Cuban singer and world-renowned Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz (RIP) has long been an inspiration to millions of men and women around the globe. Throughout her career and after her death, Celia’s fans have hailed her as a musical icon and a Cuban force of resistance. All of these years later, and Cruz who passed away in 2003, is still inspiring the generations that came decades after her. In fact, in a bid to stake her claim in a college scholarship program, high school student Genesis Diaz recently applied for and won a lucrative prize from Altice USA (the provider of Optimum and Suddenlink) all thanks to an essay she wrote about the late singer.
In her inspirational essay about the Cuban singer, Diaz wrote about admiring Celia Cruz for being “unapologetically black.”
According to BKLYNER, Altice USA holds an essay contest in the fall to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month (which runs from September 15 through October 15th). The prompt, which is given to middle and high school students, is to “name a Latino, past or present, with whom you would choose to spend a day and explain why.” The grand prize this year is a whopping $1,500 check which, if you remember college costs, can really help out any student eyeing higher education.
Diaz, a senior in James Madison High School in Brooklyn, New York, won this year’s contest. Her essay was selected out of over 700 submissions from across the country, according to Jen Rivera from Altice USA, who spoke with BKLYNER.
In her powerful essay, Diaz wrote that she would want to spend the day with Celia Cruz because she exclusively surrounds herself with people who “radiate positive energy.”
“And who’s more positive than Celia Cruz?”, Diaz wrote.
But what she really captured in her essay on Cruz isn’t just her positive energy but rather the way that she was unapologetic about being Black and Cubana and how she used her African roots in her music. While writing about the artist’s accomplishments as well as her being Hispanic and Black, Diaz emphasized the effect that Cruz has had on the Latinx community throughout her life and beyond.
“Black has always been seen as a color of inferiority, which is why Celia Cruz’s early critics claimed that she did not have the right look,” she said in her essay. “She wasn’t an ideal artist simply because of her African descent.”
Diaz went onto say that Cruz “carried her African roots in her heart and through her lyrics… Celia told everyone, including me, how phenomenal and majestic it is to be unapologetically black.”
Diaz, who hopes to attend New York University and is anxiously awaiting her acceptance from the prestigious school, was celebrated last week by school officials, classmates, members of Altice USA and Council Member Chaim Deutsch
“I couldn’t believe I actually won!” Diaz said in her view.. “I was very proud and very emotional. I feel like people take entertainment figures for granted. What people don’t realize that these figures are activists also.”
Diaz’s description of Cruz as an activist and powerhouse, couldn’t be more accurate. The Afro-Cubana proved herself to be an icon and hero in her time, when she rose to face as a salsa vocalist and eventually became the symbol and spirit of the Cuban expatriate community.
Celia Cruz has inspired countless amounts of people, including people like Amara La Negra.
“Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me besides Celia Cruz. She was such a strong, powerful woman. She was a very inspirational person,” Amara La Negra told Latino USA about the late singer who considered her Blackness with a sense of pride that eventually turned songs like “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” into huge hits. “When Celia Cruz passed away, there was no one else to really look up to as an Afro-Latino or Afro-Latina on TV. So, I went and became a fan of Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Donna Summers, who are truly talented women and I truly admire them. But, as far as the Latin community, we really didn’t have anyone to look up to.”
For her part, Diaz, who her principal calls a “remarkable young woman,” has become her own source of inspiration. Not only did the award-winning student win the grand prize for her Celia Cruz essay but she has also started her own club “about Hispanic, Black and Carribean cultures,” according to BKLYNER. There, students can gather once a week to “discuss issues facing the school and the community as a whole.”
It’s extremely encouraging to see the younger generation fall in love (and be inspired by) Celia Cruz just as much as the rest of us were. Here’s hoping that Diaz, with her award-winning essay, continues to draw inspiration from the Cubana and that she herself embodies being “unapologetically black.”
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