Corzine, Menendez Seek Cong. Gold Medal for Cruz

Posted July 30, 2004 at 6:02pm

The death last summer of Cuban Salsa singer Celia Cruz was a blow to the Hispanic community and Latin music lovers across the world. This month, on the one-year anniversary of her death, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) renewed efforts to honor Cruz with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Cruz, also known as the “Queen of Salsa,” lived in Fort Lee, N.J., until she died at age 77 from cancer. If the legislation passes, Cruz will be the first Latin woman ever to receive the award.

“She’s the epitome of the American dream … an immigrant who comes to America and makes a huge cultural difference,” Corzine said.

The bill, first proposed last year, has garnered only a fraction of the co-sponsors it needs to trigger a committee hearing. Corzine and Menendez plan to work closely with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to build enthusiasm for the tribute.

The medal is the highest award Congress presents to civilians for noteworthy contributions to society. Such initiatives require 67 cosponsors from the Senate and 290 House supporters in order to get committee consideration.

Previous medal recipients include Walt Disney, Frank Sinatra, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Rosa Parks, former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan. George Washington was the first person to ever receive the award.

Generations of fans were touched by the sounds of the songstress, who produced about 70 records during a career that spanned more than five decades.

“Celia Cruz’s spirit lives on in her melodies and in the verses that provide insight and remind us to, live as she did, with azucar [sugar], full of love and happiness,” said Menendez in a recently released statement.

The Grammy-winning artist has received numerous accolades for her work, including lifetime achievement awards from the Smithsonian Institution and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, as well as the Presidential Medal of the Arts from the Republic of Colombia. The city of San Francisco designated Oct. 21, the date of her birth, as Celia Cruz Day.

Cruz’s accomplishments were also recognized by then-President Bill Clinton, who awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 1994.

Cruz grew up on the poor side of a working-class neighborhood in Santo Suarez, Cuba, and started singing when she was a teenager, said Ana Christina Reymundo, writer of Cruz’s autobiography “Mi Vida/My Life.” Reymundo worked closely with Cruz on the book for almost one year before she died.

Cruz left Cuba in 1960 with members of her band, La Sonora Matancera, shortly after dictator Fidel Castro assumed leadership. Cruz lived in Mexico for almost two years before moving permanently to the United States. She became a U.S. citizen in the early 1960s.

As punishment for fleeing the country, Castro never allowed her to return — not even to visit her mother or father on their deathbeds, Reymundo said. Her records were banned in Cuba, but the underground market kept her music alive.

Reymundo said that Cruz loved Cuba like anybody would love their homeland, and she longed to go back one day.

Cruz did not like getting caught up in banter with the press regarding her feelings about the Cuban regime. “She was not a political figure in any way,” Reymundo said. But as a woman of integrity, she would not support a system that compromised civil liberties, Reymundo added.

Cruz knew that her mission in life was to bring joy to people from all backgrounds, and she saw her voice as the vehicle for doing so, Reymundo said.

When Cruz died, memorials were held in cities all over Latin America and the world. According to Reymundo, there probably isn’t a street corner in Helsinki where someone can stand and shout her name without people recognizing it and agreeing that she was wonderful.

Cruz is survived by her husband of more than 40 years, Pedro Knight.