President Obama recognized Gloria and Emilio Estefan as “music powerhouses” with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“On a Miami night in 1975, a young woman named Gloria walked into a wedding reception and saw a handsome young man named Emilio leading his band – he was playing ‘Do the Hustle’ on an accordion. She says she found this ‘sexy and brave.’ I mean, the brave part I understand,” Obama quipped in a White House ceremony on Tuesday.
He went on about the Cuban-American music pioneers, “But it looks like he had a couple things up his sleeve. He brought her up to sing a couple of songs that night, invited her to join his band; a few months later Emilio asked Gloria for a birthday kiss – it was not his birthday – but he got the kiss any way. And Emilio and Gloria Estefan have been partners on and off the stage ever since.”
“Some worried that they were too American for Latins and too Latin for Americans. Turns out everyone just wanted to dance and do the conga. Their fusion sound has sold more than 100 million records, and as proud Cuban-Americans, they have promoted their cultural heritage and inspired fans all over the world,” Obama said.
The Estefans, whose love story is the subject of the new Broadway musical, “On Your Feet!,” are among the 17 Americans who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. Others included the first African-American woman elected to Congress, one of the greatest catchers in baseball history and a “Funny Girl.”
"Today we celebrate some extraordinary people: Innovators, artists and leaders who contribute to America's strength as a nation," Obama said.
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, singer James Taylor, composer Stephen Sondheim, violinist Itzhak Perlman and actress Barbra Streisand, who won an Academy award for her performance in the classic film, "Funny Girl."
The sports honorees were Baseball Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Yogi Berra. Berra, who died in September, was a famed Yankee catcher, an 18-time All-Star and 10-time World Series champion. The president noted that Berra also served in World War II. Mays was among the first African-American players in Major League Baseball.
"It's because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president," Obama said.
The politicians who were bestowed the honor includedSen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who has championed equal pay and women's health during her 44 years of public service; former Rep. Lee Hamilton from Indiana, a longtime advocate of American national security and international relations; and the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm from New York. Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress and a founding member of what would become the Congressional Black Caucus.
Of Hamilton, Obama said he helped guide the nation through the Cold War and had a consistent commitment to bipartisanship.
Among the other honorees were:
—Bonnie Carroll, a veterans advocate, who founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to support families and loved ones of military heroes killed during their service.
—Katherine G. Johnson, a NASA mathematician, whose calculations influenced every major space program, including the flight of the first American into space.
—William Ruckelshaus, a former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, who shaped the guiding principles of the agency, including a nationwide ban on the pesticide DDT and an agreement with the automobile industry to require catalytic converters to reduce automobile pollution.
Posthumous recipients include Indian tribal advocate Billy Frank Jr., who led "fish-ins"— similar to sit-ins— during the tribal "fish wars" of the 1960s and 1970s, and civil rights leader Minoru Yasui, who challenged the constitutionality of a military curfew order during World War II on the grounds of racial discrimination and spent months in solitary confinement during the legal battle.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.