On July 19, 2003, three days after her death from cancer at the age of 77, Latin music legend Celia Cruz has one of her final wishes granted when her body is flown to Miami, Florida, for a special public viewing by tens of thousands of fans prior to her burial in New York City. It was as close as the legendary Queen of Salsa could get to her beloved homeland of Cuba.
Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1925, one of 14 children raised in a family that was poor, but in a time and place that was rich with musical activity. Cruz’s talent was recognized early on. The story she told was that her first pair of shoes were given to her by a tourist for whom she had performed on the streets of Havana, and she was a regular winner of local singing contests in which the grand prize was usually a cake. Exposed to a wide range of music by the radio and by an aunt who would take her around to Havana’s cabarets, Cruz sang in every style from tango to mambo to son cubano—all of which would contribute to the later development of her signature style, salsa.
After training in Cuba’s National Conservatory, Cruz got her big break in 1950, when she was invited to join one of Cuba’s most popular orchestras, the Sonora Matancera, with whom she would perform throughout Latin America for the next 15 years. Cruz was abroad with the Sonora Matacera in 1959 when Castro took power, and she never returned to her native Cuba, settling permanently in the sizable Cuban community near Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Recording almost exclusively in her native Spanish, Celia Cruz built a career over the next 40-plus years that made her one of the best-known Latin music stars in history. Her famously warm and gracious personality also made her one of the most beloved, as evidenced by the outpouring of grief that greeted her death from cancer. Among those lining up in Miami on this day in 2003 to pay their respects were many Cuban Americans for whom the music of Celia Cruz was an important cultural connection to Cuba. As one told The New York Times that day, “I call her and people like her, the last of the true Cubans. She was part of the Cuba of our parents, a Cuba we didn’t really know and that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the Cuba of our imagination.”