It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since Celia Cruz died of brain cancer.
“La Guarachera de Cuba” will always have a lasting influence on the Latino culture and on Latino music. On this the anniversary of her passing, we wanted to make sure that the Afro-Cuban superstar’s legacy will not be forgotten and that those generations living today that did not get to see her when she was alive can learn about the woman who changed the sound of Latino music forever.
Here are the five things you probably didn’t know about Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santisima Trinidad (that one was a freebie).
1. How she came to be dubbed the Queen of Salsa
She is, without question, the first lady of Afro-Cuban music — origins of what we call today, salsa. Cruz put salsa music on the map at a time when most Latinos didn’t have their own special kind of music that they could relate to their culture.
The social culture in New York — where she lived — was beginning to change, as a massive infusion of Latino youth entered the city with Puerto Ricans at the forefront.
Whites had rock music; blacks had soul music. Now, thanks to Celia Cruz, Latinos had salsa music. She not only pioneered the genre of salsa, but was one of the most popular salsa artists of the 20th century, becoming its queen.
2. Controversy following her death
After Celia Cruz’s death, she left behind an ailing husband — Pedro Knight — whose health wasn’t doing very well. Lawsuits ensued about
money that was supposed to go to Knight.
A hearing was held in response to charges by the executor that co-executor Luis Falcon had spent money intended for Cruz’s husband. Falcon had drained over $1 million from the account that was supposed to take care of Knight, having made “extravagant expenditures” while failing to account for transfers.
According to the lawsuit, Falcon also allegedly exercised improper influence over Knight, 85 at the time, who suffered from dementia.
The widower ended up broke and died in 2007.
3. Her alleged link to Santeria
Contrary to a widespread belief that she’s a Santera, Cruz was a devout Roman Catholic. This misconception is mostly based on the fact that two of her best-selling LPs contained songs of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. And though she sings in Lucumi — the African based language of Santeria — Cruz said she does it phonetically without knowing the actual meaning of any of the words.
For example, don’t try and look up quimbara in a Spanish dictionary. That isn’t a Spanish word. That word derives from Cruz’s African heritage. While the meaning may not be what’s important, you have to admit it’s fun to say.
The Queen of Salsa is also known for putting words from the African language into her songs to act as phonetic beats.
4. What’s behind Celia Cruz’s trademark cry, ‘Azucar!’
Everyone knows that Celia Cruz could not go through a performance or a song without shouting her trademark music battle cry, “Azucar!”
But, most people don’t realize the meaning behind that word and how it ties into her own background and heritage of being an Afro-Cuban. Literally translated, azucar means “sugar.”
Sugar is an essential agricultural product in Cuba’s history — many believed the island’s canes were the sweetest in the world. When Cruz shouts, “Azucar!” its an allusion to the African slaves that worked on the sugar plantation in Cuba and the violent history of slavery on the island.
5. Her custom made shoes
Celia Cruz had custom-made shoes. These shoes — that are now on display at the Smithsonian — were custom-made for her by Mexican shoemaker Mr. Nieto. These shoes give the illusion of making Cruz appear as if she were about to take off and fly.