“Azúuuuuuuuucar!” she shouted happily at the beginning or ending of her songs; it was her unquestionable rallying call. In spite of her forty-year exile, Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad de la Santísima Trinidad Cruz Alfonso, better known as Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa and Guarachera of the world was forever proud of her Cuban roots, an emotion she brought along to perform on every stage.
It’s known she was born in Havana, Cuba, on October 21; nevertheless, the year of her birth remains uncertain because Celia always hid her true age. Some documents give assurance that 1924 was her birth year, but it’s a fact that proves difficult to confirm.
A splendid voice that lulled children to sleep
One day Catherine Alfonso noticed that her second daughter, Celia, had inherited her prodigious voice and she gave her the task of singing lullabies to the children who lived in her home (three siblings and eleven cousins). Soon Celia decided -in secret from her father- to sing for foreigners who bought her shoes as payment. From then on there were shoes for her and all the members of her family… And so arose the opportunity for her to become a famous artist!
Singing with heart and soul
Celia Cruz began to sing and dance during Havana’s popular celebrations, and performed as an amateur on the radio. Later on, she sang in the Gloria Matancera and Sonora Caracas orchestras; she toured Venezuela and Mexico with the show Las mulatas de fuego. She was also a cast member of Cabaret Tropicana, where she was discovered by the director of La Sonora Matancera and was invited to join the band as the main vocalist. Celia became the soul of the group and the orchestra lived its golden age.
Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera shined playing with Pío Leyva, Tito Gómez, Barbarito Díez ans Benny Moré, among others.
In 1957, the song Burundanga took her to New York as the recipient of her first Golden Record. By that time, she had earned the names: la Reina Rumba (the Queen of Rumba), la Guarachera de Oriente (The Guarachera of the East) and la Guarachera de Cuba (The Guarachera of Cuba).
“When I left Cuba”
In 1960 after the rise of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, La Sonora Matancera was booked to play in Mexico. Celia had the premonition that Castro’s revolution would become a dictatorship and refused to return to the island. While performing in Mexico, she received the news that her father, Simon Cruz, had died.
Celia moved to the US settling in New York city. There, she continued to sing with the Orchestra and began her solo career performing at the Palladium Ballroom. In 1962, she returns with La Sonora Matancera, but that same year, her mother Catherine Alonso dies in Cuba. Celia tries to travel to her country but is denied entrance, realizing that while Castro rules she will never be able to return to her homeland.
Years later she gave a concert in Guantánamo. There, she gathered some soil and requested that it be placed in her coffin when she passed.
Celia remained in La Sonora Matancera for fifteen years, and there she met and married her only love: Pedro Knight, first trumpeter of the orchestra who, from that moment, became her manager and musical director. He prepared Celia’s professional career as a solo artist and introduced her to percussionist Tito Puente, and together they recorded eight albums.
Later on, she performed live with the Fania All-Stars in the legendary 1974 concert recorded at Yankee Stadium. The concert gave a growing music genre the impulse it needed: Salsa was now everywhere. By that time, the Cuban singer was already an international celebrity.
Celia Cruz was always open to new experiences and rythms. She sang not only with her fellow salsa colleagues Tito Puente, Willie Colón, Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco, but alongside many artists like British singer David Byrne, gypsy rumba performer Azuquita, Argentinean music group Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Spanish group Jarabe de Palo, Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean, as well as performing duets with Spanish Lola Flores and fellow Cuban Gloria Estefan, Americans Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle, and Mexican Ranchera singer Vicente Fernández.
Attired in her lavish dresses, heels and wigs, Celia Cruz kept her unparalleled vitality until the last days of her life. On November 2002, she was diagnosed with brain cancer and, unfortunately, her health did not recover. On July16, 2003, she died in her home at Fort Lee (New Jersey). Thousands of fans marched alongside her remains in Miami and later in New York, where she was finally buried.
The legacy of Celia Cruz is much more than her recordings -almost 80 albums-, five films, endless amounts of musical videos and a book of her memories: “Celia, my life”. The Guarachera of the World was the recipient of twenty-three Golden Records, seven Grammy Awards and a star in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and Honoris Doctorates at three American universities.
And to immortalize her rallying shout of “AZÚCAR!” the Colombian television network RCN and Telemundo International released series on October 2015 about the life of the singer.
The Celia Cruz Foundation keeps the legacy of La Guarachera alive. Established in New York city, the foundation grants annual scholarships to young low income music students. The Washington D.C. Smithsonian Museum lodges more than 200 objects that were property of the singer, such as dresses, documents and famous wigs. An image of the Queen of Salsa is featured in a stamp of the 2012 U.S. postage stamps collection “Forever”.
When we are nearing her 90Th birthday, 65 years from her debut in La Sonora Matancera and 12 years after her death, the unforgettable Guarachera of Cuba and the World remains alive just as when she took Cuban music around the entire world. So let’s raise our glasses to honor Celia Cruz, and instead of cheers, shout happily “¡AZÚUUUUUUUUUUCAR!”