This week’s open thread will focus on some prominent Afro-Latino people, their talents and accomplishments.
Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad (October 21, 1925 – July 16, 2003) was a Cuban-American salsa performer. One of the most popular salsa artists of the 20th century, she earned twenty-three gold albums and was renowned internationally as the “Queen of Salsa” as well as “La Guarachera de Cuba.”
She spent much of her career living in New Jersey, and working in the United States and several Latin American countries. Leila Cobo of Billboard Magazine once said “Cruz is indisputably the best known and most influential female figure in the history of Cuban music.”
Celia Cruz was born in the diverse, working-class neighborhood of Santos Suárez in Havana, Cuba, the second of four children. Her father, Simon Cruz, was a railroad stoker and her mother, Catalina Alfonso (Ollita) was a homemaker who took care of an extended family of fourteen.
Celia Cruz and Patti LaBelle
While growing up in Cuba’s diverse 1930s musica climate, Cruz listened to many musicians who influenced her adult career, including Fernando Collazo, Abelardo Barroso, Pablo Quevedo and Arsenio Rodríguez. Cruz also studied the words to Yoruba songs with colleague Mercedita Valdes (an Akpwon santeria singer) from Cuba and Celia made various recordings of this religious genre singing even back up for other female akpwons like Candita Batista.
When she was a teenager, her aunt took her and her cousin to cabarets to sing, but her father encouraged her to keep attending school, in hopes that she would become a Spanish language teacher. However, one of her teachers told her that as an entertainer she could earn in one day what most Cuban teachers earned in a month. Cruz began singing in Havana’s radio station Radio Garcia-Serra’s popular “Hora del Té” daily broadcast, she sang the tango “Nostalgias” (and won a cake as first place) often winning cakes and also opportunities to participate in more contests. Her first recordings were made in 1948 in Venezuela.
In 1950, Cruz made her first major breakthrough, after the lead singer of the Sonora Matancera, a renowned Cuban orchestra, left the group and Cruz was called to fill in. Cruz was hired permanently by the orchestra, but she wasn’t well accepted by the public at first. However, the orchestra stood by their decision, and soon Cruz became famous throughout Cuba. During the 15 years she was a member, the band traveled all over Latin America, becoming known as “Café Con Leche” (coffee with milk). Cruz became known for her trademark shout “¡Azúcar!” (“Sugar!” in Spanish). The catch phrase started as the punch line for a joke Cruz used to tell frequently at her concerts. Once, she ordered cafe cubano (Cuban coffee) in a restaurant in Miami. The waiter asked her if she’d like sugar, and she replied that, since he was Cuban, he should know that you can’t drink Cuban coffee without it! After having told the joke so many times, Cruz eventually dropped the joke and greeted her audience at the start of her appearances with the punch line alone.
With Fidel Castro assuming control of Cuba in 1959, Cruz and her husband, Pedro Knight, refused to return to their homeland and became citizens of the United States. In 1966, Cruz and Tito Puente began an association that would lead to eight albums for Tico Records. The albums were not as successful as expected. However, Puente and Cruz later joined the Vaya Records label. There, she joined accomplished pianist Larry Harlow and was soon headlining a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Cruz’s 1974 album with Johnny Pacheco, Celia y Johnny, was very successful, and Cruz soon found herself in a group named the Fania All-Stars, which was an ensemble of salsa musicians from every orchestra signed by the Fania label (owner of Vaya Records). With the Fania All-Stars, Cruz had the opportunity of visiting England, France, Zaire (Today’s DR Congo), and to return to tour Latin America; her performance in Zaire is included in the film Soul Power.
During the 1980s, Cruz made many tours in Latin America and Europe, doing multiple concerts and television shows wherever she went, and singing both with younger stars and stars of her own era. She began a crossover of sorts, when she participated in the 1988 feature film Salsa, alongside Robby Draco Rosa.
In 1990, Cruz won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance - Ray Barretto & Celia Cruz - Ritmo en el Corazon. She later recorded an anniversary album with la Sonora Matancera. In 1992, she starred with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the film The Mambo Kings. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Cruz the National Medal of Arts. In 2001, she recorded a new album, on which Johnny Pacheco was one of the producers.
On July 16, 2002, Cruz performed to a full house at the free outdoor performing arts festival Central Park Summer Stage in New York City. During the performance she sang, “Bemba Colora.” A live recording of this song was subsequently made available in 2005 on a commemorative CD honoring the festival’s then 20 year history entitled, “Central Park Summer Stage: Live from the Heart of the City”. Cruz appeared on the 2006 Dionne Warwick album My Friends & Me.
In February 2004, her last album, Regalo del Alma, won a posthumous award at the Premios Lo Nuestro for best Salsa release of the year.
On June 4, 2004, the heavily Cuban-American community of Union City, New Jersey heralded its annual Cuban Day Parade by dedicating its new Celia Cruz Park (also known as Celia Cruz Plaza), which features a sidewalk star in her honor, at 31st Street and Bergenline Avenue, with Cruz’s widower, Pedro Knight, present. There are four other similar dedications to Cruz around the world.
On May 18, 2005, the National Museum of American History, administered by the Smithsonian Institution and located in Washington, D.C., opened“¡Azúcar!”, an exhibit celebrating the life and music of Celia Cruz. The exhibit highlights important moments in Cruz’s life and career through photographs, personal documents, costumes, videos, and music.
On September 26, 2007, through May 25, 2008, Celia, a musical based on the life of Celia Cruz, played at the off-Broadway venue, New World Stages. Some performances were in Spanish and some in English. The show won four 2008 HOLA awards from the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History collaborated with photographer Robert Weingarten to create an object-based portrait of Celia Cruz featuring artifacts in the museum. The portrait was unveiled October 3, 2012.
Guantanamera- Wyclef and Celia Cruz
Guantanamera- Celia Cruz’s Version