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Priceless Honor Bestowed Upon Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa

Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz (1924-2003), circa 1970. (Photo: Getty Images)

While many legendary musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Celia Cruz, have appeared on U.S. postage stamps, only one, Ellington, has ever been honored on a U.S. coin.

That will change in 2024 when the United States Mint issues a quarter celebrating the incredible career of Celia Cruz, the “Queen of Salsa.” That would make Cruz the first Afro-Latina to be featured on the coin and, along with Ellington, the second black artist and baptized Catholic.

Celia Cruz was born Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz on Oct. 21, 1925, in Havana, Cuba. The two-time Grammy Award winner recorded 37 albums and appeared on numerous Latin and salsa music compilations. American audiences may know Cruz best from her cover of the classic Cuban patriotic standard “Guantanamera,” which was a Top 10 hit in 1966 by folk-pop group The Sandpipers. 

It was further popularized by artists as diverse as folk singer Pete Seeger and rapper Wyclef Jean. “Guantanamera” became a standard in Cruz’s repertoire after she left Cuba for Mexico in 1960, before moving to the United States. 

It was also featured on her 1967 album “Bravo Celia Cruz,” which she recorded with her longtime group La Sonora Matancera. Among the nearly 200 songs she recorded with La Sonora were the Latin hits including “Cao Cao Mani Picao,” “Mata Siguaraya,” “Burundanga,” and “El Yerbero Moderno.” 

She received her first gold record for “Burundanga.” The Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph Music Director Alejandro Zuleta believes that the true measure of Cruz’s talent is her outstanding artistry.

“One can of course explain Ms. Cruz’s inclusion as the first Black Latin female artist to be commemorated on the U.S. quarter, based on her immense popularity and success as an artist,” Zuleta said. “Nevertheless, I believe that our focus should be placed on her outstanding artistry and not let her celebrity, success, and charisma overshadow her tremendous measure and standard as a singer.

“Ms. Cruz is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) interpreters of traditional Cuban music of all time,” he added. “Not only because of the quality, power, and training of her instrument, but mostly because of her knowledge and sensibility towards every Cuban traditional genre.

“Her renditions of bolero, guaracha, guaguanco, bembe, cha-cha-cha, and son among other rhythms are timeless, and stand as a reference to all other singers of her generation and beyond.”

Cruz moved to New York in 1961. The Cuban government denied her request to return to Cuba to see her ailing mother, who died one year later. Also in 1962, she married trumpeter Pedro Knight who was also a member of La Sonora Matancera, before the group made its first international tour.

In 1965 Cruz left La Sonora and began her solo career, which would include landmark duet albums featuring such luminaries as Willie Colon, Tito Puente, and Johnny Pacheco. The 1974 album “Celia & Johnny,” which she recorded with Pacheco, became one of her biggest selling records. 

Pacheco was a Dominican music arranger, composer, band leader, and producer for New York-based Fania Records, known as the Motown of salsa. “Celia & Johnny” included the popular “Toro Mata” and “Quimbara,” which became one of Cruz’s signature songs.

The album remains one of Cruz’s most popular and beloved albums, and in 2014 the Library of Congress named it to the National Recording Registry for its cultural and historical significance. Additionally, Billboard magazine selected it as one of the 50 essential Latin albums of the past 50 years.

Although many people thought that Cruz was a Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion with elements of Catholicism — because of some of the music she recorded — Cruz was Catholic and admitted that she recorded some songs not even understanding the meaning of the lyrics. She admitted to being a religious individual but never a follower of the Santeria Religion.

In 1994, Cruz received the National Medal of Arts award from President Bill Clinton. She also enjoyed a career in movies and appeared in the films “Mambo Kings,” alongside Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, and “The Perez Family” with Angelica Huston. In 1998, she released the album “Mi Vida Es Cantar,” which included one of her most successful songs “La Vida Es un Carnaval.” And one year later, she performed with Luciano Pavarotti for the “Pavarotti and Friends” concert. 

Cruz was nominated for 14 Grammy awards between 1979 and 2003, and she won two, for the song “Ritmo en el Corazón” in 1989 and the album “Regalo del Alma” in 2003. She also won four Latin Grammy awards and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. The accolades from artists all over the world came pouring in when Cruz died on July 16, 2003, at her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Her wish was for her body to be flown to Miami for two days in order for her Cuban exile admirers to visit her coffin at the Gesù (Jesus) Catholic Church. A funeral Mass was held for her at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown.

She is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. St. Joseph’s Church in Jamaica, Queens, has always included African and Caribbean music in its Mass. Music Director Kevin Robinson called Cruz an inspiration to people all around the world and said that his mother, Beverly Robinson, was one of Cruz’s biggest fans and introduced her son to Cruz’s music from an early age.

“I grew up listening to Celia’s music, listening to her rhythms, and enjoying her performances on television. She was my first introduction to salsa music, and over the years it has influenced my musicianship,” explained Robinson. “My mom, being a Panamanian, was influenced by her fashion and style. It was especially impactful for my mom to see a Afro-Latino on TV at a time when you didn’t see many. Celia Cruz’s music was not only entertaining but also meaningful because she addressed important social and political issues. 

Her songs were uplifting and empowering, and she inspired people of Afro-Latino descent to celebrate their identity and culture with pride.” It cannot be overstated how impactful Cruz’s legacy is to Afro-Cuban Latin music. She inspired and influenced many artists that followed in the path she cleared.

Her fellow Grammy award-winning Cuban American artist Gloria Estefan mourned her passing by proclaiming, “My heart will fill with pride and seeing that our culture, not only Cuban, but the Latin culture was being spread through the world, a light that represents the best of our culture through music.” Estefan’s husband Emilio added, “It’s a big loss for the Latin community; she translated to every country in the world.

She’s well loved and she’s getting back all the respect and love that she deserves.” The Cuban icon may be setting a precedent in being selected as the first Afro-Latina to appear on the quarter, but Celia Cruz’s many contributions to world music are simply priceless.