Hello everyone! I hope you’ve recovered enough from the political whirlwind that was the beginning of this week, because it’s time for another Women in History Crush Wednesday! This week’s WCW is the Queen of Salsa herself, Celia Cruz.
Born Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso on October 21st, 1925, Cruz grew up in Havana, Cuba. She began singing almost as soon as she could talk, and would sing for her family, neighbors, and tourists at every chance. At her father’s advice, Cruz considered a life of teaching and enrolled in a teachers’ college, but dropped out to follow her passion. Throughout her early twenties, Cruz performed at night clubs and studied music theory at the Cuban Conservatory of Music. In 1950, she joined La Sonora Matancera orchestra as the lead singer and toured the Americas with them for fifteen years, experimenting with a few Afro-Caribbean genres and defining the genre of salsa. Cruz married Pedro Knight, the trumpet player for the group, and following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1960, the two left Cuba to live and make music and America.
In 1965, Cruz left La Sonora Matancera to pursue what became a thirty-eight-year solo career. Cruz made changes to her musical style over the years, but gained the most acclaim and was a pioneer of salsa music, which explains her nickname as the “Queen of Salsa.” Besides her actual music, Cruz was known for her energetic stage presence at live shows; to excite her audiences, Cruz would call out “Azúcar!” and encourage dancing. Cruz released over seventy albums and had parts in around ten movies and television shows, all in Spanish. Some of her most notable collaborations were with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, the Fania All Stars, Patti La Belle, Wyclef Jean, La India, and David Byrne.
In 2002, Cruz and her husband, Knight founded the Celia Cruz Foundation. Beyond preserving her legacy by providing extensive resources about Cruz’s life, the foundation raises money for cancer research and provides scholarships for young Latino music students. On July 16th, 2003, Cruz died in Fort Lee, New Jersey after battling brain cancer. Funerals were held for her in New York City, New York, and Miami, Florida, each attended by thousands of fans. Knight continued working with the foundation until his own death in 2007. The couple is buried together outside of New York City.
“I have fulfilled my father’s wish to be a teacher as, through my music, I teach generations of people about my culture and the happiness that is found in just living life. As a performer, I want people to feel their hearts sing and their spirits soar.”
Both in life and since her death, Cruz received countless awards and recognitions. She won three Grammys and four Latin Grammys, and was nominated for more. The University of Miami, Florida International University, and Yale University recognized her with honorary degrees and doctorates. Cruz was awarded the President’s National Medal of Arts, lifetime achievement awards from the Smithsonian Institution and several recording labels, and even the title for the Guinness World Record for the “longest working career as a salsa artist.” She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as others at walks in Florida, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Venezuela.
To learn more about Celia Cruz’s vibrant life, check out these Celia Cruz Foundation, AllMusic, bio., and Interesting Things for ESL Students pages. Additionally, her entire discography can be found online.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!