By Frances Kerry

MIAMI (Reuters) - With Cuban flags, flowers, bursts of song and tears, tens of thousands of mourners paid their last respects on Saturday in Miami to Celia Cruz, the Cuban-born “Queen of Salsa.”

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Reuters Photo

Cruz, whose powerful voice and glittering stage presence made her a passionate soundtrack to the lives of countless Cubans on the island and in exile, died on Wednesday at her home in New Jersey aged 77.

Her body was flown to Miami and laid out on Saturday for viewing at the city’s “Freedom Tower.” The ornate bayside building, seen as Miami’s Ellis Island, was where thousands of Cubans were processed by immigration authorities in the first waves of exiles who came to the United States after Cuban President Fidel Castro (news - web sites)‘s 1959 revolution.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly Cuban American but many from other Latin American nations, braved a sweltering sun and lines of several hours to bid farewell to an artist who left Cuba as a star in 1960 and over decades in exile became a grande dame of Latin music.

LATIN MUSIC STARS ATTEND

In the evening, a slow procession took the casket to the nearby Gesu Catholic Church for a packed memorial service. Crowds gathered outside to hear the service on loudspeakers.

Stars of the Latin music scene including Cuban-born singers Gloria Estefan (news) and Willy Chirino were in the front pews. Secretary of Housing Mel Martinez, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States as a child in 1962, read a message of condolence from President Bush (news - web sites).

Cuban-born priest and television talk show host Father Alberto Cutie gave a warm tribute, joking that Cruz had been appointed celestial choir director and the angels were having to move on fast from Gregorian chant to her brand of music.

For the viewing of the body, the front of Freedom Tower was adorned with a huge Cuban flag, and wreaths of flowers were laid on the steps, one representing the Cuban flag, another saying “Azucar,” Cruz’s celebrated cry of “Sugar!” that she shouted exuberantly to concert audiences.

The expression was thought to have originated when she called, like many Cubans who love sweet things, for sugar in her coffee.

TEARS AND ROSES

Inside the building, mourners filed past the casket, some shedding tears and some leaving roses, as salsa music played in the background.

“She looked very beautiful,” said Laura Medina, a 70-year-old originally from Honduras who said she wanted to pay tribute to the singer because her late husband was Cuban.

Cari Gutierrez, a 52-year-old Cuban-born woman who came to the United States 40 years ago, was nearing the end of the long line to enter the tower. She said she had waited more than two hours and would have been there all day if necessary.

“She was a symbol of Cuba,” Gutierrez said. “I have been listening to her since I was a child ... Celia Cruz was the best and always will be.”

Cruz was a vibrant stage presence in shimmering dresses and colorful wigs. Her Grammy Award-winning career reached into her later years and produced more than 70 albums.

Her music was banned on the island, even though many Cubans still listened to her. When she died, the Cuban government gave the news the briefest of mentions, describing her as an important musician who had long been an activist for “counterrevolutionaries” in south Florida.

Cruz had long said she would never sing again in Cuba until it was “free.” That, as well as her music, made her an iconic figure for Miami’s often fiercely anti-Castro Cuban community.

Cruz will be buried in New York next week.