Azucar! The Life of Celia Cruz Comes to Netflix in an Epic 80-Part Series
The Queen of Salsa, the incomparable Celia Cruz (1925-2003) is now the subject of Celia, an epic television series now airing on Netflix showcasing the Cuban singer’s incredible life. Featuring 80 episodes, each 45 minutes in length, the series, which originally aired in 2015 in Colombia on RCN Television and in the United States on Telemundo, tells the story of Cruz’s rise to fame in Spanish, with English subtitles.
Celia stars Puerto Rican actress and Miami Beach resident Jeimy Osorio as the legendary entertainer with fellow Boricua actor Modesto Lacén cast as her husband, Pedro Knight. Directed by Victor Mallarino and Liliana Bocanegra, and scripted by Andrés Salgado, Celia tells the story of the singer’s rise to fame, beginning in pre-revolution Havana, when Salsa music was a white man’s game.
Cruz, an Afro Latina, broke all boundaries as on her way to the top. Hailing from what she described as “the poor part” of the Santa Suarez section of Havana, Cruz got her start singing on the radio in the 1940s after an older cousin entred her name as a contestant on “La Hora de Te,” a radio show that hosted a monthly amateur hour for children. Cruz won first prize and was asked to come back the following month, setting the stage for a life in music.
In 1950, she got her big break when the lead singer for La Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s most popular orchestra, returned to home. Fan originally protested an unknown taking her place but Cruz rode out the controversy, holding her own, and going on to stay with the group for 15 years.
In 1959, when Fidel Castro came into power, he cleaned up show business, driving the Mafia out of Havana’s nightclubs. Most musicians followed suit, although Castro wanted them to stay. In 1960, Cruz and La Sonora Matancera left the country, under the pretense that they were touring and would return. Castro never forgave her for defecting, and later denied her entry to the country to attend her father’s funeral.
In 1961, Cruz and the orchestra arrived in the United States, but did not achieve popularity here until Fania Records took her to the top once again. In the summer of 1974, Cruz and Johnny Pacheco released “Celia and Johnny,” which went gold, taking Cruz back to the top of the charts where she belonged.
Cruz became part of the Fania All-Stars, an ensemble of top musicians from every orchestra on the label, including at various times Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, Willie Colón, Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez, and Bobby Valentín, among others. The All-Stars performed around the world, including a show at Yankee Stadium that was included in the first 100 recordings preserved in the United States National Recording Registry.
As Fania brought Salsa to American audiences, the public went wild. The music reached far beyond the Spanish-language audience, striking a chord in all who love the brilliance of big-band, jazz, and dance music. In a predominantly male-dominated field, Cruz stood out, not only for her great talents but for her vibrant stage presence. Azucar! she cried with glee, invoking the sweet sugar of her native land and its artistry. Her flamboyant costumes, hair, and make-up made her second to none. In a cutthroat business, Cruz stayed above the fray, never putting on airs or betraying a confidence. With 50 albums to her credit, almost which half have been certified gold, Cruz has rightfully earned the title, the Queen of Salsa.
Cruz told Salsa Magazine, “Music is the only gift God gave to me. Unless it’s taken away, I will continue sharing it with the world. It’s what satisfies and brings me joy. In a sense I’ve also fulfilled my father’s wish for me to become a teacher because through my music I can teach generations of people a little about our culture and its joys.”
Now that she is gone, her music lives on—not only in the recordings but in the story it tells. Celia tells the story of one woman’s life, a journey of art, self-expression, and freedom.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.