Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad, professionally known as Celia Cruz, was born on October 20, 1925. She is a captivating performer best known for singing ‘guaracha,’ a fast-paced genre of Cuban music with lyrics about the exploits of mischievous characters. Cruz became known as “La Guarachera de Cuba.” She is also referred to as the “Queen of Salsa” and is one of the most well-known Afro-Latinas in the world thanks to her electrifying performances, vibrant outfits influenced by her African heritage, and powerful voice.
Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso
Celia Cruz, La Guarachera de Cuba, Queen of Salsa
October 21, 1925
July 16, 2003 (age 77)
Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad, more popularly known as Celia Cruz, was born on October 20, 1925, in Havana, Cuba, making her zodiac sign Libra. She was the second of four children, and she was raised in the working-class Santos Suarez area by her mother Catalina Alfonso, a housewife, and her railroad worker father, Simon Cruz. Cruz was singing with the neighborhood band “El Botón de Oro,” or “The Golden Button,” when her cousin entered her in the “Hora del té,” or “The tea hour,” a radio station competition. She had never held a microphone before, but she still won. Then, she was sought by radio stations all across the city to play on weekends.
After high school, her father encouraged her to pursue studies to become a teacher. She moved to the National Conservatory of Music in Havana shortly before receiving her teaching degree from the Normal School for Teachers to pursue her artistic aspirations. When La Sonora Matancera, a renowned Cuban symphonic band, sought a singer in 1950, Cruz was preoccupied with performing as a backup singer in many bands. This turned out to be her big break. As they toured North and Central America, they experienced great success. When Fidel Castro came to power, everything was altered.
Havana’s nightlife came to a complete halt during the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Several band members traveled from Mexico to the United States. She eventually made her home in New Jersey, where she married Pedro Knight, the first trumpet player in the ensemble. In 1961, she got U.S. citizenship. She was banished from Cuba by the anti-American Castro. Knight took on dual roles as her manager and musical director when she quit the band to start a solo career.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Cruz collaborated on several albums with bandleader Tito Puente. She quickly got involved in the thriving salsa culture in New York, a Hispanic dance genre that originated from musical experimenting to Caribbean sounds. Salsa was spiced up by her original style of improvised rhymed lyrics. Her appeal extended beyond the younger Hispanic generation. She performed in a Latin adaptation of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” at Carnegie Hall in 1973. Several albums with Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colón were produced as part of additional collaborations. She continued to perform for as long as she could until passing away in 2003, one year after receiving a brain tumor diagnosis.
The popular song ‘Quimbara’ is on the first of many albums produced in collaboration with renowned salsa musician Johnny Pacheco.
Cruz wins the Grammy for “Ritmo en El Corazón,” her album with the American-Puerto Rican band and Congo player Ray Barretto.
President Bill Clinton awards her with the National Medal of the Arts, an award created by the U.S. Congress to honor artists and patrons of the arts.
Cruz releases the song ‘La Vida es un Carnaval,’ which becomes one of her biggest hits.
Cruz receives a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Why We Love Celia Cruz
She is a symbol of pride
To the Cuban-American community, Cruz represents honor and freedom. Faced with widespread sexism and racism, she made Afro-Cuban music known worldwide.
She gave back to the community
The dream of music is one Cruz continues to share with people beyond her death. The Celia Cruz Foundation is a non-profit charity that raises funds for underprivileged students who want to study music.
Her music is overwhelmingly joyful
Despite her fractured history with her homeland, Cruz paid tribute to it through her music. The optimism and positivity radiating from her performances are a comfort to generations of Cubans.
5 Surprising Facts
Started singing before she was one
Cruz’s mother would wake up in the middle of the night to hear nine-month-old Cruz singing.
People lined up to hear her sing
Cruz’s cousin would invite folks to come by so they could hear her lovely voice sing her younger siblings to sleep at her home.
A piece of Cuba
A little bag of Cuban soil Cruz collected during her only return trip to perform at Guantanamo Naval Base in 1990 was placed in her coffin.
She has her own stamp
The U.S. Postal Service issued their Latin Music Legends stamp collection, which featured Cruz, Selena, Tito Puente, Carmen Miranda, and Carlos Gardel.
She has three honorary doctorates
Cruz received three doctorates: an honorary doctorate of music from Yale in 1989, a doctorate honoris causa from Florida International University in 1992, and a doctorate honoris causa in music from the University of Miami in 1999.
Celia Cruz FAQs
Does Celia Cruz have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
Her contribution to Afro-Cuban music was recognized all over the world. In the U.S., she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a ceremony held on September 17, 1987.
Where did her catchphrase “Azucar!” come from?
A server in a Miami restaurant asked her how she liked her coffee. ‘Azucar’ is Spanish for ‘sugar’ and she noticed people reacted positively when she said it, so she kept yelling it out randomly during her performances. It’s also believed that it was a rallying cry for all the Afro-Latino slaves in the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and Cuba.
How many Grammy awards did Celia Cruz win?
Cruz received 14 Grammy nominations throughout her prodigious career. She took home three American and four Latin Grammy awards. Some of her accolades include Best Tropical Latin Performance for “Ritmo En El Corazón” in the 1986 American Grammys and Best Salsa Performance’ for “Celia Cruz and Friends: A Night of Salsa” in the first Latin Grammys in 2000.
Celia Cruz’s birthday dates