Living

Speaking Volumes: Remembering Celia Cruz, the Queen of Latin Music

On Oct. 21 and in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate the 94th birthday of Celia Cruz, the larger-than-life Afro-Cuban singer who revolutionized the Latin music industry.

Cruz was known for her powerful voice and signature stage attire, including rumba dresses, lavish outfits, elaborate wigs and outrageous shoes. She became a famous face of salsa and Caribbean music, genres that have historically been dominated by men.

By the end of her life in 2003, Cruz was celebrated around the world as the “Queen of Latin Music.” She sang with every major Latin bandleader, performed genres ranging from mambo to Santeria, and recorded over 70 albums.

However, unlike many Latin musicians seeking crossover fame with English audiences, Cruz recorded solely in Spanish, holding strong to her native roots.

Cruz was born in 1925 in Havana, Cuba, to a poor family. Before considering music as a profession, Cruz pursued a career in teaching. She attended the Normal School for Teachers in Havana, where she studied to become a literature teacher.

While in school, a professor who knew about Cruz’s talent for music pushed her to leave her studies to pursue singing. The professor caught Cruz’s attention by arguing that she could earn more in one day as a singer than a month’s salary as a teacher.

This convinced Cruz, who wanted to ensure she could support her family. She enrolled in 1947 at the Havana National Conservatory of Music to study singing and piano.

Celia’s first brush with fame came when she won a well-known radio station’s amateur talent content. While the first prize was only a cake, this experience helped push her into the limelight.

In 1950, she joined La Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s most popular band. During the Cuban Revolution, Cruz spent most of her time touring throughout South and Central America. By 1960, she was exiled from Cuba, now under the leadership of Fidel Castro.

Cruz would only return to Cuba once. In 1990, she visited Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where she collected soil from her beloved home country.

After moving to the United States, Cruz’s fame only grew. She won five Grammys, including the first Latin Grammy Award in 2000. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. She gained new audiences across the world while collaborating with Gloria Estefan, Cheo Feliciano, David Byrne, Wyclef Jean and many other musical legends.

The library has books and films featuring Cruz.

“Celia: My Life” is an autobiography based on hundreds of hours of interviews between co-author Ana Cristina Reymundo and Cruz recorded in the months leading to her death. The book is available at the library in English and Spanish.

The library also has the documentary “Celia Cruz: An Extraordinary Woman — Azucar!” which is English-Spanish with subtitles. This film features interviews with Cruz as well as her friends family, and colleagues in addition to footage from live performances.

The library also has several CDs of Cruz’s music.

Call your local branch for more information on available titles.

Central Library — 941-748-5555;

Braden River — 941-727-6079;

Island — 941-778-6341;

Palmetto — 941-722-3333;

Rocky Bluff — 941-723-4821;

South Manatee — 941-755-3892.

You also can access the library via the internet at mymanatee.org/library.

Katie Fleck is a librarian at the Central Library in downtown Bradenton. Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday in the Bradenton Herald.

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