Even before I realized that today is the 10th aniversary of Celia Cruz's death, one of her songs was playing in my head, as the soundtrack of a difficult morning. "Ay, no hay que llorar, que la vida es un carnaval y las penas se van cantando (Ay, it's better not to cry, because life is a Carnival, and the sadness goes away by singing)," says her song "La vida es un carnaval."
Don't freak out! It was not one of those weird coincidences. I've loved La Reina de la Salsa's music since I was a little girl. My mother goes as far as swearing that I recognized her tunes even in her belly. An obvious exaggeration! But since it's imposible to be sad or still while listening to Celia, I tend to invoke her music when I'm stressed out or upset. Even more in a day like today when we all remember how much she gave us and how much we miss her.
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Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso de la Santísima Trinidad--her full name and a mouthful for sure!--was born in a working class neighborhood in Havana, in October 1, 1925. Her career as a singer started when she was a teenager, achieving the lead singer position in the very renowned Cuban orchestra La Sonora Matancera.
She and husband Pedro Knight, who she nicknamed Cabecita de Algodón (little cotton head), moved to the United States after Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution in 1959. She continued her career with success, but did not become a household name outside the Cuban community until the 70's, when she became part of legendary group La Fania All Stars. With the ensemble of Latino artists she traveled the world, and the world fell in love with her.
Before Lady Gaga had everybody wondering about her costumes, Celia had people doing bets about which--and how many--wigs she was going to bring to the stage. No Internet meme was necessary for La Reina--or whatever equivalent there may have been at the time. When somebody yelled "¡Azúcar!" you knew--and still know--they were doing a Celia Cruz. She was so funny as to say in her later years, "I wont say "azúcar" anymore so you don't get diabetes." But the truth is that she did not need any gimmicks, she was the real thing and there is nobody like her.
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Celia died on July 16, 2003 in her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, after a battle with brain cancer. More than 200,000 people passed in front of her coffin at her funeral in Miami's Freedom tower. As every year, on her birthday, and on the anniversary of her death, dozens of people have congregated at her mausoleum at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York to celebrate her life and her legacy.
They are doing the same in Little Havana, Miami, where you can hear her powerful and iconic voice singing "La negra tiene tumbao," "Bemba colorá," and "Guantanamera," among many others. I wish I could be there singing at the top of my lungs: "Todo aquel que piense que la vida siempre es cruel, tiene que saber que no es así, que tan sólo hay momentos malos y todo pasa ... Que la vida es un carnaval. Azúcar, Dear Celia!
Here are videos of some of our favorite Celia songs and some performances with the top stars of Latin music, like Ricky Martin, Vicente Fernandez, Olga Tañón, Gloria Estefan and many others. Don't miss the show remembering Tito Puente. It's worth it!
Image vía Fania