Even after her death, Celia Cruz remains one of the biggest stars to come from the Caribbean. The Cuban singer started her career at a young age and till date remains a global icon with several awards and honours to her name. Known as the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz is remembered as the regular girl from Cuba who made the world stop and listen to her voice. As much as she was a global icon, she was not spared and also faced political and racial challenges which were common to many entertainers in the 1950s and 60s.
Several Caribbean natives sought greener pastures in other parts of the world. The illegal and legal migration from their home islands started during World War II and saw an increase when Caribbeans in the US and parts of Europe began to make names for themselves in various fields such as Civil Rights movement, Law, Music and entertainment in general. By the 1940s, several Caribbeans aspired to move overseas where life seemed better and they worked to achieve their goals. However, only a few remained at home.
Born in Santos Suárez in Havana in 1925, Celia grew up with an extended family of 14 children and her father and mother who were middle-class Cubans and very strict Catholics. Her passion for music and singing was identified at an early age by an aunt who loved to take her out to music concerts every now and then. While in school, Celia, whose full name was Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, usually spent a lot of time at a neighbour’s home listening to music and learning Santería music from an Afro-American religion of Yoruba origin that developed in Cuba among West Africa.
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At the time, being an entertainer was not a profession parents dreamt of for their children especially women. Being strict Catholics, her father wanted her to become a trained teacher. Celia furthered her education and attended a teacher training school in Havana to become a literature teacher but upon advice from a teacher, she attended Havana’s National Conservatory of Music after graduating from teacher training school.
While in school, she began to sing at Radio García-Serra, one of Cubas leading stations and won first prize in a singing contest in 1947. In 1950 she was invited to audition for the lead singer role with one of Cuba’s biggest music group Sonora Matancera and got the role. From this point onwards her music career grew bigger.
By 1960, Celia became a Caribbean sensation. Becoming more popular than the band she joined, she did solo gigs and continued to play with the band touring the Caribbean and parts of America and Europe.
In 1961, while on tour in the USA, she was banned from entering Cuba after she refused to enter the country following Castro’s takeover. Even after the death of her mother in 1962, she was still denied entry into the country by the government.
Celia spent the rest of her career in the USA becoming an even bigger sensation and being crowned the Queen of Salsa and the Queen of Latin American Music. She won 7 Grammy Awards, featured in over 10 films, received a star on the “Walk of Fame” in Hollywood and in 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts. She also became a symbol of artistic freedom for Cuban American exiles.
In 2003, Celia died of brain cancer at age 77 in the USA. She was buried in a granite mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.
She has been honoured with several posthumous awards and several schools have been built in her honour in both Cuba and the USA. Celia Cruz remains the Queen of Cuban music and the woman that made it from her home in the Caribbean.