Emilio and Gloria Estefan were honored and celebrated along with 15 other distinguished Americans at the White House on Tuesday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Miami-based Cuban-American couple are entertainers, musicians and producers known for their philanthropy. They entered the East Room to raucous applause, Emilio, 62, first and then Gloria, 58, as all the recipients walked into the stately room in alphabetical order. President Barack Obama presided over the ceremony that was also attended by first lady Michelle Obama.
Obama told the story of how the Estefans first met. “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. I’m quoting her now – she said she found this `sexy and brave.’“
“I mean, the brave part I understand,” said Obama to laughter.
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“He brought her up to sing a few songs that night,” he said. Emilio Estefan a few months later asked her for a birthday kiss. “It wasn’t his birthday. He got the kiss,” said the president.
Obama saluted the long-time married couple, “partners on and off the stage” and recognized them as Latinos, each born in Havana. “And as proud Cuban-Americans, they’ve promoted their cultural heritage and inspired fans all over the world,” he said.
Among the other entertainers honored Tuesday: singer Barbra Streisand, performer James Taylor and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Obama drew a lot of laughs when he spoke of Streisand’s life growing up in New York and ad-libbed, “I didn’t know you were Jewish, Barbra.” He cited her many accomplishments and said, “She has collected just about every honor and award that there is – I couldn’t believe she hadn’t gotten this one.”
The president placed the medal with a blue ribbon around each recipient’s neck as a White House aide read a citation about their lives.
Emilio Estefan was recognized for “using song to elevate and celebrate cultures” and for creating “a new wholly American sound.”
Gloria Estefan was saluted: “With her infectious rhythm and iconic vocals, Gloria Estefan is a music powerhouse who has sold millions of records across the globe.”
Other honorees included filmmaker Stephen Spielberg and the late professional baseball player Yogi Berra.
After the hour-long ceremony, Obama greeted each recipient or their representative personally and hugged and kissed Gloria Estefan and hugged Emilio Estefan. Then all the medal-winners and their guests were invited to a reception where, Obama said, “my understanding is also there’s pretty good food in the White House.”
Presidential Medal of Freedom Honorees for 2015
Yogi Berra - late professional baseball player and coach
Bonnie Carroll - retired major dedicated to caring for military personnel
Shirley Chisholm - the late lawmaker was the nation’s first African American congresswoman
Emilio and Gloria Estefan - Miami Sound Machine musicians
Billy Frank, Jr. - Native American advocate who died in 2014
Lee Hamilton - former congressman and foreign policy expert
Katherine G. Johnson - NASA mathematician
Willie Mays - legendary professional baseball player
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD. -longest serving female senator in U.S. history
Itzhak Perlman - world-renowned violinist and conductor
William D. “Bill” Ruckelshaus - first Environmental Protection Agency administrator
Stephen Sondheim - theater composer and lyricist
Steven Spielberg - film director and producer
Barbra Streisand - performer and singer
James Taylor- recording artist
Minoru Yasui -(posthumous) civil rights lawyer