October 21, 1925 – Celia Cruz:
“I love living on that stage. Without that, I’d die.”
I feel as if I was always in love with Latin music. In the 1960s, I was big on Bossa Nova and Herb Alpert‘s Mexican-influenced sound. I especially loved Antônio Carlos Jobim from Brazil and Mexican-American Latin Rock guitarist Carlos Santana. In the 1970s, it was acts such as Rubén Blades, Héctor Lavoe, and Celia Cruz. In the 1990s, I got into Ricky Martin, Shakira, and Marc Anthony, plus, of course, Buena Vista Social Club, the ensemble of Cuban musicians established in 1996 to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
The Afro-Latina Queen of Salsa rose to prominence in Havana before being discovered in Mexico and the USA. Celia Cruz is also noted by her LGBTQ fans for her ostentatious outfits, which often included audacious headpieces that would be right at home on RuPaul’s Drag Race (not Lineysha Sparx‘s best moment).
Cruz was the most intensely, and extensively, loved artist in the Afro-Cuban music scene. After a Mambo craze in the 1940s, Latin music become a phenomenon for a second time in the 1970s with the popularity of Salsa. Her passionate and powerful singing, plus the humility and devotion to her queer fans, was an enduring combination in a notoriously difficult field.
Cruz represented the emerging identity of Hispanic America, struggling to keep up to date without losing its original cultural bearings. Her performances were celebrations of this Latinx identity, and so more than purely musical occasions, she symbolized a sensibility that seemed under threat from the relentless assimilation of Spanish-speaking modern life.
Born in Havana, she began singing at home to her siblings and cousins. Even as a young woman, her voice was unusually rich, which brought her a lot of attention in her neighborhood. Her father was a railway worker who had ambitions for her to become a teacher of literature. Taking classes at the Cuban national conservatory led to her teacher to enlist her mother’s support in allowing her to perform live on the radio.
During the late 1940s, Cruz sang with the group Gloria Matancera and toured the Caribbean with the dance company Las Mulatas de Fuego (The Mulattas of Fire), singing Afro-Cuban Yoruba religious music. When Myrta Silva, vocalist with the La Sonora Matancera orchestra, returned to Puerto Rico in 1950, the orchestra’s director, Rogelio Martinez, chose Cruz to replace her. They had the top-rating show on Radio Progreso out of Havana, and after some initial disgruntlement with the change of singers, listeners were won over by the new star.
Female singers were notoriously disparaged in Latin music, but the sheer power, abandonment and skill in improvising of Cruz’s live performances were inimitable and hard to resist.
Her commitment, talent and radiance explain how, years later in New York City, she reclaimed her career as the leading spirit of the new wave of Salsa. Tito Puente, Latin music’s top bandleader, said on first hearing her:
“I couldn’t believe the voice. It was so powerful. I’d never heard a woman sing like that.”
Cruz’s time with La Sonora Matancera lasted for 15 years, with many recordings and tours of Latin America. They conquered New York City in 1957 with her debut at the St. Nicholas Arena. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the band and Cruz escaped to Mexico, already their Number One market. Fidel Castro never forgave her, refusing permission for her to return home even for her father’s funeral.
Shortly after the Cuban Revolution, newly elected Cuban President Manuel Urrutia Lleó began closing gambling spots, nightclubs, and other establishments associated with Havana’s hedonistic lifestyle. This had an immediate impact on the livelihoods of local entertainers. As the Cuban government rapidly shifted to the left to build a “classless and colorblind society”, it struggled to define policy toward forms of cultural expression which had implicitly emphasized cultural differences. Cultural and social centers were abolished. Afro-Cuban festivities were limited to private weekend parties.
In 1973, Cruz re-emerged as an international star. She was cast in the Spanish language version of The Who‘s rock opera Tommy. A performance at Carnegie Hall launched her career to a new generation of Latinx, comfortably American enough to still want to discover and express their ethnic pride. All New York Latin music was labelled ”Salsa”, although it encompassed many Latin styles, and it became the vehicle of choice for Latinx expression.
It was the combination of Cruz’s perhaps old-fashioned sincerity and the passionate delivery of her talent, imbued with a sly and salty sense of humor, that brought her a unique place in the public’s heart as the Queen of Salsa. No one quite believed the sumptuous extravagance of her stage costumes; she bedazzled and beguiled gay audiences, and across generations, she represented the heart and soul of what it means to be Latin.
Her earlier 1960s recording successes with Tito Puente paled before her triumphant collaborations with the younger musicians who modernized the sound. Queuing up to use her as a vocalist were Johnny Pacheco, Sonora Poncena and Ray Barretto, groundbreakers all. They brought her singing to a new generation. Together, they toured the world.
In 2004, the Miami Herald revealed from partially declassified State Department papers that Cruz had been linked to Cuba’s pre-Revolution Communist party, the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), as early as the 1940s. The article, promoted as an “exclusive”, it made several revelations. Among them: the U.S. Embassy in Havana denied Cruz a visa in 1952 and 1955 because of suspected Communist affiliations; that Cruz had joined the youth wing of the PSP at 20 years old and had used a concert to arrange a secret meeting with Communists in South America. Cruz had also signed a public letter in support of one of the Party’s front groups, the Pro-Peace Congress.
In 1990 Cruz managed to return to Cuba. She was invited to make a presentation at the American Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. She took a bag of a few grams of earth from Cuba, that she asked to be placed in her coffin when she died. In 1994, she received the National Endowment for the Arts Award from President William Jefferson Clinton, the highest recognition granted by our government to an artist.
She won four Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards. In addition to her prolific career as a musician, Cruz also had roles in films and telenovelas. She is absolutely fabulous in Mambo Kings (1992), along with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas.
Her catchphrase “¡Azúcar!” (“Sugar!”) has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Salsa music.
In the summer of 2003, Cruz took her final bow at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, gone at 77 years old. Her wish was to have her remains first transferred to Miami for two days to receive the homage of her Cuban exile admirers, and then returned to her final resting in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, that Cuban soil which she had saved from a visit to Guantánamo Bay was used in her entombment.
Later in 2003, the Spanish-language television network Telemundo aired a tribute special honoring Cruz, ¡Celia Cruz: Azúcar!. It was hosted by Puerto Rican singer Marc Anthony and Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan. It featured musical performances by Latin music and Black performers including Patti LaBelle, Anthony, Estefan and Gloria Gaynor.
She has a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Yale University and University of Miami. She was inducted into the International Latin Hall of Fame.
During the last years of her life, she founded the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music for young people who want to pursue a career making music. Of the many more than 70 albums she recorded, over 50 are available today. Her unique character and talent had no comparison at the time she started her career, but she managed to conquer an industry that left people of color behind, especially women. But more importantly, she made the world fall in love with the rhythms of Latinx culture.