The Legacy of Cuban-American Singer Celia Cruz
Updated: 4 days ago
By Sandy Wilson, VP and Managing Director of Sales for Brown Harris Stevens' Harlem Office
I was thrilled to read recently that one of my heroes, the Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz, was being honored by the United States as the first Afro-Latina to appear on a United States quarter. The coin will be minted with Celia’s image in 2024, as part of the American Women Quarters Program.
This significant honor was begun by the US Mint in 2022, and it is designed to highlight the extraordinary contributions and accomplishments that women have made throughout our country's history. These pioneers broke barriers and made contributions unheard of by their predecessors, and Celia was one of those giants! Her catalog of hits and covers includes what many herald as Cuba’s second national anthem: “La Guantanera,”originally taken from Jose Marti’s poetic works about his beloved home country.
Ms. Cruz was born in Cuba in 1925. She immigrated to the United States in 1961. Before arriving on our shores, she was the lead singer of the popular and legendary Cuban orchestra, La Sonora Mantacera. At the time, a Black woman leading a popular Cuba was quite a feat, to say the least. But once Celia started singing, her talent shattered all barriers.
After arriving in the states, she went on to elevate the Cuban style of “call and response” dance music called Guaracha. This high energy style of Afro-Cuban dance music quickly evolved into what we now recognize today as Salsa. Joining forces with many other NYC based musicians, the likes of Hector Lavoe, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco and so many others. NYC has always provided the combination of different languages, rhythms and musical styles that made the melting pot for Salsa. Their huge success, together, as the” Fania Allstars” introduced Salsa and toured the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe.
Sadly, Just like many African American Jazz musicians and singers of the early 20th Century, Celia and the Salsa explosion was more commonly known in Europe and Asia, than in the states.
My personal remembrance of Celia was one of my most cherished memories. I not only had the honor of meeting her and others mentioned above but heard them play in her living room. We developed a family friendship and entertained Celia at my home several times for dinner. She was kind, humble, loving, and always made everyone feel special.
Despite her tremendous fame, five Grammys, the National Medal of the Arts, keys to just about every major city in the world, and having been honored by five sitting U.S. Presidents, she was incredibly down to earth. Traveling the world and constantly on tour, she somehow found the time to send had written notes, postcards, and Christmas cards. As a dancer and music lover, I marveled at the depth of her incredible voice. When she spoke or sang you could literally feel the bass in her voice coursing through your body.
Below is a medley of some of her hits. Azucar! Which means “Sugar” was her well known call sign. Her talent, stage presence, colorful costumes, and wigs made her the first lady of Latin music during the latter part of the 20th Century. She was known for her generosity, philanthropy, and class. She never lost touch with her audience no matter how underprivileged or disenfranchised, Celia’s music spread love and happiness to all who’d listen and dance:
Celia was also known for her extravagant costumes. A sample of her costumes were on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. in 2022. It was called The Enduring Legacy of Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa.
Ms. Cruz' career soared, as she became a staple in Latin Music, worldwide, and made history by winning 5 Grammy Awards. She also made over 80 albums and earned 23 Gold Records. She died at the age of 77 in 2003, leaving behind a wealth of music and history for all of her many fans to enjoy. However, her legacy is not forgotten and her memory endures.
Sandy Wilson is both the Executive Vice President and Managing Director of Sales for Brown Harris Stevens' Harlem and Riverdale offices. For more information on Sandy and her background, click here.