President Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the necks of Gloria and Emilio Estefan Tuesday, honoring the iconic couple’s contributions to American music.
The Estefans were part of a star-studded group of Americans – musicians, entertainers, filmmakers, sports heroes, politicians, government leaders and a NASA mathematician – who received what is considered the highest civilian honor.
“Some worried they were too American for Latins and too Latin for Americans,” Obama said about the Estefans before the medals were awarded. “Turns out everybody just wanted to dance and do the conga.”
“Conga” was a 1985 hit song written and sung by Gloria and performed by the band Miami Sound Machine, the Estefan’s band.
Both born in Cuba, the two are considered key in helping bring Latin sounds to the American mainstream and pop music scenes. Both are multiple Grammy winners. Gloria holds seven and Emilio, who also is a music producer holds 19.
“Together their fusion sound has sold more than 100 million records,” Obama said. “And as proud Cuban Americans they’ve promoted their cultural heritage and inspired fans all over the world.”
Obama had a little fun with the recipients during the White House ceremony. He told Barbara Streisand he didn’t know she was Jewish and joked that everybody considers James Taylor their friend because “that’s what happens when you spend four decades telling people, just call out my name and I’ll come runnin'.’”
Obama was quoting a lyric of “You Got a Friend,” a song written by Carole King and later sung by Taylor.
For the Estefans, he shared their story of how they met. It was 1975, Obama said, and Gloria walked into a wedding reception and saw a handsome, young man named Emilio, playing “Do the Hustle” on an accordion.
“I’m quoting now,” Obama said, chuckling as he tried to deliver the punch line. "She said she found this sexy and brave.” Obama then said, "I can understand the brave," to much laughter.
Just before the medal was given to them, Emilio was credited with creating a wholly new American sound and Gloria was feted as a “music powerhouse” whose music broke down barriers.
Most recently, the couple made the song and video “We’re All Mexican” in protest of the campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump.