Stamp Stories: Celia Cruz

Just for Kids!
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Forever Latin Music Legends: Celia Cruz stamp, 2011

Learn about the inspirational life of Celia Cruz, an Afro-Cuban singer whose talent and charisma helped to popularize salsa music in the United States. Educators from the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture take a look at Celia’s life and the energetic music that defined it through Smithsonian museum objects, a bilingual children’s book, and postage stamps.


Aprenda sobre la vida inspiradora de Celia Cruz, una cantante afrocubana cuyo talento y carisma ayudó a popularizar la musica salsa en los Estados Unidos. Los educadores del Museo Nacional de Correos y el Museo Nacional de Historia y Cultura Afroamericana exploran la vida de Celia y la música enérgica que la definió, utilizando objetos del Museo Smithsonian, un libro infantil bilingüe y sellos postales.

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Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.

Ariel: And I’m Ariel from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. Stamps are put onto mail to show that the sender has paid the right amount to get the mail delivered. Today we’re going to learn about the Afro-Latina singer Celia Cruz, and the salsa music she was famous for.

Ariel: First, I’m going to show you some things that belonged to Celia Cruz that are in some of the Smithsonian museums. And then, we’re going to read a book about Celia! Let’s get started.

Celia Cruz was an Afro-Cuban woman who loved to sing! Afro-Cuban means that she comes from a place called Cuba and some of her family a long time ago were from Africa.

Because of her talent, Celia Cruz was known as the Queen of Salsa and the Queen of Latin Music. She traveled all over the world sharing her music with everyone.

Celia was an amazing performer for a lot of reasons! She had a powerful voice that she used to sing her songs in Spanish. Look at how she is singing out loud into the sky! Sometimes her voice made people feel like dancing and sometimes it made people feel proud of who they were!

Plus, she had a great big smile that made the people around her want to smile too!

She also had a style that was bright, bold, colorful and creative! I’m going to show you some of her stylish clothing that we have in the Smithsonian.

Look at those ruffles! Celia loved to wear rumba dresses in bright colors and patterns. What colors do you see? How do you think it would feel to dance in a dress like that?

This sparkly dress is at the museum I work at, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. What do you think is making the dress sparkle? It’s covered in sequins! Imagine how the lights on a stage would shine on those sequins.

Celia Cruz showed her style from head to toe! These shiny shoes belonged to Celia. Can you pretend to walk or dance in shoes like this? You might need to stand on your tippy toes. Celia danced and moved all over the stage during her music shows - she must have had great balance.

With her style and her music, Celia was such a special person in the world of Latin and salsa music. I’m excited to read more about her with you!

Maureen: Special thanks to author Monica Brown for permission to use her book. This book is called My Name is Celia/Me Lllamo Celia.

Ariel: Sugar! My voice is strong, smooth, and sweet. I will make you feel like dancing.

Boom boom boom! Beat the congas

Clap clap clap! Go the hands.

Shake shake shake! Go the hips.

I am the Queen of Salsa and I invite you to come dance with me.

Maureen: ¡Azúcar! Mi voz es intensa, suave y dulce. Te dará ganas de bailar.

¡Bum bum bum! Resuenan las tumbadoras. Las manos aplauden y las caderas se menean. Yo soy la Reina de Salsa y te invito a bailar conmigo.

Ariel: My costumes are as colorful as my music, with ruffles, beads, sparkles, and feathers.

Maureen: Mis vestidos son tan coloridos como mi música, llenos de encajes, cuentas, lentejuelas y plumas.

Ariel: I was born in Cuba, an island in the middle of the Carribean Sea. Our family had a warm kitchen filled with the voices of women and men - grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends.

Maureen: Nací en Cuba, una isla del Caribe. En mi casa teníamos una cocina acogedora, llena de voces de mujeres y hombres: abuelos, hermanos, primos y amigos.

Ariel: I did well in school and I loved to sing! When I sang my body would fill with the rhythms of Africa and mix with the sounds of my Cuban mother tongue. Finally, one of my teachers said, “go out into the world and sing, my chlld! Your voice is a gift from above and must ring sweet in the ears of our people!”

Maureen: ¡Me fue bien en la escuela y me encantaba cantar! Cuando cantaba, mi cuerpo se llenaba con los ritmos africanos mezclados con el idioma español de mi patria. Finalmente, una de mis maestras me dijo, “¡sal al mundo a cantar, mi niña! ¡Tu voz es un regalo del cielo y sonará muy dulce en los oídos de la gente! "

Ariel: I would travel far so I could have a chance to sing in competitions. Even though some people would not let me sing in their contests because of the color of my skin, I did not let this stop me from making my voice heard.

Maureen: Hacía viajes largos para que yo cantara en concursos. Aunque algunas no me dejaban cantar en sus concursos por el color de mi piel, no me di por vencida.

Ariel: I was still a young woman when I left my Cuba forever. I traveled to the United States with my husband, the trumpeter Pedro Knight, and our musical group Sonora Matancera.

Maureen: Todavía era joven cuando me fui para siempre de mi Cuba. Viajé a los Estados Unidos con mi esposo, el trompetista Pedro Knight, y nuestro grupo, la Sonora Matancera.

Ariel: New York! My new home with the lights and people - a blend of many cultures and traditions. Though I left my island and became a United States citizen, I carried my people in my heart.

Maureen: ¡Nueva York! Mi nuevo hogar, con todas sus luces y su gente, con una mezcla de tantas culturas y tradiciones. Aunque me fui de mi isla y me hice ciudadana de los Estados Unidos, yo llevaba a mi pueblo en el corazón.

Ariel: Miami! My home away from home. One day in a restaurant a young waiter asked me if I wanted sugar in my coffee. “Yes, with SUGAR!” And when I sipped the milky sweetness I was back in my mother’s kitchen with my friends and family. From that point on, when I walked on stage I would say SUGAR and the audience would know exactly what I meant - home and love and lots of kisses.

Maureen: ¡Miami! Mi segundo hogar. Un día, en un restaurante, un camarero joven me preguntó si quería azúcar en mi café. "¡Sí, con AZÚCAR!" Y cuando tomé un poquito del café dulce recordé la cocina de mi madre con mi familia y mis amigos. Desde ese momento, cuando entraba al escenario simplemente decía: ¡AZÚCAR! y ellos sabían exactamente lo que yo quería decir: hogar, amor y muchos besos.

Ariel: I sang with my friends Tito and Johnny and Willie and people loved our music. Together we brought a new kind of music to the Americas - salsa - a music that blended rock with rumba, mambo with jazz.

Maureen: Yo canté con mis amigos Tito, Johnny y Willie y a la gente le encantaba nuestra música. Juntos trajimos una nueva música a América, la salsa, una música que mezclaba el rock con la rumba, el mambo con el jazz.

Ariel: Teachers and presidents honored me. They named me the Queen of Salsa, and I wore that crown proudly.

Maureen: Me rindieron honores maestros y presidentes. Me nombraron la Reina de Salsa y llevé esa corona con orgullo.

Ariel: I crossed borders and broke boundaries and no one ever stopped me from singing ever again! Come dance with me now, my friends, to the beat of the drums and the sound of the trumpet and the tropics. Even when I am gone, my music will live on.

Maureen: ¡Crucé fronteras y rompí barreras y nunca más nadie consiguió que dejara de cantar. Amigos, vengan ahora a bailar conmigo al ritmo de los tambores y el sonido de la trompeta y los trópicos. Aunque yo ya no esté, mi música seguirá viviendo.

Ariel: Sugar!

Maureen: Azucar!

In the book we heard that Celia Cruz was called the Queen of Salsa. So what is salsa?

You might already know the word salsa, and it probably makes you think of a type of sauce that has tomatoes and onions, and often is spicy. Well, the kind of salsa we’re talking about is music, but the name does come from the Spanish word for sauce. Both the food and the music are spicy, hot, and full of flavor! Salsa music started in Cuba, and then became popular in the US about 60 years ago. Just like Celia Cruz, the music is Afro-Latina - a combination of both African and Latin American roots.

Here’s a postage stamp dedicated to salsa music. Let’s listen to a little bit of salsa while we look at the stamp. Can you hear some of the instruments, like drums, trumpet, and piano? Can you imagine people dancing to the music?

Wow - that definitely made me want to get up and dance!

Latin music and dance have been so popular in the US over the years that there have been several sets of postage stamps dedicated to them. Here’s one about Latin Jazz, which means jazz music with a Latin American style to it. Can you spot any musical instruments on this stamp?

Other types of Latin American music like mambo and cha cha cha also have their own stamps. Look at the people dancing! Can you imagine what the music might sound like? All these kinds of music are made with some of the instruments we’ve looked at. The different sounds blend together to create a lively beat. Salsa music is a mixture of some parts of all of them!

And here we see the postage stamp of Celia Cruz. The vibrant artwork was done by Rafael Lopez, who was the illustrator of the book we just looked at. What a great coincidence! What do you notice when you look at this stamp? I see a lot of joy on Celia’s face. She loved music so much, and the stamp artist really captured that. Celia’s music is still very popular today, many years after she created it. Like Celia said, her music will always live on in those who listen to it.

Ariel: I love how books, stamps, and objects can tell stories about people. If you’d like to learn more about Black history and musicians like Celia Cruz, visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s early childhood page for fun activities and recommended resources.

Maureen: Thank you so much, Ariel, and thank you to our audience for joining us for Stamp Stories today. You can learn more about Latin American music stamps by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website. You can also learn about stamps on all different kinds of topics there. We encourage you to just keep exploring!