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Once upon a time, a girl learned to sing before she could talk. Her name was Celia. She began singing to her siblings and cousins at bedtime, but a voice like that needed to be shared. Everywhere she went, she sang. She sang when she was in pain and she sang when she felt incredible joy—shouting an exuberant “¡Azúcar!” to her adoring fans. In glittering gowns and extravagant, ruffled ensembles, Celia filled the airwaves with her unique sound. Her talent earned her the name “The Queen of Salsa” as she spread Cuban music throughout the world.
A talented and versatile actress, Justina Machado continues to endear audiences and earn critical acclaim with each new role. Machado can currently be seen starring as the lead in Netflix’s highly-reviewed reimagining of Norman Lear’s ONE DAY AT A TIME opposite Rita Moreno. Machado is perhaps most well known for her role as “Vanessa Diaz” in HBO’s SIX FEET UNDER, which earned a 2005 SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. On the big screen, Machado has been seen in THE PURGE: ANARCHY.
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Celia who learned to sing before she learned to talk—or at least, that’s how her grandmother told the story.
Every night, after her three siblings and many cousins were tucked into bed, Celia lulled them to sleep with her warm voice. As her songs spread through the balmy Cuban night air, her neighbors gathered outside the house, absorbed in her voice. They had to be sneaky about it, though. If Celia saw that they were listening, she became shy and closed the front door.
Some nights, on her way home, Celia stopped on the curb right outside one of Havana’s night clubs and pressed her face against the glass windows. Inside, orchestras swayed and dancers twirled. Her future on the other side of the glass seemed just out of reach.
While her mother always supported Celia’s passion for music, her father was against it, fearing that her career would dishonor the family. He wanted Celia to be a teacher. To satisfy his demands, Celia went to school to get a teaching degree until, one day, her professor pulled her aside to tell her a secret.
“You don’t have to be a teacher,” she said. “You’re going to sing—because you’ll earn more money in a day than I will in a month.”
I’m JUSTINA MACHADO. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Celia Cruz.
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As a teenager, Celia sang on the radio whenever she could, singing anything from traditional Cuban songs to silly advertising jingles.
One Saturday, a cousin took her to a contest at Radio Garcia Serra. Celia was nervous as she held the microphone—after all, this was only her second competition. But as the music swelled around her, the nerves melted away, and she opened her mouth to sing a slow, sad tango: “Quiero emborrachar mi corazón / para olvidar un loco amor…” Her performance was so beautiful that the radio station gave her the first of many honors: a delectable cake.
With her warm voice spreading over the Cuban airwaves, it wasn’t long before influential people started noticing Celia.
Nightclubs in Havana were known for their top-notch musicians and glamorous dancers. But there was one place that was more fabulous than all the rest: El Tropicana.
When the doors opened, blinding lights shone on glittering gowns. Men in white suits steered women in feathered headdresses across grass-green floors. Famous actors, writers, gangsters, and politicians talked, laughed, and danced, enthralled by nightclub performers in ruffled skirts.
In 1950, Rogelio Martínez, the director of the most famous orchestra in Cuba, La Sonora Matancera, spotted Celia under the dazzling spotlight at the Tropicana. When he asked her to be their lead singer, Celia knew that this was a chance of a lifetime.
“¡Claro que sí!” she told Rogelio. “Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!”
And with that, she made history, as the orchestra’s first black female lead singer.
But beyond the club and the swaying palm trees, leaving the sequins and the feathers behind, revolution was brewing in Cuba. By 1953, a man named Fidel Castro began trying to overthrow the country’s president, who was more like a dictator. As Castro and his revolutionaries started fighting, chaos spread across the country.
And Celia started getting nervous.
Fidel Castro said he was a man of the people, but after gaining more and more power, he began to seem like a dictator himself. He created a government that spied on its own citizens, took control of the radio stations, and threw people in jail for disagreeing with the new regime. Celia worried that Castro would try to control her career by revoking her passport or by telling her which songs she could and could not sing.
Everything Celia knew and loved was in Cuba. But she started to think that maybe she should get out of the country, just for a little while until everything was a bit more stable at home.
So when Celia had the chance to perform in Mexico for a year, she took it. She and the rest of La Sonora Matancera packed their bags and hopped on a plane headed west. Celia felt a shiver of worry as she climbed the stairs to the plane, but she told herself that she’d be back after one short year, singing at her favorite Cuban clubs again.
As she sat quietly on the flight, watching the clouds drift far beneath the plane’s wings, the orchestra leader called a serious meeting: “This is a one-way flight.” he told them. He had decided that it was just too dangerous for the band to return to Cuba, even after the year was over. They were defecting—abandoning their country for a new home.
Celia had packed her suitcase thinking that she’d be back in a year to kiss her mother and laugh with her father again—but as she sped through the air, miles above the Gulf of Mexico, she realized that she might be separated from her homeland for even longer than she had imagined.
In fact, Celia would never step foot on Cuban soil again.
Back in Cuba, Fidel Castro heard the news that Cuba’s best singer had defected—and exploded with rage. As the country’s new dictator, he wanted to control Cuba’s talent. He determined who could come and who could go. Castro had approved of Celia’s plan to tour Mexico, but he hadn’t seen her betrayal coming—and he felt like he’d been tricked. He was so furious that he banned Celia’s music, and then he banned the entire orchestra from ever returning to Cuba.
After her year in Mexico, Celia moved to New York City, and it welcomed her with open arms. Still, even though she was onstage in colorful dresses, singing joyful songs, the loss of her homeland was sometimes too much to bear.
As the years ticked away, Castro kept his word. When Celia’s mother fell sick and passed away, he prevented her visit. When her father died, he wouldn’t let her say goodbye.
When Celia was sad, there was only one person she could turn to. His name was Pedro Knight. Pedro was a trumpet player in La Sonora Matancera, and he’d been trying to convince Celia to date him for six years before she finally agreed to give him a chance.
“It wasn’t love at first sight,” he said, describing their lengthy courtship. “We gradually became good friends, and over time our friendship grew into love.”
Now that they were both exiled in New York, they decided to get married. Having Pedro by her side was extremely important for Celia. He wasn’t just her husband—he was a reminder of home.
“Everybody looks at [me] and thinks [I] am very happy,” said Celia, once. “But I don’t have a mother, a father, I don’t have a country—I only have Pedro.”
In the streets of New York City, Dominicans danced the merengue, Puerto Ricans partied to the sound of bomba, Columbians hummed along to the melody of cumbia flutes, and Americans played jazz, blues, and rock-and-roll.
Celia’s new hometown had grown into the epicenter of a new sound, and people were calling it “salsa.” Salsa was only made possible by the city’s vibrant melting pot of cultures, and during this golden era of salsa, Celia was one of the only women on the scene. And when the craze spread around the world, so did Celia’s mighty voice.
One of the key components of salsa was “sabor,” which means “flavor.” Sabor meant not just having a beautiful voice, but performing with flair, passion, and energy.
Celia Cruz was the queen of sabor, and you could feel it down to your toes.
Sure, it was fun to listen to Celia sing on the radio—but it was even more exciting to see her live. She wore extravagant costumes, cracked jokes from the stage, and danced about on high- heeled shoes designed to make it look like she was flying. Her favorite type of dress was the Bata Cubana, covered in ruffles with a long train—so that when Celia spun and swayed to the music, the dress spun and swayed with her.
She wore silver shoes with swan-shaped heels, a dress covered in sparkly palm trees, and a blue cape embroidered with peacock feathers. Fur coats? Yes, please. Diamond necklaces with matching headdresses? Definitely. Sky-high blue wigs? But of course! If it was bright and glitzy and eye-catching, Celia loved it.
One evening, Celia was having dinner with friends at a Miami restaurant. After the meal, the waiter offered to bring her cafe con leche — a classic Cuban treat — and asked her if she took it with or without sugar.
“Chico, you’re Cuban. How can you even ask that?” she exclaimed. Cubans always took their coffee with lots and lots of sugar. “Azúúúúúúúúúúcar, azúúúúúúúcar! Dame mucho azúcar!”
Other patrons in the cafe recognized her and started imitating the way she said the word. That evening during her show, while the horn players rested their lips, she told the audience the story and everyone laughed.
Eventually, she told the story at enough venues that all she had to do was simply walk on stage and shout “Azúcar!” Her fans immediately knew they were in for an incredible show.
Celia only ever came close to her homeland once. In 1990, she was invited to perform at the U.S. Naval base in Guantánamo Bay, which was on the island of Cuba, but technically this stretch of land was loaned to the United States.
The thought of being so close to her country filled Celia with a tangle of emotions—some happy, some heartbreaking. When she got off the plane and saw the mountains of Cuba in the distance, she was so overwhelmed that she fell to her knees and kissed the ground of her beloved island.
A few government officials took her on a stroll around the Naval base. They passed a metal fence that separated Guantánamo Bay from Cuba.
“Basta ya,” cried Celia, “Stop!”
Celia reached her hand under the fence and dug up enough Cuban soil to fill a Styrofoam cup.
“I finally feel at peace holding this soil,” she told the people around her, clutching the earth to her chest.
That evening, for the first time, Celia walked on stage and didn’t have to tuck her sadness away.
People all around the world felt inspired by Celia’s music. And her fans loved her so much that they weren’t afraid to be loud about it.
Once, when she was playing with her friend Tito Puente, a fellow Cuban in the audience yelled, “Celia de Cuba!” But then someone else cried out, “Celia de Puerto Rico!” and another person yelled “Celia de Mexico!”
Celia appeared a bit shocked by all this attention. Was she Celia of Mexico? Was she Celia of Puerto Rico? The spotlight burned down on her, until finally, Tito Puente, roared, “Celia del mundo!”—“Celia of the world!”
At that, the entire auditorium went wild. Celia’s music represented so much more than just a single country. By now, her voice and her legacy belonged to the entire globe, to people everywhere who were drawn together by her powerful music.
Celia Cruz kept performing up until the year she died.
Celia requested two funerals, one in Miami and one in New York City. Both funerals were huge. Many famous people came to mourn her. But there were also thousands and thousands of fans whose lives had been touched and whose hearts had been lifted by Celia’s sabor.
When she was brought to her final resting place, a beautiful mausoleum in the Bronx, she was buried with the cup of Cuban soil that she’d filled so many years ago.
Today, Celia’s loud, colorful fashion continues to inspire musicians like Cardi B, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. Every time someone like the Cuban singer Albita or the Columbian singer Carolina La O take the stage, their clicking heels and swirling dance moves can’t help but remind the world of Celia. And every time a girl sings soft salsa songs to her siblings at night, Celia’s sabor lives on.
”I want more women in salsa,” she said once, smiling. ”Someday, I have to die, and I want people to say, ‘Celia Cruz has died, but here is someone who can take over.’”