The work of Celia Cruz is being honored this year in an astonishing 80-episode long series from the Spanish-language network, Telemundo. For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with Cruz, the series will be an overdue but necessary introduction to her life. For the millions of us who are already fans, the series is a welcome tribute to a woman whose music still pulls at our heartstrings over a decade after her death.
Appropriately christened la Reina de Salsa, Celia Cruz is a figure whose music neatly reflects the vast diversity and intersectionality within the Latino community. Her career continues to be remarkable not only because of her talent, but because of her swift opposition to racism and sexism in the industry. With her melded musical influences, strong will, and songs that praise individuality, Cruz’s music helped bring respect as well as much-needed appreciation (and acknowledgement) of the Afro-Latino populations within Cuba and beyond. In my own family’s home, her music has transcended generations and remains as much a part of my upbringing as it was for my grandmother.
Born in the Santa Suárez barrio of Havana, Cuba, Celia was the second eldest of four children to Simón and Catalina Cruz. Her family was very poor and report having shared their home with up to fourteen other family members at a time. Though demanded by her father to purse a career in teaching, Cruz’s distinct and vibrant voice was insuppressible. Her mother was supportive of her talents, but in a nod that seemingly aimed to please both parents, Cruz sang in contests and performed on radio shows, using the winnings to finance her educational expenses.
Although she went on to become one of the most accomplished female musicians and Latina artists of all time, Cruz’s journey was not without challenge. Cruz was an immensely talented Cuban singer and she also a Black woman. And in the 1950s, the white male music world was often not welcoming of these attributes. With time, however, Cruz’s fusion of Afro-Cubano santería and guaracho landed her a job fronting the band La Sonora Matancera. It was then that Cruz’s career officially took off and she met Pedro Knight, a gifted trumpeter and her eventual manager-turned-husband.
While the band was in Mexico on its very first international tour in 1959, communists gained control of Cuba. The band opted to continue their travels to the United States rather then head home and two years later, Cruz became a U.S. citizen. In retaliation, Fidel Castro banished her from ever returning to Cuba. She lived the rest of her life in exile but forever remained a symbol of hope in Cuba. Throughout her five-decade-long career, Cruz repeatedly broke records and stigma all at once. She sang songs praising dark skin. While some say her signature catchphrase, “Azucar!,” was only a punch line, others say it was in recognition of the African slaves who had worked in Cuban sugar plantations. Her history and that of her people was rich and complex and her music was complicated to matched.
Over the course of her career, she made 75 albums, 23 of which went gold. Her collaborations are countless with notable artists including Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, La India, and Luciano Pavarotti. Cruz’s passion for music was so strong that she continued to perform as often as possible, even as she was diagnosed and became sick with cancer. My mother remembers the tears that welled in her eyes as she knowingly watched Cruz perform her last-ever show alongside the likes of Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony, Gloria Gaynor, and many others.
When Celia Cruz died from brain cancer on July 18, 2003, her death was felt around the world. With two televised processions in New York City and Miami, thousands mourned her loss. In a heartfelt display, Victor Manuelle sang her famous song, “La Vida es un Carnaval,” at her funeral, reminding those mourning to embody Cruz’s freeing view of life and death. She was buried in a New York City mausoleum with sand she had saved during her concert in Guantanamo Bay, symbolizing her lasting connection to Cuba. Years later, celebrities continue to pay homage to the late queen. In addition, she continues to influence spheres previously inaccessible to Latinas. She was posthumously honored with a commemorative stamp by the US Postal Service in 2011 and in 2012 became the first-ever Latina to receive a dedicated exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Jeimy Osorio in the new Telemundo series Celia.
Simply and appropriately titled, the new Telemundo series Celia stars Jeimy Osorio and Aymeé Nuviolaand and aims to chronicle the life of Celia Cruz over the course of 80 hours. The first episode debuted on October 14 and new hour-long episodes are airing nightly (the show is also available on Telemundo’s website for those without cable).
The Spanish-language series is not the telenovela format you may be used to. Taking a much more understated approach, Celia seems committed to acknowledging the good and bad of la guarachera’s life. While the interactions between men and women on the show are mixed and often play into traditional gender norms, both racism and sexism are outwardly recognized in the series. Cruz’s character remains a beacon of strength and resilience. Her ganas are not watered-down for TV and each episode shows the complexities of her identity within Cuba and later as she leaves. When asked about the inspiration to focus on the icon for the series, network president Luis Silberwasser said the decision came when asking, “What can we do that doesn’t have narcos or crime?”
In the series, Modesto Lacen plays Celia's musical collaborator and husband Pedro Knight.
Celia is significant and comes as a positive change to the typical cinematic portrayal of Latinos in the media. The series debuts at a time when Celia can still be remembered by those whose lives she touched while living, but is packaged in a way that will immerse viewers from all levels of familiarity. When I listen to her music, it’s impossible not to feel moved and filled with life. Aside from wanting to break out into a rueda, her music brings an overwhelming sense of pride and admiration. Her accomplishments are still hugely relevant. This past Dia de Los Muertos, I was reminded of just how beloved she remains when I bowed at her dedicated ofrenda in Portland, Oregon. Her influence will continue to be passed along and I’m happy to know that I’ll be calling my mom and abuelita watching it on their TVs back home to discuss after watching it from my laptop. As Cruz said herself, “Queda Celia para rato y con mucha más azúcar!” This televised tribute will be another of the many monumental accolades to remember the star by.