Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro Banned Celia Cruz From Returning To Her Country And 19 Other Facts You Didn’t Know About The Singer

Despite being born in a country that would soon be under the control of Fidel Castro’s communism and having choose a musical career in an industry primarily dominated by men, Celia Cruz was born, without a doubt to shine like the Guarachera de Cuba and the most popular Latin artist of the 20th Century. 15 years after her passing, we remember la reina de la música latina.

The voice of a lullaby

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Celia was among the eldest children among three other siblings and multiple cousins. As such it was often her job to help put the younger ones to sleep. She chose to enhance the task by singing lullabies to the little ones.

A powerful name

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Even before setting foot on a stage, the “¡azucar!” singer was given a powerful name: Ursula Hilaria de la Caridad Cruz Alonso, which clearly spoke of her Catholic upbringing.

A ceviche of sounds

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Against her father’s opposition and her religious upbringing, Celia developed a fascination for Cuba’s santería, its sounds and the history that surrounded it. The music of the first sonero mayor, lead singer of son music, Abelardo Barroso and outstanding tres player, Arsenio Rodriguez, influenced Celia’s musical career, along with the sounds of Merceditas Valdés, a santería singer and the words of Yoruba songs.

School dropout

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Simon Cruz, Celia’s Father, encouraged her to attend school in the hopes she would become a teacher. She started attending the Normal School for teachers, however, contrary to the general advice that most young people receive from their teachers, Celia’s conservatory professor took notice of her voice and told her to drop out and focus on her career, which was already starting to shine in the radio in the late 1940’s.

A unique print

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Celia navigated through different currents of music: rumba, mambo, guaracha, bolero, cha-cha, salsa and son cubano. Her style was very distinctive, besides incorporating African religious music, santería, she also made it a point to use pregones, the wails of street vendors in Cuba.

Singing child

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Growing up Celia’s aunt took her and her sisters to sing at Cabarets for spare change. At radio stations La Guarachera de Cuba sang tango “nostalgias” (unrequited love songs) during the Hora del Té broadcasts. She would often win first place.

A star was born

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Celia initially earned musical recognition as the lead singer of Sonora Matancera, a band she was part of for 15 years. She scored the job at age 25, after Myrta Silva, the band’s original lead singer, returned to her native Puerto Rico. Soon Celia’s own name overshadowed that of the band.


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During her 15 years with Sonora Celia also appeared on some Mexican films such as Rincón Criollo (1950), Una Gallega en la Habana (1955) y Amorcito Corazón (1961). Years later, in 1976, she participated in the documentary Salsa, about the Latin Culture, alongside other music Stars like Dolores del Río and Willie Colón.

Adiós Cuba

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In the early 1960’s, while touring with La Sonora in Mexico, Fidel Castro and his regime came to power, turning Cuba into a communist country. All but one band member refused to go back to Cuba under those political conditions, which lead to Castro issuing a lifetime ban. In 162, after Celia’s mother passed of Cancer, she attempted to return but was not granted government permission.

Rhythm of love

La Sonora Matancera wasn’t only the music platform that catapulted Celia’s professional career, it was also where she found her true love, Pedro Knight. The trumpeter courted Celia, without luck, since she joined la Sonora. Celia was afraid of getting herself romantically involved with Knight, who a well known player and had four children at the time. She finally fell for him and they got married in 1962. Knight gave up his own musical career to become Celia’s manager. Celia would often say “Pedro is my 50%. I am the one that sings, but he takes care of everything else.”

As Cuban as ¡Azúcar!

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During a Billboard interview Celia explained how her famous ¡Azucar! came about. I was having dinner at a restaurant in Miami, and when the waiter offered me coffee, he asked me if I took it with or without sugar. I said, ‘Chico, you’re Cuban. How can you even ask that? With sugar!’ And that evening during my show … I told the audience the story and they laughed. And one day, instead of telling the story, I simply walked down the stairs and shouted Azúcar!

The brightest estrella

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In 1974 Celia Cruz joined Las Estrellas de la Fania, Fania All Stars, a group formed by salsa musicians from every orchestra signed by the Fania Label. With Fania, Cruz had the opportunity to perform and England, France and tour Latin America. Her single “Quimbará” was established as one for her signature songs.

Fashion icon

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Celia was many things, shy was not one of them. The singer enjoyed the attention and her wardrobe made it evident. She became a fashion icon because of her bold, daring and wild costumes and wigs.

Talent Awarded

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During her lifetime Celia won 5 Grammy Awards. In 1994 President Bill Clinton awarded her with the National Medal of Arts in 1994. After her dead, her album Regalo del Alma, won the award for Best Salsa Album. She was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as recognition for her artistic career in 2016.

Celia Reinvented

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Celia had a way of incorporating different rhythms into her musical composition and performances. In the 1980s and 1990s she performed and collaborated in songs with Wyclef Jean, Dionne Warwick, Patti Labelle and David Byrne.

Music above all

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The Queen of Salsa recorded well into her seventies. In an interview with Mario Tarradell in 2002 she stated, “My life is singing. I don’t plan on retiring. I plan to die on a stage. I can have a headache but when it’s time to sing and I step on that stage, there is no more headache.” In 2003 Celia recorded Regalo del Alma, while already suffering from cancer.

Supporting young talents

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Inspired by the resistance young Celia faced when she decided to take on a career in music, in the early 2000s The Celia Cruz foundation was created in order to support low income students that wanted to study music.

A final gift

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Regalo del Alma, the last album Celia recorded while battling cancer, was released in 2004. It was the artist’s seventieth album, and featured the hit single “Ríe y Llora”, a song that spoke of the journey of life.