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The Music of My Life: Rhythm, Melody and Personal Impact

Soledad O'Brien, Gabriel Abaroa, Jr. and Gloria Molina on how music shaped them

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Soledad O’Brien

Soledad O’Brien is the daughter of immigrants, a Cuban mother and an Irish Australian father. She was born the fifth of six children, all Harvard graduates. Today, the former CNN anchor and mother of four hosts the weekly talk show Matter of Fact with Soledad O'Brien and is the CEO of Starfish Media Group, a multi-platform media company dedicated to telling stories on range of social issues.
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Latin music has always been with me. I discovered Celia Cruz as a kid because it was what my mom and grandmother listened to; they talked about how they knew her decades ago and how she lived nearby. So, when I had chance to interview Celia not long before she died in 2003, I decided I was going to talk with her about her deep and abiding friendship with my grandmother in Cuba. It was clear Celia literally had no idea who I was talking about, but she was like, “I do remember!” It was so sweet and generous of her. She probably thought, “I’m not going to destroy the memory of her grandmother.” This experience reminded me of how much we hold onto those people who make it out—I’m sure it was the classic case of when someone leaves the country and everyone lays claim to them.

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I remember Celia being larger than life and with a great big laugh. She actually reminded me a lot of my grandmother with her perfectly done nails and coiffed hair. My grandmother was a lot like that: no matter what you are doing, you are ready to face your public. As an adult, I thought a lot of Celia’s modern music was great and fun to dance to; but the songs I began to associate with her, my mom and grandmother would have no idea what I was talking about. So, I enjoyed the experience of interviewing her in a 360-degree kind of way.

On another occasion, I remember going to see Juanes in concert. I did a story with him and he actually sang “Happy Birthday” to me. It was amazing. I went back to the newsroom and said, “Juanes has sold out Madison Square Garden for the next three nights. You can’t get tickets!” People were like, “We don’t know who he is,” instead of “Here’s a guy who sold out Madison Square Garden ten blocks from this office, why don’t I know who he is?” I’m always amazed at the lack of curiosity. It’s like, “I’ve never heard of them, so they can’t matter.”

A lot of what we are doing at Starfish, the company I run, is telling the big story but through individuals, the characters, the people that embody that bigger story, that untold story that shines a light on bigger issues in our country. Now I’m working on a project with Quincy Jones which looks at the Cuban jazz musician Alfredo Rodríguez. I love it, of course, with my Cuban roots, my love of music, but I also just like that Rodríguez’s story of coming to America is such a classic Cuban story. It’s an immigrant story. An American story.  As told to Carlos J. Queiros

Gabriel Abaroa Jr., 57, is the president and CEO of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which presents the Latin Grammy Awards.
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Gabriel Abaroa, Jr.

The soundtrack of our lives, whoever we are, is a result of music experiences that—whether we know it or not—build up in our lives. I was very lucky because I was born into a family where music was always present. My parents loved to travel and it was always by car and it wasn’t considered traveling if there wasn’t music involved. Music was more important than gas. We would listen to music from the ’60s. We would listen and sing to Frank Sinatra, Perry Como or Mexican music, depending on the state we were traveling to.

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And then there was the music from the movies. I clearly remember Oliver!, the first movie I went to see with all of my family. It was a British musical from the late 60s with Mark Lester and I can sing you every single song from that movie because it created such an impact on me, just like The Sound of Music or Singin’ in the Rain.

At age 12, I was sent to a boarding school in Kansas, and the radio was my partner. I listened to the Carpenters, Carole King, Jim Croce, Chicago, Elton John, and Led Zeppelin. When I returned to Mexico, somehow I became very interested in Brazilian music, and my family got me into Broadway musicals. Thankfully, my siblings, who were very much into pop in Spanish, taught me that kind of music, which brought me back to my roots. Just imagine that combination. I could have been nurtured by music in a pond, but I had the opportunity to learn music in a vast ocean.

Who I am today is the result of all these experiences. I don’t think you can work with music professionally if you don’t love it. When you have the opportunity to work around music—whether it’s Tex-Mex, salsa or tango—and get exposed to all kinds of genres, you understand why each culture is beautiful and has its own way of expressing itself. —As told to Isabela Raygoza

Gloria Molina

My mother listened to Spanish-language radio all the time when we were home. So, music was the backdrop to all that was going on. And, of course, you know when you’re a youngster or a kid, you don’t understand how heavy the themes of mariachi music are. I mean, it’s love or death. That’s something I started enjoying much later in life, when I really understood all the words.

As a kid, I also got to see a lot of live Mexican music. My parents were regulars at the Million Dollar Theatre and we would go see movies, and in between shows they always had a group that would come out and play. And so, I was introduced to many live acts that I didn't know at the time were pretty big acts. I also remember seeing Pedro Infante in the old ranchero movies. He was so handsome and sang so beautifully. I don't know what he would have been like as a performer in a concert per se because he was always sort of a character involved in the story of the movie, but he was really unique and special. I did get to see Lucha Villa in person many years ago.

Gloria Molina, 71, was the first Latina to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the California State Assembly. Early in her career, Molina became known for advocating for women's health. In 1970, she founded East L.A.’s Comisión Femeníl Mexicana Nacional, an organization of women who enhance and promote the image of Latina women in all levels of society. She also served in the Carter White House before being elected into public office in 1982. 
spinner image Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina
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But I have a lot of different styles of music that I like. Janis Joplin, while certainly not a Latino artist, was one of my favorites. When I first ran for office, in 1982, I happened to meet Alice Bag, a Chicana from the East Side. Alice Bag was well known in the old punk-rock era. She did some wonderful, strong songs—feminist songs about women’s personal power. She recently did a song about the Chicano Moratorium protest against the Vietnam War. With my daughter, we used to play Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre over and over. 

I mean, Latinos are musical; we love our music. Everybody is moved by the beat and the sound of Latino music. Everybody knows that music is part of making you feel better. I always have it going on in the background. —As told to Katharine A. Díaz

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