Who Was Celia Cruz?
One Saturday morning in 1947 in Havana, Cuba, Celia Cruz woke up early. It was an exciting day. Earlier that week, her cousin Serafín had surprised her by signing her up for a singing contest. He thought his cousin was talented enough to win.
The contest was for a radio show called La hora del té (say: la OR--a del TAY), which means “teatime.” Celia loved listening to the show. Her whole family did. Celia was twenty--two years old and had loved to sing all her life, but she had never appeared onstage or on the radio. She looked out at her family’s backyard and all the other houses on her street. Everything was covered in dew. Celia thought it made her neighborhood sparkle like a sequined gown.
She put on a white dress, white tights, and nice white shoes. Her mother combed her dark hair into a bun and fastened it with a beautiful clip. Then Celia and Serafín got on the bus that would take them the twelve blocks to the radio station. In her hands Celia held her claves (say: KLA--vays), wooden sticks that she tapped together to keep the beat while she sang.
When they got to the radio station, there were many other contestants waiting. Most of them were older than Celia. When it was her turn, she sang a song called “Nostalgia,” tapping her claves as she sang. Once she started to sing, Celia stopped thinking about the other contestants and the competition. She just enjoyed the song. She was completely surprised when she won first prize.
For first prize, Celia was given a cake from one of the best bakeries in Havana. When she and Serafín got back on the bus, they placed the cake box carefully on their laps so it would not get crushed. Their family was very poor. They had never had a cake in such a fancy box. They couldn’t wait to get home to look at it, so they opened the box on the bus.
The cake was covered in white frosting with colorful flowers. It was so delicate, it seemed to be made of lace. Celia and Serafín enjoyed the cake’s delicious smell before closing the box again.
When they got home, Celia found her whole family waiting for her on the porch. They cheered when they saw her. She opened the box, and everyone shared the beautiful cake. Celia never forgot how good it tasted.
It wasn’t just winning that felt good. Celia had loved singing in the contest. She couldn’t wait to do it again. She didn’t know that one day she would sing for crowds all over the world.
Chapter 1: Lullabies and Carnival
Celia Cruz was born in Havana, Cuba, on October 21, 1925. Her full name was Úrsula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso. Her father was Simón Cruz, and her mother was Catalina Alfonso, but everyone called her Ollita.
The neighborhood she lived in was very poor. Most of the people who lived there, including Celia and her family, were black. They were Afro--Cuban, descended from African slaves brought to Cuba by the Spanish who settled there in the late fifteenth century.
Celia and her family were very close. She was the second oldest of four children. She had an older sister, Dolores, a brother, Bárbaro, and a younger sister, Gladys. One of Celia’s aunts, Tía Ana, often treated her like a daughter.
Many people lived in the small house in the Santos Suárez district in Havana. The family included not just Celia, her parents, and her siblings but also her grandmother and many other relatives. Celia’s mother often sang while she cooked traditional Cuban dishes like white rice and black beans, papaya and fried ripe plantains, and ropa vieja (say: ROPE--a vee--AY--ha), a beef stew whose name means “old clothes.”
Everyone had chores to do. As she got older, one of Celia’s was to put all the younger children to bed each night. She had to give them their bath and put them to sleep. Once they were tucked in, she always sang them a lullaby. But Celia’s lullabies never put them to sleep. The children always wanted to hear more! Neighbors started to gather outside the window each night. They wanted to listen, too. Celia’s voice was already drawing crowds in the neighborhood.
Sometimes Celia’s parents asked her to sing for their friends. Celia was shy, but she loved to sing so much that she got over it to perform. No one loved Celia’s singing more than her cousin Serafín. He thought she was good enough to one day sing professionally. But such a dream seemed impossible for a poor Afro--Cuban girl from Havana.
Celia’s parents were very protective. She wasn’t allowed to go out by herself that often. She walked to school with her friends, and when she became a teenager, they went to school dances. But Celia longed to go to Carnival.
Every year during Carnival, the streets of Havana filled with people dancing and singing. When Celia was fourteen, she and some of her friends went to Carnival, but Celia didn’t tell her parents. She knew that they didn’t think it was safe. Her father, especially, thought that young girls might get into trouble by themselves, or even get lost in the crowd. But Celia had a wonderful time. When she got home, she felt very guilty for lying. So the next morning, she confessed what she’d done to her Tía Ana.
“If you promise not to go out again without an adult,” her aunt said, “I’ll take you.” So Celia got to go back to Carnival the next night. When they got home, Celia’s mother winked at them. She knew just where they’d been.
That night Celia had a dream in which she was the queen of Carnival. She saw herself wearing a flowing white gown, her hair pulled back in a bun and her head topped with a floral crown. When she awoke the next morning, she wondered if her dream could ever come true.
Chapter 2: Life Choices
Celia loved to sing, but she knew that when she grew up, she was going to be a teacher. That was her father’s dream for her. Teaching was a good, respectable job. When Celia graduated from high school, she entered a teachers college in Havana. Education in Cuba was free, so Celia did not have to pay to attend.
When she was twenty--two and still in school, she won first prize in a singing contest on the radio. Celia started entering other contests. And sometimes she won! Her prizes were small items like soap, chocolate bars, and condensed milk. To Celia, these gifts were valuable. Although there were some people in Cuba who were rich, most people were poor. It was hard to find jobs. Black Cubans like Celia and her family often had the lowest paying work. Celia’s father was a railway worker who shoveled coal to power the trains. He had to support a big family on his salary—-not only his own four children and his wife but also many other relatives who lived with the family at different times.
When Celia won fifteen pesos (about eighty--nine cents at the time), she was thrilled. She used the money to buy the books she needed for her studies at the teachers college. Often Celia didn’t have enough money to take a trolley to the radio stations where the contests were held. The city of Havana covered over 280 square miles, and Celia traveled all over it. Sometimes she had to walk miles to get to a contest—or else pay for her fare by singing for the driver.
Celia’s family was always excited when she was on the radio. Everyone but her father, that is. One day, he told her flat--out that he didn’t like her decision to sing. Celia was hurt, but her mother said, “Don’t pay attention to him . . . you just keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll deal with him.”
Celia started singing with local bands and at parties. She often wasn’t paid for these shows, but she liked performing. Once when Tía Ana watched her sing, she gave Celia some advice. She explained that the audience wanted to see everything Celia was feeling when she sang. She shouldn’t use just her voice but her body as well. Celia stood still when she sang, like a flagpole. “Next time, I want to see you move,” Tía Ana said. And Celia did start to move. She let the music flow through her and swayed with it.
When Celia graduated from the teachers college in 1949, she was very proud. After the ceremony, she went to one of her teachers and asked her advice about starting her career as a teacher. Her teacher said, “Celia, God gave you a wonderful gift. With the voice you have, you can make a good living. If you pursue a singing career, you’ll be able to make in one day what it takes me one month to make. Don’t waste your time trying to become a teacher. You were put on earth to make people happy—-by using your gift.”
Celia was surprised to hear her teacher speak that way. She was also thrilled. Could she really spend her life doing what she loved most? Yes! Right then, Celia decided to become a singer. She had no other choice than to follow her destiny.
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