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Celia Cruz: The Queen of Salsa and Her Iconic and Bold Style

“[Celia Cruz] no es una pasa de moda]” sings the legendary Celia Cruz, the iconic Queen of Salsa and arguably, one of the most synonymous singers with Cuban music. Born in Havana, Cuba, on October 21, 1925, Cruz was born of humble beginnings and would become a fixture in dance halls and clubs during her 20s. As an Afro-Latina woman, Cruz was raised believing in the diasporic religion of Santeria which fuses West-African folklore traditions and music orally preserved by African enslaved people in the Caribbean. From her youth onward, Cruz’s music embodies the rich and centuries old customs of Santeria and other African beliefs fused with the Spanish language. Fast forward to the 1950s, when Havana was emerging as a bustling center of Latin music and culture, Cruz started her career as a singer for the orchestra band Sonora Matancera and became its first black lead singer. Cruz would become a common fixture on television and radio across Cuba. Finally, getting her career breakthrough, Cruz starred in various Mexican films and dominated the silver screen. During her tenure with Sonora Matancera, Cruz released Canta Celia Cruz (1956) and headlined at Havana’s Tropicana Club. Despite Cruz’s shining career start, Cruz had to contend with the upheaval of the Cuban Revolution and the authoritarian rise of Fidel Castro, who she vocally criticized through her music and platform. Evidently, as Castro’s power soared and threatened Cruz’s freedom, Havana’s once thriving nightlife and club scene evaporated, forcing Cruz and the Sonora Matancera to flee Cuba for the United States, seeking refuge and greater opportunities for their music and ideas.

Upon her arrival in New Jersey, miles from the bustling NYC music scene, Cruz was quickly drawn to the novel musical style of salsa, which fuses traditional Hispanic music with Caribbean sounds and african traditions.  Facing indifferent rejection, despite several albums with Sonora Matancera bandleader Tito Puento, Cruz failed to succeed in the racially segregated music market of the 1960s-70s. As a proud Afro-Cuban exile musician living in the US, Cruz faced unmatched racism as both an Afro-Cuban woman, who fled authoritarian Cuba for the US forcing her to assimilate into an environment where her Spanish culture and immigrant status was “tolerated” since she fled communism. As one of the few embodiments of African diasporic traditions and language during the 1960s, Cruz remains a “symbol of pride and freedom” for others despite experiencing racial oppression which she fought through her powerful anthems of Afro-latina pride. Through her cultivation of the increasingly popular Salsa music style, Cruz reinvigorated herself and forged her own path as a solo artist marrying trumpeter Pedro Knight. Like the mythological phoenix, Cruz transformed her artistry for younger Hispanic musicians after singing at the Latin opera Hommy in NYC and through an exclusive deal with hispanic music label Vaya Records. In spite of career obstacles and unyielding racism, Cruz quickly dominated NYC salsa with her opera-like sound and versatile and extensive music range. Establishing a bold fashion sense to match her powerful musical voice, Cruz’s fashion was flamboyant and colorful as she was always seen wearing bright colored wigs, dresses, and incredibly high heels. 

Seeking to immortalize the Queen Salsa, Cruz quickly became the subject and star of various documentaries, and films like My Name is Celia Cruz (1988) and The Perez Family (1995). Notably, Celia Cruz won countless prestigious awards for her artistry including three Latin Grammys and two Grammys complimenting her 37 album body of work and musical legacy. Beyond the music, Cruz was a notable fixture on telenovelas (television soap operas produced in Latin America) who coined her synonymous phrase “Azucar” which has become a part of the eternal essence of salsa music. Sadly, despite a long career and life inspiring the world, Cruz died in the summer of 2003 leaving behind countless fans. Truly, across a six decade career and 37 album artistry, without Celia Cruz, there would be no mainstream space for artists like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Shakira, and any other contemporary latin musical icon because Celia Cruz painstakingly paved the way for modern Latin musicians and remains the unchallenged and eternally reigning Queen of Salsa embodying pure joy and resilience despite the enduring specter of racism which has deprived countless Afro-hispanic musicians of their just due for creating hispanic caribbean music like Merengue and Mambo. 

Classic Celia Cruz Songs You Should Be listening to:

  1. “La Negra Tiene Tumbao”:

  1. “Rie y Llora”:

  1. “Quimbara”:

  1. “Azucar Negra”:

  1. “La Vida Es Un Carnival”:

Featured above in a stunning white gown bowing before an audience, Cruz is also wearing a thick pearl necklace and a silver bracelet. Even during the onset of her lengthy career, Cruz was a fashionista whose style was unmatched and uniquely her own.  

In a stunning gold colored dress, Cruz is rocking matching gold earrings and animal skin glasses emphasizing her bold and remarkable style. 

As a proud Afro-Cuban woman, Cruz, wearing long and beaded braids, is embodying the essence of the revered and brilliant Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra whose uniqueness Elizabeth Taylor couldn’t capture if she tried again. 

Wearing a flowing peacock inspired blue dress, Cruz is displaying her unmatched confidence and stage presence as she serenades an audience of captivated fans. 

Cruz is wearing a stunning blue wig, jewel covered broach, and blue gown as she is pictured on the red carpet of the 2000 Latin Grammys’ stunning photographers with her unwavering joy and pride as she celebrates a win for Best Salsa Album reminding everyone who the Queen of Salsa is.


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