The world’s most popular female salsa singer broke the color barrier and gave Cuban music a global audience.

”When people hear me sing,” Celia Cruz said, ”I want them to be happy, happy, happy. I don’t want them thinking about when there’s not any money, or when there’s fighting at home. My message is always felicidad — happiness.”

Cruz, whose full name is Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, got her wish. She brought a smile to the face of everyone who ever heard her sing.

As a girl in Havana, Cuba, Cruz sang her siblings and many cousins to sleep at night. This ritual was observed by the neighbors, who gathered in the street to hear her songs.

Many were Yoruba songs that praised the gods of the religion Santeria, which was adopted into Cuban culture from West Africa.  Cruz learned them by going to benbes, public Yoruba ceremonies. Such songs formed the roots of Latin dance music.

Cruz went anywhere where music was playing, and accompanied her aunt to ballrooms where many danced the night away.

”All the musicians in Cuba were friends of mine, even before I began to sing onstage,” Cruz said.

Cruz wanted desperately to be a singer, but her father wouldn’t hear of it. He thought girls who performed in nightclubs were immoral and promiscuous. So she dutifully studied to be a teacher, a profession deemed respectable, until a colleague took her aside and told her to try for the singing career. “You don’t have to be a teacher,” they said. “You’re going to sing because you’ll earn more money in a day than I will in a month.'”

With that wisdom in mind, Cruz began singing anywhere anyone would let her, including theaters, cafes, and local radio stations. In 1949, one such radio station hired her to sing Yoruba songs and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Her honeyed voice spread over the airwaves like flan de leche.

Cruz’s voice drew enough attention that she was offered a job as a singer for La Sonora Matancera, a classic Cuban conjunto (a band with piano, bass, trumpets, guitar, and percussion), who played three months a year at the fabulous El Tropicana nightclub.

The glittering world of the renowned (and sometimes infamous) Havana nightclubs was new to Celia. The haunts of actors, statesmen, and gangsters, the nightclubs were lavish pleasure palaces where the mojitos flowed, the casinos fleeced those in tuxedos and furs, and patrons enjoyed ogling the world’s most beautiful showgirls in the world’s skimpiest costumes.

Cruz was dazzled.

She transformed herself into a bejeweled and sequined powerhouse, dripping with diamonds, overcoming her tiny stature with towering feathered headdresses and always displaying her blinding smile.

She had much to smile about. Cruz had broken the color barrier as the orchestra’s first Black female lead singer.

Still, Cruz’s father resisted embracing his daughter’s choice—going as far as denying their relationship until he overheard his colleagues discussing how both her reputation on-stage and off were praised in the press.

Meanwhile, unrest was brewing in Cuba. The country’s corrupt president, Fulgencio Batista, had enriched himself (and his gangster friends, who wanted to make Cuba the next Las Vegas) at the expense of the Cuban people. A would-be savior arose to address the inequity. Fidel Castro and his grassroots army descended from the hills into Havana on New Year’s Eve 1958, and overthrew Batista. 

The revolution they started had a shattering effect on Cruz.

She was on a plane with La Sonora Mantancera headed to a gig in Mexico City when the bandleader announced that the plane was only making a one-way trip. They would not be returning to Cuba. They were defecting.

Cruz protested as she didn’t want to leave her parents or her country, but she had no choice. Castro then banned the entire group, and Cruz would never set foot in Cuba again.

But the singer soldiered on, settling in New York City in 1962. At the time, Latin music was not as widely celebrated despite a growing population of Latinx in the city and nationally. In the subsequent two decades, Latinx restaurants, cafes, and cultural centers flourished as did their music. 

Puerto Rican and “Nuyorican” musicians added electric guitars to Cuban music, blending traditional rhythms with new sounds and existing genres to create salsa. The genre salsa added an ingredient to the musical mix—sabor, which means “flavor.”Celia Cruz had sabor by the bucketful.

”Salsa has done something more for Cuban music,” she said. ”Electric instruments make it richer. Before, where you had to say guaracha, rhumba, merengue, guaguanco—now you say ‘salsa’ and everything is together.”

Cruz became the icon of salsa music, complete with a trademark phrase created by accident. When served café con leche (classic Cuban coffee) in a restaurant, the waiter asked if she wanted sugar with that. Asking a Cuban if they wanted sugar in their coffee was like asking if the pope was Catholic, and Cruz expressed astonishment at the question, “Chico, eres cubano. ¿Cómo puedes siquiera preguntar eso?”— Chico, you’re Cuban. How can you even ask that?” she exclaimed. 

¡Con azúcar!

The other customers began to titter, enjoying her exaggeration. That night, Cruz told the anecdote at a concert, and it eventually became a stage routine. Soon her catchphrase was “Azúcar!” She had only to walk on stage and utter the word to bring down the house.

Celia Cruz became an international superstar, recording more than 70 albums that covered the entire spectrum of Latin music from mambos and cha-chas to Yoruba chants and percussive salsa, and always only in Spanish (she didn’t think her English was good enough).

She was also a style icon, wearing stage costumes “from turban-to-hemline gold sequins to a five-foot train of more than 400 multicolored lace handkerchiefs sewed together.” These avant garde pieces were just as much showstoppers as a reflection of the value system her father instilled in her. She would never appear on stage as a sexual object, but certainly a spectacle would do!

”I want more women in salsa,” the visionary said. ”Someday, I have to die, and I want people to say, ‘Celia Cruz has died, but here is someone who can take over.’”