Christina D. Abreu: Cuban Women Singers and the Mid-Twentieth Century Latin Music Scene, or, Celia and Graciela

Rhythms of Race, by Christina D. AbreuWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Christina D. Abreu, author of Rhythms of Race: Cuban Musicians and the Making of Latino New York City and Miami, 1940-1960. Among the nearly 90,000 Cubans who settled in New York City and Miami in the 1940s and 1950s were numerous musicians and entertainers, black and white, who did more than fill dance halls with the rhythms of the rumba, mambo, and cha cha chá. In her history of music and race in midcentury America, Abreu argues that these musicians, through their work in music festivals, nightclubs, social clubs, and television and film productions, played central roles in the development of Cuban, Afro-Cuban, Latino, and Afro-Latino identities and communities. Abreu draws from previously untapped oral histories, cultural materials, and Spanish-language media to uncover the lives and broader social and cultural significance of these vibrant performers.

In today’s post, Abreu highlights the work of two major figures in Afro-Cuban music.


Often overlooked in studies of Cuban musicians during the golden age of Latin popular music in the United States are the contributions of Afro-Cuban women singers. Two of the most prominent performers during the 1940s and1950s were Graciela Pérez Grillo, lead singer for Machito y sus Afro-Cubans, and Celia Cruz, lead singer for La Sonora Matancera. The focus on Cuban men as singers, musicians, and bandleaders has for too long overshadowed the contributions of Cuban women as innovators and pioneers on the terrain of Latin popular music.

Graciela’s talent, especially when she sang boleros, eventually came to earn her the title of First Lady of Latin Jazz. Yet, this accolade should not be entirely surprising. In the 1930s, she formed part of an all-girl son band, Orquesta Anacaona, which performed in New York City and Paris, challenging the popular belief that women could not play son music. Graciela’s role as a racial pioneer and musical innovator has often been cast aside in discussions of the more well-known Machito, bandleader of the Afro-Cubans, and Mario Bauzá, trumpet player and arranger for the band. In 1942, the Afro-Cubans began their stint as the house band at La Conga, a downtown nightclub on Broadway. Never before had a band comprised mostly of Cubans and Puerto Ricans of color and African Americans been given such an opportunity. All might have been lost when Machito was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. It was thanks to Graciela’s decision to leave Cuba for New York City to take over on vocals for Machito that the band would continue to break barriers.

Celia, hailed today as the Queen of Salsa, is most often credited by scholars and fans for her popularization of the salsa music genre, especially through her collaborations with Tito Puente and the Fania All-Stars in the late 1960s and 1970s. But it was in the 1950s that the singer began to make her mark on the male-dominated music scene, fronting and touring across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States with La Sonora Matancera, one of Cuba’s most popular bands. Celia defied Cuban society’s expectations as well as those of her father, who believed that women had no place performing on the radio or participating in the nightlife associated with the music scene in Havana. Once established in New York City, there was little that the men she shared the stage with—including Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, and Ruben Blades—could do to compete with her powerful voice, charismatic performance style, and customary shouts of “Azucar!”

Both Graciela and Celia played key roles in constructing the Latin popular music scene that drew multiple and sometimes overlapping audiences of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and white ethnic Americans in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Throughout their long careers, both women worked to manage their multiple identities as performers and entertainers, women of color, and representatives of Cuban national identity. It seems about time that we start to give credit to these two women for their early contributions to the music that we have come to love.

Christina D. Abreu is assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern University. Her book Rhythms of Race: Cuban Musicians and the Making of Latino New York City and Miami, 1940-1960 is now available. Read her previous guest post, “In Honor of Professor Juan Flores.” Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaDAbreu.