Celia Cruz: Queen of Salsa

Known for her fashion and performance, Celia Cruz is honored as the “Queen of Salsa” for her role as the Afro Cuban diva who came to represent salsa music for audiences across the world.

Full body black and white portrait of Celia Cruz on stage. Cruz wears a dress with a sweetheart neckline and high-low skirt. She rests her hands on her hips with her head tilted down, but still smiling up at the audience.
A 1962 full-length portrait of Celia Cruz on stage. Celia Cruz, the “Queen of Salsa,” came to represent salsa music for audiences across the world and brought visibility to Black Caribbean expression, experience, and history.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection

Celia Cruz was born circa 1924 in the working class neighborhood of Santos Suárez in Havana, Cuba. Before she was a famous salsa singer, Cruz performed Cuban music such as fast, upbeat guarachas. Her career began in radio, theaters, and parties in Cuba. After her travels to Mexico and Venezuela, she became the lead singer for the Cuban orchestra La Sonora Matancera in Havana, performing regularly on the radio and in famous clubs.

Cruz immigrated to the United States in 1961, becoming a naturalized citizen after La Sonora Matancera was exiled from Cuba following the Cuban Revolution. She joined other Caribbean migrants in New York City in establishing the salsa boom. As a part of Fania Records, she recorded songs and albums that emphasized Cuban identity and pan-Latin American culture. Her career included many collaborations with Latin and non-Latin artists.

Celia Cruz is an important icon in salsa as a Black Cuban woman whose recognizable voice, fashion, and prolific output brought visibility to Black Caribbean expression, experience, and history. Her signature phrase “Azúcar!” highlights Cuban coffee culture and the history of enslaved people on Cuban sugar plantations. In a male-dominated field, her popularity demonstrates that Afro Caribbean women are powerful in salsa music.

Cruz performed at the Hollywood Palladium and Carnegie Hall, received city keys from the mayors of Miami, Orlando, San Francisco, and New York City, and earned the Hispanic Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award, the President's Award for the National Endowment for the Arts, and several honorary doctorates. As Celia Cruz navigated her Afro Cuban identity and her pan-Latina identity as a performing artist, her fame attracted audiences from both the mainstream and the margins, demonstrating the power of salsa music to connect people and communities.

This article was researched and written by Hermán Luis Chávez, NCPE Intern, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Last updated: August 2, 2023