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Celia Cruz and '¡Azúcar!' stun fans two decades after her death

Celia Cruz's death paralyzed the Latin music world on July 16, 2003 

Cuba's "guarachera" remembered in Miami on the 20th anniversary of her death
Cuba's "guarachera" remembered in Miami on the 20th anniversary of her death | EFE

July 18, 2023 8:00am

Updated: July 18, 2023 8:01am

Celia Cruz's death paralyzed the Latin music world on July 16, 2003, and had a great impact on her thousands of fans. Today, 20 years after her death, her incomparable voice, energy, humility, and her cry of ¡Azúcar!, which became her trademark, are still alive among her fans.

No one forgets the bold, colorful wigs and flashy dresses in which the "queen of salsa" looked impeccable—a title she earned in her own right in a five-decade career that began in her native Cuba and continued in the U.S., where she went into exile in 1961.

Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz y Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad (1925-2003), a Black woman of humble origins, broke through and established herself in a genre dominated by men who loved and respected her.

Today, 20 years after "la Guarachera de Cuba" lost her battle with cancer, the Cuban community paid tribute to her by dedicating a parade and a float to her in New York.

As part of the celebrations, Mayor Eric Adams declared July 16 "Celia Cruz Day," while her fans did not mind the heavy rain and came to her mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, including 43-year-old Michael Graziano.

Graziano, who was wearing a T-shirt with the singer's face, recalled when, at the age of 9, he heard Cruz for the first time.

"I was going to sleep when I heard 'bemba colorá, oye que tú tienes la bemba colorá'. I was hypnotized and I asked my mother who was singing and she insisted that I go to sleep and I insisted on knowing who that woman was. She told me 'Celia Cruz' and from that day on her name was engraved forever," he said.

"I remember Celia with the same strength, love, and sweetness because that is what has always prevailed in our friendship," Cuban singer Lucrecia, who gave life to the popular performer in a musical and who refers to her as if she were alive, told EFE.

"The admiration I feel for Celia is untouchable for me," she said, adding that the late singer is only "getting bigger and bigger" because young people who did not know her are among her new followers.

Cruz showed from a young age her interest in music, but her father wanted her to become a teacher, "one of the few careers that a poor black man could study in Cuba." However, she abandoned it when she was close to finishing her studies, wrote the Cuban philologist Rosa Marquetti in the book "Celia en Cuba (1925-1962)" about the singer's career in her country, a period of which not much is known.

Marquetti told EFE that with her book, published in 2022, she wanted to show that "Celia is a phenomenon that transcends generations, that she was a diva, and that her contributions to Cuban music were enormous" and also to put an end to the idea that the Fania orchestra made her famous.

"With Fania, her popularity expanded, because she had already traveled and was famous in other countries (before coming to the U.S.) where she traveled singing with the Sonora Matancera. In Cuba she did lyric theater, vernacular theater, was one of the great stars of the Tropicana cabaret, and did a radio soap opera," she said. 

She also claimed that, beyond her musical legacy, the singer left a legacy to Latinas "of her values, of her perseverance, intelligence, of knowing how to fight for her dreams, of her shrewdness in dealing with complex situations."

"She knew how to impose herself without losing human qualities, without stepping on anyone's head, and many women, including me, identify with that legacy," the philologist continued.

"She had respect for the public, she was aware of who she was, she knew the weight of her name but also that without that public she would not have gotten where she did," said Marquetti, who is currently working on the second part of the history of the artist's career.

When news of her death became known, fans gathered in front of the funeral home in New York where her remains were taken and sang while hugging her photos and records.

After almost a week of crowded funerals in Miami and New York, she was buried in her mausoleum and rests next to her husband, Pedro Knight, who died four years later.

Her death has not stopped the recognition of this icon of Latin music.

Among the tributes being paid to her are the release of the Barbie-Celia Cruz doll next September and a 25-cent coin with her image in the United States in 2025.