Born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonzo on October 21, 1925 in Santo Suarez of Havana, Cuba. To the Latin world she is the great Sonora (the great improviser), but to most she is known as Celia Cruz. Many have heard her name, seen her face, and can recall from some experience the vibrancy of this Afro-Cuban singer’s voice, but very few will truly grasp the degree to which she crossed boundaries and helped to create a genre of music that now touches people of all races and ethnicities.
Not only was she an illuminating entertainer, outstanding innovator, and leader of her time, she was quite simply a beautiful woman of color that stood out as one of the very few women contributing to an international musical movement of the 1960s. Celia Cruz is someone who was able to embrace and use her entire cultural identity to become accepted as an international icon in her own right.
Very early on in her career, Cruz became one of the lead singers of “Las Mulatas del Fuego”— a group of Afro-Cuban female entertainers that traveled Cuba and Mexico throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Cruz’s career really took flight, however, upon her arrival to New York City in 1961 where the Latin music scene was experiencing a lot of experimentation and sharing of rhythms and traditions across different Latin cultures. It was this era that created what is now known as Salsa music which finds its roots in Cuban son, rumba and a wide array of other styles and rhythms drawn from other Latin cultures. Celia Cruz was for Fania Records what Diana Ross was for the Motown Era. Fania Records galvanized salsa music throughout the U.S. and Latin America and enabled the genre’s success and the success of the artists who lived and breathed it.
In Afro-Cuban music, there are often references to food and “gustatory” terms that epitomize the way the music is performed danced, sung and played. The word salsa, alone, means sauce and Cruz was often referred to as the true embodiment of “sabor” or flavor. Over time, her style and aesthetic became more and more unique and over the top. Cruz was known for shouting “azucar!” or “sugar!” at the beginning of each show. While it began just as a memorable expletive in a story she liked to tell before each performance, it soon became symbolic of her Cuban heritage and culture. Sugar is an essential agricultural product in Cuba’s history that is directly linked to both the vibrant diversity of the island and the violence of slavery that consumes much of its history.
This beautiful singer passed on July 16, 2003 after battling brain cancer and as she requested, was given two funeral services—one in Miami and one in New York. Her life achievements prove that her 78 years spent on this Earth were worthwhile having earned five Grammy awards, many a gold record, countless honors and Lifetime Achievement awards. She received three honorary doctorates from Yale, Florida University and the University of Miami and was a guest of the White house for five presidents. She also founded the Celia Cruz Foundation in 2002 dedicated to raising funds for cancer research and providing scholarships for young Latino music students.
This is definitely one woman of color that sizzled on and off stage throughout her entire life and we hope her memory lives on for generations to come. Her unapologetically dark skin, heavy accent, fiery moves, soulful voice, and infinite doses of “azucar” speak volumes to the Afro-Latino experience that so many other women can relate to.