Hispanic Heritage Month: Celia Cruz Was An Iconic Afro-Cuban Conduit

I grew up on Celia Cruz, but I didn’t know it at the time. Back in the day, certain cultural norms of today had not yet become fully realized. I didn’t know of what it meant to be “Hispanic“.  All I knew was Puerto Rican people spoke Spanish, ergo, all people that spoke Spanish were Puerto Rican. A simplistic computation from a child’s mind. Cuba — even though part of my DNA can be found there — I hadn’t a clue of its significance.

A little black boy with a Spanish name didn’t know very much about ethnicity and race. All I knew was playing and friendship. But back in the day music was as much an identifier of ethnic and cultural pride as skin color and style of dress.

On my block, Celia Cruz could be heard pouring out of the local watering holes, from the tenement windows that lined the street and from the big body Buicks that often sported white walls.

My Day With Fidel Castro

Just a few months prior to my first trip to Cuba, my second child, Laila Assata Danois, was born on August 13, 2002–Fidel Castro’s birthday. I had been working from home and nursing her, but had started back working periodically.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized Cruz, born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso in Cuba, was not only the Queen of Salsa and The Queen of Latin Music, as she was often described, but she was Afro-Latino. In fact, she was the very first Latina that I ever heard mentioning herself as being something other than just “Spanish”.

I, a child then, easily took notice of her features and she looked more like my Black grandmother from Alabama than any Spanish-speaking girl or woman that I had ever come across in my young life.

Her songs moved me, even though I hadn’t a clue what she was saying. When she performed, she danced in a manner that made you want to get up and dance.

Much of her soulful salsa was deprived from the Yoruba and African sounds she heard growing up in Havana.
She would grow up and join her aunt and cousin as a cabaret singer. In 1948, at 23-years-old, Celia made her first recordings at a studio in Venezuela.

According to music scholars, Celia Cruz changed Latin music in her wake. Her powerful voice was only her most obvious attribute. As is often the case with music inspired by African culture, Celia Cruz was HEAVY on improvisational and her sound reminiscent of three distinct cultures at once; European Spanish, African and Native.

“Azucar!” was not only her famous catchphrase and an emotional declaration of her zest for life, but much more.  Some say it encompasses Cuba’s history of colonialism, slavery and triumph over adversity.

She was an ambassador for the variety and vitality of the music of her native Havana, and after the Cuban revolution, she became a symbol of artistic freedom for Cuban American exiles. Cruz died of brain cancer in 2003.

Before I came across Celia Cruz, I was just a Black kid with a Spanish name who had no interest in Cuba, the home of my father’s father. After Celia Cruz, I was proud to know of my Afro-Cubano kinship. To me, she is the greatest Cuban ambassador of all-time.

Azucar!