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A Tribute to Celia Cruz: The Queen of Latin Music

Alex Carmenaty, Business Manager

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July 16, 2018 marked the fifteen-year anniversary of the death of Cuba’s greatest singer and the undisputed Queen of Latin Music, Celia Cruz. She was more than an entertainer; she was a symbol of hope and of freedom. This is the story of someone who was more than a singer and role model. A genuine hero who through the power of her voice was the sound of Latin Music, battled prejudice, and who spoke out against Communism in Cuba. This is Celia Cruz´s Story and how she achieved this legacy.

Cruz was born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso on October 21, 1925 in the neighborhood of Santos Suárez in Cuba’s capital city, Havana. She was born to Simon Cruz and Catalina Alfonso. Celia’s path to stardom was not an easy one. She was an Afro-Cuban. She often felt the sting of racism and sexism as she was told she was not attractive enough or fair enough to be a star. Yet, most of these criticisms ceased when the audience heard her voice. It was unique and stirring.

All her life, Celia absorbed and experienced the incredible musical culture that was all around her. The music of Cuba is a vital mixture of both the European and the African, in short, a coming together of the Spanish guitar and African drum. Although a Roman Catholic, she was exposed to and learned the musical traditions of Santeria, which is the religion that comes from the Yoruba of Africa.

Celia attended the Normal School for Teachers in Havana hoping to become a teacher. However,  her natural talent could not be ignored. She would go on to study at the National Conservatory of Music. As she was developing her talent, Celia wanted to become a singer with Cuba’s most famous band, La Sonora Matancera. La Sonora was so big they were like the Earth, Wind, and Fire of Cuba. This was her favorite group.

Show business was not seen as a suitable career for a single, respectable woman of that time and the idea of her being a performer was not acceptable to her father. Her father, Simon Cruz, did not appreciate her talent and had other plans for her. He wanted Celia to be a teacher and follow his dictates. Celia refused to listen  and participated in radio contests on Havana’s radio stations to get her name and talent before the public. The support of her mother Catalina Alfonso along with her aunts played a critical role in Celia and her destiny.

In 1950, when she was 25 years old, after participating in many radio contests, Celia achieved her dream which was the first of many as she became a part of La Sonora. Myrta Silva, the band’s previous lead singer before Celia, decided to retire due to her pregnancy and go back to Puerto Rico. Celia became her replacement and through her talent she took the band to new heights.

Celia and La Sonora traveled all over Latin America, from Mexico to Colombia to the Dominican Republic to Venezuela. Celia was on top of the Latin World and she became Cuba’s biggest star. The band’s maestro Rogelio Martinez and the band’s trumpeter Pedro Knight were instrumental in her success. Pedro became her husband and manager.

In 1959, Fidel Castro and the Communists took over Cuba. Celia was one of the few stars to speak out against the Revolution. The Castro Regime tortured and killed those that spoke out against their cause and beliefs. The Castro regime confiscated private property and said it belonged to the government. The communists even took away people’s houses and forced them on the streets. They took away Celia’s home and all that she had worked so hard for.

Celia was forced to perform along with La Sonora in front of the Communists. Each artist there was supposed to dedicate their performance to the regime. Celia did not mention their name once and she dedicated her performance to the people of Cuba. She did not even look at them when she sang and refused to sing the song that Fidel Castro requested of her.

She would speak out against Castro inside and outside of Cuba while on tour. These brave actions sadly cost Celia her citizenship when the Communists banned her and all the members of La Sonora Matancera from entering Cuba again. Celia attempted to return to Cuba in 1962 when her beloved mother died, but the Castro government cruelly refused her permission to attend the funeral. This devastated Celia and she eventually immigrated  to the United States with her husband Pedro Knight.

Once she came to New York, she began recording with Tito Puente, a famous Latin Music band leader in the mid-1960s. Her time with Tito was a bit disappointing, but she got her music career in America really rolling once she joined with Fania Records. She worked with Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow and became an important part of the mega ensemble in the Fania All-Stars. Known in the 1970s as “La Reina de Salsa,” which means the Queen of Salsa, she was Latin Music’s biggest star performing everywhere from Yankee Stadium to Carnegie Hall and all over the world.

Beyond her great talent was Celia’s unique sense of style. Celia was famous for her multi-colored wigs and outfits and for her most famous chant that was “Azucar!” This word means sugar. While on tour with La Sonora Matancera in 1960 in Mexico, she and Pedro were at a restaurant and they ordered Cuban coffee. Cuban coffee without sugar is very bitter, as sugar makes the coffee sweet and delicious. Celia had her coffee and said to the waiter that this coffee needs sugar. Ella grito “Azucar”! This translates that she exclaimed Sugar! Ever since that encounter she always used “Azucar” as her catchphrase.  

     Throughout her long career she received many honors. She won six Grammy awards for her recording career in the US, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1994, President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Medal of Arts, and in 1999 she was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame. In 2011, she had been recognized with an image of her on a US postage stamp with her great friend Tito Puente.

Celia Cruz died from brain cancer at the age of 77. Although she is buried in New York, her body was laid at rest in Miami for the Cuban American community to see at the Freedom Tower which is an important landmark to Cuban exiles. Over 200,000 people paid their respects to Celia and all that she had meant to their lives both as a performer and as a symbol for their hopes for freedom in Cuba. She was an icon for all Cuban-Americans.

This is perhaps the most important part of Celia’s story. Celia’s music was one of joy and love, not of politics and ideology. Yet, by defying the Castro Regime, and doing so with such grace and dignity, she represented not just the freedom of expression, but freedom itself to all Cubans and their descendants who have been forced to leave their homeland. By listening to her music and being moved by her powerful voice, they became one with all that they had left behind and were united by their belief and sincere hope that Cuba would one day be free again.

She was never allowed to return to Cuba, but the nation and the Cuban people’s pursuit of freedom was always within her. Years later she performed at the US naval base at Guantanamo in Cuba  and she got on her knees to kiss the ground. Her words that day had been as powerful as any of the words used in her many songs. She had stated that “I have kissed the earth in the name of all the Cubans in exile.” Celia showed her love for her nation but also those that are in exile and that fled Cuba to escape the tyranny of the Castro Regime. Because of this and all that she did during her remarkable life, Celia Cruz will forever live in the hearts of all Cubans who want freedom and democracy.  

 

This is the story of Celia Cruz, Cuba’s hero! “Azucar”!

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A Tribute to Celia Cruz: The Queen of Latin Music