21 Things You Didn’t Know About Celia Cruz, The Indisputable Queen Of Salsa
Celia Cruz is the legend of all legends; the Queen of Salsa, La Guarachera de Cuba, an icon of Afro-Latinidad. We all know her for classic hits like “La Vida es Un Carnaval” and “Guantanamera” but she’s the icon we inherited from the last generation.
Here the woman, the myth, the legend behind “Azúcar!” and 21 facts you probably didn’t know about her.
Her full name is Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso.
She was born October 21, 1925, making her the most famous Libra Latina to ever grace the planet Earth. She was born in the poor, working-class neighborhood of Santos Suárez in Havana, Cuba.
Cruz was brought up a devout Catholic, but the first angelic notes she sang were to Santería.
Her neighbor practiced Santería and while her father highly opposed any other religion, she had a good time with her neighbor.
Cruz later studied Yoruba to sing alongside Merceditas Valdés.
Cruz stayed in this religious genre for a little while, singing backup for female led productions. Eventually, she made her big break, though.
She started singing as a teenager because her tía took her to cabarets.
A little context: back in the 1940’s, singing wasn’t considered a respectable profession. It was a different time where people weren’t as free to express themselves as they are now.
Her father’s influence won for a minute when she attended the Normal School for Teachers in Havana.
One of her teachers at the school gave her the down low and told her to escape, quickly. They told her that she could earn a teacher’s monthly salary in a single day as an entertainer.
To appease her father, she went to school…at Havana’s National Conservatory of Music.
Once she started getting gigs, however, another maestro told her to drop out of school and just pursue her career full-time. This was her moment.
Cruz started winning multiple “La hora del té” singing contests on the local radio.
Venezuela was actually the first country to truly embrace her stardom. Her first recordings were made there in 1948. From there, she found her in.
Cuba’s Sonora Matancera lost their Boricua lead singer to her home island and Cruz tried out for the empty slot.
She was the best thing to happen to Sonora. Soon, her name was far bigger than the band’s and she stuck with the band for 15 years.
Cruz didn’t even get to say goodbye to Cuba before she was exiled.
It’s impossible to find a picture of Celia not smiling, but we know this was a very difficult time for her. The band was on tour in Mexico during the 1959 Castro take over of Cuba and the band decided not to return home. Instead, they crossed into the U.S.
Castro was so enraged by Cruz’ defection that he barred her from ever returning to Cuba.
In 1961, she became a US citizen. She tried to go back to Cuba when her mother died in 1962 but the government wouldn’t let her in.
Never returning to her home was heartbreaking.
In 1990, she visited Guantanamo Bay, U.S. territory on the island of Cuba. She heartbreakingly was on her homeland, but not in her Cuba. She reached between the fence to collect the Cuban soil that she would later be entombed with.
She ended up marrying Sonora’s trumpet player, Pedro Knight, in 1962.
At this point, the Cuban exile community in the U.S. was idolizing this marriage, but they hadn’t reached mainstream American music ears just yet.
They stayed together for 40 years, until they died.
Knight’s sideburns lived on until his death in 2007, when he was buried with Celia Cruz in the Bronx. But before all this morbid end to their lives, Celia conquered the world.
In 1994, President Clinton awarded Cruz the National Medal of Arts.
Was someone looking for proof that #ImmigrantLivesMatter? Well, you don’t need it, it’s just true. But here’s proof that immigrants enrich the United States in every single respect.
The Queen of Salsa was known for her statement wigs.
In a completely male-dominated industry, Celia took ownership to the very top of salsa music with her own flourish. Her unconfined joy and creative expression was the icing on top of that deep, other-worldly voice of hers. We’re all sold.
Here’s the story behind “Azucar!”
In a 2000 Billboard interview, she explains how she came up with her famous catchphrase:
“I was having dinner at a restaurant in Miami, and when the waiter offered me coffee, he asked me if I took it with or without sugar. I said, ‘Chico, you’re Cuban. How can you even ask that? With sugar!’ And that evening during my show … I told the audience the story and they laughed. And one day, instead of telling the story, I simply walked down the stairs and shouted Azúcar!”
A few years after marrying Knight, she dropped out of Sonora and joined Tito Puente to record eight albums.
The albums didn’t go anywhere but the pair eventually started headlining concerts at Carnegie Hall. Her voice never aged and many claim that while she is the Queen of Salsa, her voice was truly operatic.
There isn’t a Grammy Award that she was nominated for that she didn’t win.
Truly. She generated over fifty albums in her lifetime and four won Best Salsa/Merengue Albums.
Two years ago, she was awarded post-mortem the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In her last years of life, she was awarded three Grammy’s. Never give up, kids. Give it your all till the end.
On July 16, 2003, Cruz died from brain cancer at the age of 77.
While Cruz never had children, she inspired a whole generation of artists who attribute her music, her grace and her strength in Afro-Latinx representation as their inspiration.
Apparently, Cruz’ dedication and inspiration is infectious, because she hugged Amara La Negra and now we’re stanning.
We’re hard pressed to find any quotes from Celia about what it was like embracing her Latinx blackness, but contemporary artists like Amara La Negra cite Celia Cruz as their ultimate validation and inspiration. The spirit of Cruz lives on in us all, but we like to think that she’d be saying a lot of the things Amara has been saying for years.