The world of salsa music, and by extension, local Latino communities continued to mourn the loss of Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz last week.
Cruz, who died of complications from a brain tumor in her Fort Lee home at the age of 77, was a giant in the Latino music world. She recorded more than 70 albums and was featured on countless recordings by other artists.
But unlike most entertainers who come from small towns and make it to the "big time," Cruz never forgot her Cuban roots. She was known to eat in various restaurants in Union City and West New York and sometimes could be seen in her car waving at fans as she passed.
Cruz' influence on those with whom she came into contact was more than musical. She not only excelled at her art but as a person, fans said.
Cruz was a Cuban defector who with her flashy, flamboyant style, left a distinct mark. Known for her signature cry of "azucar!" ("sugar" in Spanish), Cruz was heralded as an ambassador for Latin music. Her music and style touched people from all walks of life, but she was held with special reverence by the large Latino communities in places like Union City, West New York and North Bergen.
Last week, Union City Mayor Brian Stack has announced that the Union City Board of Commissioners will introduce a resolution at the next Board of Commissioners meeting to name a street in the city after her.
Cruz was a frequent visitor to Union City and was considered "family" by her legions of fans in this area.
According to a press release, the street to be named after Cruz will be 42nd Street, between Bergenline Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard. A memorial will mark the area and a celebration of her life will be held when the memorial is unveiled.
No date has been set yet for the event, but it is expected to take place in the late summer or early fall.
In the musical corner
"It's a big loss to the Latino community," said Joury Hoyos of Rincon Musical on Bergenline Avenue in West New York. The store stocks many of Cruz's albums, and according to Hoyos, they have been selling briskly since the singer's passing. "We've sold about 100 albums since she died," said Hoyos.
Continued Hoyos, "She was a huge symbol for salsa, not just for Cubans, but for everyone. She may be gone, but she'll live on for us. A lot of people are really, really sad, including me. It's a big loss for us."
According to Hoyos, Cruz made sure to be around when important things happened in the Latino music community. Said Hoyos, "She was here in the store when we first opened in 2001. She was always sharing with people."
Cruz' influence on Latin music was immense. "She had a long career because she really opened a lot of doors for Cuban music, the Cuban style of salsa," Hoyos said. "She used a lot of different rhythms and styles. She played with Latino rock bands, bolero bands, everyone. That's what made her so great."
Ceasar from Your Beat music store on Bergenline Avenue in Union City summed up people's feelings simply when he said, "The only thing I can tell you is that everyone is suffering, and everybody misses her."
Beyond Cruz' influence on the musical realm, it was her personality and her spirit that everyone seemed to talk about.
In fact, according to broadcast reports from the wake, even as people waited to gain entry to the funeral parlor, a sense of happiness permeated. Even in death, Cruz made people smile.
Said Kennedy Ng, head of Union City's Community Development Agency, "Everything you've heard about her is true. All the good things. She was so special to the community."
Ng went on to describe how, while working with Cruz in 2000 at Lincoln Center (Ng, a pianist, was conducting a musical exercise that included Cruz), the salsa queen was the only performer there who never complained about anything.
Said Ng, "All the salsa players have followed her music and her style."
According to Lucio Fernandez, deputy director of public affairs for Union City, "They called her the 'Queen of Salsa' but really, she was the 'Queen of Cuba.' The essence of Cuba never left her. She leaves an emptiness not just because of her artistry, but because of who she was. The community is devastated, and not just Hispanic people, but everybody. Her talent was immense, she spanned the generations."
West New York Mayor Albio Sires had a special connection with the salsa great, since both were Cuban immigrants who escaped Castro's Cuba in the 1960s. Said the mayor in a recent interview, "Celia Cruz represented the glory days of Cuban music before Castro. She was a very, very down-to-earth individual. I met her a few times. The more success she gained, the more humble she got. She never forgot her roots. She was very passionate about democracy and liberties in Cuba. She will be sorely missed by the entire world."
La Guarachera del Mundo: One writer's memory of Celia Cruz
"Who's that?" I asked my mother when I was a child, as I watched a popular Saturday night TV show.
"That's Celia Cruz. She's a salsa singer," my mother said.
"Why is her hair blue?"
"Oh, she's famous. She can get away with that," she replied.
The songs Cruz recorded and performed were part of the soundtrack of my youth in Puerto Rico. Every radio station played her music, and she appeared on TV constantly with other Latin music legends like Tito Puente and Johnny Pacheco. Her big smile is what I remember most about the singer with the loudest voice in the world. Her songs were poignant, deep, meaningful and honest. She was sincere about her feelings, and every note she sang captured the pain, frustration, love and hope she had inside. She was everything anti-Communist Cuba stood for. She was an independent artist proud of her heritage, spreading love and happiness where she went.
Cruz began her career in the early '50s as the singer for the Havana band La Sonora Matancera. They were very popular, but when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, Cruz left the island. She never returned.
In the '60s she moved to New York City after living in Mexico, to pursue a solo career with a band assembled by the late Puente. Her talent was undeniable, and by the '70s, she had become an international sensation. During her career, she performed in more than 40 countries, recorded more than 70 albums, received the National Medal of Arts, won a couple of Grammys, received the Hispanic Heritage Awards lifetime achievement honor, and Yale University gave her an honorary doctorate.
Last year her album La Negra Tiene Tumbao earned her a Latin Grammy and introduced her to another generation of fans.
Cruz was a flamboyant entertainer who wore bright colors on stage. Her charisma was her driving force and the word "azucar" (sugar) became her trademark on stage. She had fans all over the world and we all cried when we heard the news of her death on July 16 at her home in Fort Lee. She was 78.
Salsa lost its queen. The world lost a friend. I want to thank her, from the bottom of my heart, for the wonderful memories. - Eugene Mulero
Eugene Mulero is an editor at the Hudson Reporter newspaper group.