Celia Cruz, a Cuban-born artist, is a legendary figure in the world of Latin and salsa musical genres. Known as the Queen of Salsa, she is an icon of the genre and representation of Cuban music in the late 20th century. Cruz was known for her vocal talents, unique fashion, as well as improvisation, and presence on stage which perpetuated the longevity of her 50-year career. Cruz was a critical drive towards the popularization of Cuban music, salsa, and Latin jazz in pop culture and mass media. This paper will examine the life and achievements of Celia Cruz in her numerous contributions to the culture and the music industry.
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Childhood and youth
Celia Cruz was born on October 21, 1925, in Havana Cuba to a family of four children. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Celia began singing at an early age, and eventually participated in school and community musical productions. During school, she would sing at cabarets. Initially, Cruz wanted to become a teacher at the encouragement of her father but eventually transitioned to a singing career. As a young woman, Cruz begins gaining prominence in the Cuban musical industry by entering and winning several amateur singing contests on major radio stations. Shortly after she began performing regularly on the CMQ radio station in Havana as a live vocalist (Fernandez 142-143).
Cruz had practically no formal musical education. After giving up on being a teacher, Cruz enrolled at the Havana National Conservatory of Music to study music theory and singing. She eventually left to pursue a full-time music career at the encouragement of her professor rather than attempting to complete the academic track (Cartlidge). It is not known if she completed her education or received other musical training.
Adult life and career
In the 1940s, Cruz continued to work on radio stations as well as touring Cuba with the station’s band, often working with a pianist and also a prominent musician in the future, Damaso Perez Prado. In 1948, she began minor international tours as part of a musical group of singers and dancers Las Mulatas de Fuego (Fernandez 145). In 1950, Cruz achieved her breakthrough by becoming part of a high-profile Latin music band Sonora Matancera. It is in the band where she met her future husband and continued performing with them for 15 years and recording 188 songs. After the Cuban Revolution, in 1960, Sonora Matancera was banned by Castro from returning to Cuba due to the band’s international touring, including in the U.S. During this ban, Cruz received news of the illness and eventual death of both her parents, unable to return to the country to say goodbye. After years of international touring, Cruz left Sonora Matancera with her husband and began a solo career (Cartlidge).
In 1966, Cruz began collaborating with a renowned American producer Tito Puente, recording some of her signature songs such as “Bemba colorá” and recording four albums. By 1974, a leading label in the salsa genre Fania records signed Cruz and she joined a salsa group consisting of major superstars called the Fania All-Stars. Throughout the 1970s Cruz achieved major commercial musical success with Fania, touring the world and creating a unique musical and fashion style in her performances. Celia eventually reunited with Sonora Matancera in 1982 and performed at a record-breaking attendance concert at Santa Cruz de Tenerife (Fernandez 157). In 1990, she won her first Grammy award for Best Tropical Latin Performance, which was the highlight of her career. Cruz was recognized during her career by the catchphrase “¡Azúcar!” translated as “sugar!”, referring to the Cuban sugar plantations which used slave labor, and this was one of the ways she sought to honor her origins (Cartlidge).
End of career and old age
In the 1990’s Cruz continued to perform and record music but much less than previously. In the following decade, Celia largely performed symbolically at events and festivals while participating in various television and film projects, as well as receiving numerous awards and recognitions for her career. In the early 2000s, an aggressive brain tumor was discovered, and Cruz underwent an operation. She continued to record music as long as possible, releasing albums in 2000 and 2002. Eventually died on July 16, 2003, being 77 years of age. She is buried in New York City, entombed with her is a piece of soil from Guantanamo, Cuba which she briefly visited once after being banned from her homeland decades ago (Cartlidge).
While Celia was growing up in Cuba in the 1930s, the island had a rich and diverse musical culture. Some of which was beginning to gain prominence in the United States after the Havana Orchestra performed authentic Afro-Cuban music on Broadway and artists such as Desi Arnaz popularized conga dance music in Miami. Cruz noted being influenced by musicians such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Antonia Arcaño, and Fernando Collazo. Celia was also influenced by a major religion in Cuba, Santeria which had numerous Afrocentric elements. Despite being Catholic and with criticism from her parents, Cruz learned the Yoruba language and Santeria music from other residents, which significantly influenced her musical and performance style in her later career.
Cruz was known for being highly engaged in the production of her music, acting almost as a producer to herself and focusing on improving the smallest details. She was salsa as being a commercial term for marketing Cuban music, so she notably added a Cuban accent on the diverse musical forms of salsa and introduced this style to major cities such as New York and Miami. Cruz also chose to implement Latin American folklore songs, revitalizing old musical traditions and contributing to the dissemination of the culture internationally by drawing together Latin American cultural strands (Fernandez 159). Cruz had a diverse musical repertoire, allowing her to perform various styles and pieces of music, often without rehearsal. In performances, this flexibility allowed her to adapt to the demands of local audiences both musically and culturally. Cruz sought to maintain a high degree of autonomy over her artistic identity, including her music and fashion, making her a recognizable star which constructed a respectable persona while embodying the flashiness of the Caribbean style (Ruiz and Korol 180).
Upon Celia’s death in 2003, millions of people around the world mourned. Numerous political, religious, and social figures including the Pope, Latin American Presidents, and leadership of New York where she resided offered her condolences. Hundreds of thousands attended services around the world in her honor. This is just one of the examples of the impact of Cruz’s career and her music. She was one of the few Cuban Americans to receive a Grammy, honored with the National Endowment for the Arts by a U.S. president, and to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Fernandez 143). There are numerous other honorary recognitions and achievements for Cruz during her lifetime and posthumously, but she is universally recognized as one of the greatest salsa and Latin music musicians and performers of all time. As she traveled internationally, she created a global market for these genres, performing for not only Latino communities but other minorities.
Cruz demonstrated numerous Saint Leo core values as a dedicated and hardworking artist that continuously persevered to achieve her dreams despite tragedies and tribulations in her life. Celia rose from being a poor girl in Havana with no formal education in music to a world star that millions around the world listened to and looked up to. Despite her flamboyant and dominant stage presence, Cruz was humble and always referred back to her roots and those who helped her rise to fame. From her biography and videos of performances, it is evident she had a talent for artistic self-expression and creativity, which many people search for their whole lives. However, despite her talent, Cruz worked hard even when her career peaked, continuing to create music into old age until her death which commands much respect. She used music as her tool of expression but also as something used for giving back and bringing joy to the world.
Celia Cruz was a truly revolutionary and once-in-a-generation musician and performer in the salsa and Latin music genre. She helped place Cuba on the map as home to traditional Afro-Cuban music and went on to redefine salsa internationally, pioneering new elements of music and performance. Celia’s unique approach and innovation in music production as well as unorthodox improvisations on stage always drew inspiration from her roots. Spanning a highly commercially and critically successful 50-year musical career, Cruz is widely recognized as an icon in Latin music and 20th-century pop culture which could not have happened without her hidden genius and tremendous perseverance.
Cartlidge, Cherese. Celia Cruz. Chelsea House, 2010.
Fernandez, Raul A. “The Salsa Concept.” From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz, 2006, pp. 13–21., Web.
Ruíz Vicki, and Korrol Virginia Sánchez. Latinas in the United States: a Historical Encyclopedia. Indiana University Press, 2006.