an ad-lib in songs and during performances. While the word simply means “sugar”, it took on special significance as a result of being uttered by Cruz, a Black woman. The phrase would come to be a reminder of Africans who had been enslaved and forced to work on Cuba’s sugar plantations.

The Cuban Revolution began in 1959 while Cruz and Sonora Matancera were on tour in Mexico. Amid other changes to Cuba’s society, the Revolution effectively ended the nightlife scene in Havana. Some members of the band decided to move to America and Cruz settled in New Jersey. When she became an American citizen in 1961 Cruz was officially exiled by Fidel Castro’s regime. This rendered her unable to legally return home even if she chose thus she would be unable to attend the funerals of her parents when they later passed away.

The 1960s would otherwise prove to be a decade of change for Cruz. In 1962 Cruz married the band’s former trumpet player, Pedro Knight. She became active in New York’s emerging Latin scene and went solo in 1965. Cruz had become famous in Cuba and some other parts of North America but she was still relatively unknown outside of these areas. In 1965 she began a series of collaborations with Tito Puente’s orchestra which had a strong following in Latin America. This exposed her to new audiences though it would take several years for Cruz to develop a solid fanbase in America outside of other Cuban exiles.

Aside from Puente, Cruz collaborated with other artists and recorded music for various labels. But she would find her footing in the 1970s with salsa music which blended elements of Latin and Caribbean music. Earning the moniker “Queen of Salsa” Cruz introduced herself to a younger crowd by revamping old popular Latin songs and appearing in Latin adaptations of musicals. Her strong voice, creative vocal arrangements, high-energy shows, and vibrant stage costumes showed that her age was no hindrance to her performances.

Throughout the rest of her career, Cruz remained loyal to salsa but also experimented with other genres. She would continue to perform live and record, releasing over 75 albums of which 23 went gold. Among her numerous awards were multiple Grammys, Latin Grammys, an American National Medal of the Arts, and a Hollywood star. Cruz also made appearances in films, was the subject of a BBC documentary, and co-authored an autobiography.

Celia Cruz died at home in New Jersey at the age of 77 from a brain tumor. Her body was flown to Miami where other Cuban exiles paid their respects before she was flown to the Bronx in New York for burial. Since her exile decades earlier, Cruz had technically never been able to return to her home country proper. In a touching gesture, a small bag of soil that Cruz had gathered during a trip to perform at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base was included in her casket.

Sources

  1. Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Celia Cruz.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. May 6, 2021. https://www.biography.com/musician/celia-cruz.
  2. “Celia Cruz.” 2022. National Museum of African American History and Culture. January 11, 2022. https://nmaahc.si.edu/latinx/celia-cruz.
  3. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2021. “Celia Cruz.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. October 31, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Celia-Cruz.
  4. Russian, Ale. 2021. “How Celia Cruz Became the ‘Queen of Salsa’.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. March 8, 2021. https://www.biography.com/news/celia-cruz-queen-of-salsa.

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