Life of Celia Cruz
The talented singer was born on October 21, 1925, in the Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana. Her singing talent was obvious even when she was young, but instead of pursuing a career in singing, she studied to be a teacher. This was because her father told her that he did not believe that singing was a worthwhile profession for a woman. Still, she went after a career in singing, after encouragement from her mother, teacher and aunt. Celia Cruz began singing in talent shows and doing recordings for radio stations, but neither were sold for money.
Her first recordings were made in 1978 in Venezuela with the Turpial label. She sang these with the Leonard Melody and Alfonso Larrain orchestras. In 1950, she was called in to be the lead singer of a Cuban band, La Sonara Matancera. At first, the public did not like her, because she was black, but eventually, because of her hard work, talent and the fact that the orchestra stood by her, the public accepted her, and she became famous throughout Cuba. Celia was a member of La Sonora for fifteen years, and then in July 15, 1960, she decided to migrate to the United States to pursue her singing career.
It only took her one year to become a legal citizen of the US. After becoming a citizen in 1961, Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro was furious and barred Cruz returning to Cuba, enforcing the ban even after her parents’ deaths. Celia for her part has vowed not to return to Cuba until such time as the Castro regime is disposed. Although Celia Cruz had made numerous recordings with La Sonora Mantancera, she experienced little success in the United States in the 1960s. She spoke English well, but she refused to record in the language.
Younger Latin Americans at the time were gravitating away from big-band dance music and toward rock-and-roll, in both Latin and non-Latin inflections. Celia’s fortunes began to improve when she meshed her talents with those of the musicians and bandleaders who were creating the new music called salsa—chief among them Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colon. Salsa was firmly rooted in Cuban dance traditions, but it was high-energy new hybrid that incorporated elements of jazz, traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and other forms.
Celia on stage was a commanding figure whose control over audiences resulted not only from her flamboyant, stage-filling attire, but also from her ability to engage them in call-and-response patterns that spring from salsa’s Afro-Cuban roots. Celia was any music promoter’s dream because of the added value she brought to every contract. She offered more than just interesting musical interpretations: Celia transformed herself into a stage image projected well beyond any performance. Her magic included a distinctive orchestra sound, staging, scenery, and props, backup choruses, and a lot of color and special effects.
Celia was very fond of sunglasses. They had to be prescriptions and she ordered them in exaggerated sizes and adorned with small, bright-colored stones to make them more festive. Wigs were the second most important prop for Celia in the creation of her image. Besides Queen of Salsa, she could also be considered Queen of Wigs. She had them in every color – though she preferred blond or silver – and every style, to cover her curly hair. This artist with the chameleon image confided that her collection of wigs was not extravagant, that it seemed so only because they were coiffed in different styles each time.
Wigs were one of her stage trademarks. From the beginning of her singing career, Celia Cruz was a permanent guest at Cuban radio stations. In the times before television, radio programs enjoyed large audiences, not only on the island but in the whole Caribbean area, where area waves carried without difficulty. In Cuba, as well as in Latin America, musical programs and soap operas were tremendously popular. Radio provided practically the only entertainment beside movies, which also attracted large audiences.
Celia’s first experience as an actress came to her through her friendship with Maria Teresa Coalla, who created a character especially for Celia in a soap opera broadcast by Radio Progreso in the fifties. Her director was Bernardo Pascual, who was then married to Delia Fiallo, later famous in Miami as a soap opera scriptwriter. Celia was afraid of ridicule, but her friends and colleagues at the radio station encouraged her with only one advice: to be herself, without imitating any other actress. Her success was overwhelming.
The rival station also had a soap, Divorciadas, with the highest rating, but after Celia joined it bypassed the competition. The best actress award that year went to Celia. One of Celia’s performance trademarks is a full-throated shout of “Azucar! ” (Sugar! ); she explained its 1970s origins in a 2000 Billboard interview. “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 ‘Azucar! ‘” Celia might be compared with US jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan in her ability to bring vocal techniques to a primarily instrumental music, but she has a more essentially popular appeal than any jazz singer. Seemingly indestructible vocally, Celia continued a full schedule of concerts and recordings throughout the 1980s and beyond. She received a Grammy award for the album Ritmo en el corazon, recorded with conga player Ray Barretto, in 1990, as well as an honorary doctorate from Yale University.
Still a major star in her own right, Celia became an inspiration for numerous younger performers (such as Gloria Estefan) in the 1990s; her audience hardly aged along with her. “We’ve never had to attract these kids,” she told Time. “They come by themselves. Rock is a strong influence on them, but they still want to know about their roots. ” For most Latin Americans, indeed, Celia Cruz has been and remains a much-loved figure, an icon of Latin culture. There were simply three great loves in Celia’s life: Pedro Knight, music and of course, Cuba. Celia’s love life has been a secret well kept by those close to her.
Hector Ramirez Bedoya revealed in his Historia de la Sonora Mantancera y sus estrellas (History of the Sonora Mantancera and its Stars, 1996); Celia was engaged for a while to Alfredo Leon, a young bass player and the son of Bienvenido Leon, member of the noted Septeto Nacional. An old photo of Celia, wearing full, flowery skirt and singing into a microphone, shows Alfredo accompanying her on the tumbadora. How Celia and Pedro fell in love is a modern day fairy tale. Theirs was an affection that grew out of friendship; developing slowly until eventually it led them to the altar.
As Pedro tells it, “We got to know each other while working with the Sonora, and became fast friends. There is no way to say when our romance started. Celia was a sensible, reliable young woman, and in time our friendship turned to love. Neither of us thought that we were going to end up getting married one day, but that’s what happened. ” When Celia and Pedro Knight met, he was still married to his first wife, with whom he had six children. A year after Celia joined the Sonora, in 1950, Pedro obtained his divorce.
Their courtship had been very discreet, but one day Rogelio Martinez heard about the blossoming romance from one of the orchestra members. After a ten-year courtship, Pedro finally convinced Celia to marry him. They were married on Saturday, July 14, 1962, in a simple ceremony before a Connecticut judge. Singer Rolando Laserie was their best man; his wife, Tita Borggiano, was the matron of honor; and Laserie’s manager, Catalino Rolon, a witness. By then Celia was already thirty-six and Pedro thirty-nine. Because Celia was still mourning over the death of her mother, Ollita, there was no party or honeymoon.
Their marriage took place a short time after the death of her mother, a moment she could not share with her family because the Cuban government did not allow her to reenter her country. So Pedro, according to Celia, replaced both her mother and her father. During a routine exam, Celia’s physician detected cancer in the breast, the same illness that killed her mother. In August, at the Hackensack Hospital in New Jersey, Celia underwent surgery to remove her left breast, and in September she returned to the hospital for a second operation. The whole situation was handled with the utmost discretion, and not even her closest fans got the news.
Celia did not want her fans to pity her because of her illness. The headaches the she began experiencing after her first operation were becoming worse, and she also suffered from fainting spells and shivering. Back in New York, she underwent intense testing, which confirmed the fatal diagnosis: a brain tumor. Despite the optimism that always had characterized her, she could not help feeling depressed when the results if the pathological tests came in. they confirmed that the excised tumor was malignant. Later, three additional inoperable tumors were detected in her brain.
After resting in Hawaii and upon her return to New York, Celia finished the necessary paperwork to establish a nonprofit organization devoted to benefitting the musical education of young Hispanics, and to raising funds for the fight against cancer. On February14, 2003, the Fundacion Celia Cruz was officially created for those important causes. Monday July 14 was her forty-first wedding anniversary. Pedro knelt beside her and whispered, “Happy anniversary, my love. ” A tear ran down Celia’s cheek, but she said nothing, returning to the stupor induced by her medications, and she finally took refuge in an unconscious state.
On Wednesday morning, it appeared that the battle had been lost. Surrounding her was her loved ones: Pedro Knight; Cuqui Pacheco; her manager and adopted son, Omer Pardillo-Cid; her niece, Linda Becquer-Dakota; her sister Gladys; her friends Luis and Leticia Falcon; and two nurses Celia Cruz, the legendary singer of Afro-Cuban rhythms, la Guarachera de Cuba and Queen of Salsa with a happy “tumbao,” died at 4:55 in the afternoon. Her marvelous voice is still with us through her recordings and her luminous call to joy, Azucar! will be with us forever.
She was a very kind person that gave back hope and inspired many singers, as well as others of different industries. Celia demonstrated to the world that anything you set your mind to be possible with effort and drive. Sometimes life can be difficult and as a single mother with a full time job and now also a part time student, it seems harder than ever, but with that same spirit determination and drive that Celia had until the end. BIBLIOGRAPHY Marceles, Eduardo. Azucar! The Biography of Celia Cruz. New York: Reed Press, 2004