NewsLatin America"More than a generational talent": Celia Cruz's legacy in the US is not limited to a coin

“More than a generational talent”: Celia Cruz’s legacy in the US is not limited to a coin

Two decades after her death, Celia Cruz’s legacy is still very present in the Latino community around the world. Generations continue to dance to the rhythm of her songs and her famous ‘Sugar’especially in her host country, the United States, where she is revered as the Queen of Salsa and will soon be immortalized as the first Afro-Latina to appear on a coin.

The face of the Cuban singer will reach the pockets of Americans in the form of a 25-cent coin after the recommendation of Ariana Curtis, content director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, located in Washington, who was inspired by the “deep legacy” of the also called Guarachera from Cuba to submit the proposal to the American Women Quarters program of the Mint.

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“Its impact is multilingual, it is multigenerational, it is multinational,” Curtis told the voice of america. “Salsa was a male-dominated genre before Celia Cruz. Then comes this black, Cuban woman, who was not a subtle presence. She was loud, she had a powerful voice and stage presence, flashy costumes and wigs, and I think by being herself, by presenting herself with that kind of authenticity, she won the hearts of the whole world,” she emphasized.

A painting of Celia Cruz adorns the famous Azúcar ice cream parlor, named after the singer’s famous phrase, in Little Havana, Miami, on February 14, 2023.

humble origins

Today no one doubts the importance of Celia Cruz in Latin music. The prestigious magazine Rolling Stone ranked her at number 18 on its list of the 200 greatest singers of all time and her mythical “Life is a carnival” among the best songs in history.

However, his humble origins did not presage this rise to fame. She was born Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad in 1925, in Havana; Little Celia grew up influenced by various currents of popular culture during her childhood in the working-class neighborhood of Santos Suárez.

Her big break came when she was chosen to be the lead singer of the already renowned Sonora Matancera orchestra, with which she became known as the Guarachera de Cuba. During her time with the band, she met what would be her great love and her only husband, trumpeter Pedro Knight; and she adopted what would be her brand, her inseparable cry “Sugar”.

“The social context of his career is minimized. [Celia] he was born black and female in the 1920s in Cuba. She lived most of her life as a dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking immigrant in the US. The systemic adversity that she had to face was immeasurable, and yet her popularity and her talent remain unmatched,” Curtis added.

symbol of a culture

Like thousands of Cubans, Celia Cruz and Pedro Knight went into exile in the US after Fidel Castro came to power on the island in early 1959. The couple settled in New Jersey, where there was a vibrant community of Latino musicians. In 1965, after more than a decade with Sonora Matancera, Celia ventured out alone in a career where her constant evolution prevailed.

Although she is more related to salsa and guaracha, Celia never limited herself to cultivating only traditional genres and ventured into rhythms as varied as rumba and reggaeton. At her death, in 2003, she was considered an icon not only of music, but of culture and fashion. Her wigs and colorful dresses marked an entire generation.

Despite the fact that in her native Cuba, Celia’s music and image have been censored for years due to her rejection of the government, her presence and charisma is especially palpable in Miami’s Little Havana.

Celia Cruz's star on the Walk of Fame on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, Miami, on February 14, 2023. Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, will be the first Afro-Latina to be immortalized on a US coin.

Celia Cruz’s star on the Walk of Fame on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, Miami, on February 14, 2023. Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, will be the first Afro-Latina to be immortalized on a US coin.

In what is considered the historic heart of Cuban exiles in the US, his image is reflected on walls, photographs, advertisements, street names, a star on the Walk of Fame and more recently a large full-color mural in one of the the corners that Celia frequented.

The local artist, Alexandra Seda, known as Miss Lushy, was in charge of completing the work for a week. “I remember that I used to drive here and never see a mural of Celia and I found it strange because it is Calle Ocho, and she is, you know: Celia,” she recalled in an interview with the VOA.

Seda was then working in a workshop in Little Havana and every day she missed a large-scale performance of the singer in the neighborhood. “I said to myself: you know what? Maybe I’m the one who should paint Celia and so I made it as a plan and somehow it came true.”

In collaboration with local businesses, organizations and authorities in the city of Miami, the artist’s dream came true. With a Chilean father and a Nicaraguan mother, Alexandra was born and raised in Miami and she acknowledges that although she is not Cuban, she “feels enormous respect” for the heritage of the island culture and what she represents for the city.

He remembers the time he spent painting the mural as one of the most intense and rewarding moments of his career. “I learned many things, including that she (Celia) bought her glasses at the Óptica López across the street, and they told me that they were very happy to see Celia every day,” he said.

“I think one of the most special experiences while painting murals is when I meet the people in the community. I met from the younger generation to the older generation, everyone was talking to me about their music and how nostalgic it was and how great it was to see it here and I definitely got very positive feedback from all generations and saw how it brought people together,” Miss said. Lushy, who recently unveiled another mural in Little Havana paying tribute to Cuban-American singer Willy Chirino.

For Seda it is an “honor” to have captured the image of Celia on Calle Ocho, because of what she means to “all women, Latinas.”

Celia on a coin

The image of the Queen of Salsa will begin to circulate on the US 25 cent coin beginning in 2024. The American Women Quarters program honors five women each year, beginning in 2022 and ending in 2025, in order to to highlight those who have made significant contributions to the history of the country.

“At the point of the American Women’s Quarters show, that story includes a diversity of women. I think Celia Cruz is just one of those women whose impact is so deep and pervasive that she absolutely needs to be a part of this,” Curtis noted.

This recognition would also be a sign of “solidification” of Celia’s musical legacy “as part of the fabric of an entire country,” he told the VOA Omar Pardillo, president of the Celia Cruz Foundation and former representative of the artist.

A photograph of Celia Cruz (center) is displayed at Old Havana's restaurant in Little Havana, Miami, on February 14, 2023.

A photograph of Celia Cruz (center) is displayed at Old Havana’s restaurant in Little Havana, Miami, on February 14, 2023.

“Celia lives on in the faces of millions of people who listen to her music and love her for being an icon of positivity and light. This formal recognition is a testament to her struggle and her strength to reach new heights never before imagined,” said Pardillo.

Celia’s music is one that expresses her reality as a migrant, a reality with which many generations of Latinos identify in the US. “Her music of hers is about exile and the vitality of living life to the fullest. She opened the doors to many who came after her, and like her they will continue to leave a mark that will shape the real and valuable identity of this country and, beyond, the world”, the president of the Foundation pointed out.

The coin design will be released in the middle of this year. The curator, who has given recommendations for the design, assured that she has hardly seen drafts of the final image, however, one of the most important aspects that they have taken into account is the variety of iconic styles that the singer wore.

“It’s not just that we cherish her in our homes or in our communities, but it’s really a way to honor her at the level she deserves,” Curtis concluded.

Source: VOA Español


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