In Spanish, this means sugar. A sweet, powdery substance used to enhance the flavor in many dishes. But when it comes from the mouth of Celia Cruz, it becomes a call to action, to energize, and be proud of your rich Cuban heritage. Born in 1925, the Queen of Salsa impressed the world with her contralto voice, lavish outfits, and infectious joy. I would see Celia Cruz on TV. Although she represented Latin culture to the fullest, she had crossed over into American culture by performing with artist that I did know, like Patti Labelle. When you saw the two perform, it was magical. It was new and different. It wasn’tike the pop music I had occasionally listened to. Celia had a similar soul to mine, but in a different language. People are so accustomed to only listening to what they are taught to listen to. The only way for them to discover something new is by having a diverse circle or being introduced to it on the sly. That collaboration was the first step for me to experience the new sound of Salsa. Celia’s performances were an experience that left you wanting more. The rhythmic way she threw her voice around spreading the magic of Afro-Caribbean music (a fusion of African and Caribbean beats) around the room to her adoring fans. Celia and her husband Pedro Knight performed with big name stars such as Tito Puente and Jonny Pacheco, popularizing the Latin sound in the states and world-wide.
Celia didn’t start out on the path of being the world’s greatest Salsa singer. Her father wanted her to be a school teacher. So, to please him, she went to school to become a teacher but shortly quit after being told she could make in one night singing what a teacher makes in one year. She began entering amateur contests winning many of them along the way. Her big break came when she became the lead singer for the group La Sonora Matancera. Celia and La Sonora Matancera grew to have a major following in Cuba. Once Castro came into power, Celia and the band left Cuba becoming naturalized US citizens. Angry, Castro banned Celia and La Sonora Matancera from Cuba not allowing any of the members to come back to Cuba. (Celia later tried to return to Cuba when her mother died but was not granted entry into the country.) She later married band leader Pedro Knight and continued performing into the 90s collaborating with salsa and non-salsa singers alike. It was only natural that she would find her way into acting appearing in movies like The Mambo Kings and The Perez Family.
After a long battle with brain cancer, Celia Cruz passed away in 2003 and was buried near other greats such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. She left no children and her husband died about 4 years later. She did however leave multiple Grammy awards (American and Latino), many life time achievement awards and the Celia Cruz foundation which raises funds for cancer research and scholarships for young Latino music students.
Celia lived out loud and did it her own way. Regardless of the pain and obstacles in her way, she excelled to be one of the world’s top performers. Long live the queen!
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