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Oscar Hernandez on the Importance of Inclusivity

The Grammy-winning composer discusses the historic lack of Latino representation on Broadway

Oscar Hernandez perform with Margon Rey live at Herb Alpert's Vibrato Grill & Jazz on December 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

Maury Phillips/Getty Images

Oscar Hernandez perform with Margon Rey live at Herb Alpert's Vibrato Grill & Jazz on December 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

En español | Being born and raised in New York City, the music that I heard from every other window and door in my neighborhood was mainly the music of what was characterized as salsa later on. It wasn't called salsa back in those days, but it was the music of the big three, Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodríguez; as well as Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco, just to name a few. And the great bolero singers and trios that our parents used to listen to, Los Panchos, Los Condes, Los Tres Ases. It was part of the Latino cultural revolution that was happening in the city of New York dating back to the 50s.

I think, in a sense music saved my life. When I think of how I started, the youngest in a family of 11. We lived in a big building in the South Bronx, and my oldest brother was the superintendent of the building we lived in, and somebody gave him a piano. He had this basement that he painted beautifully and put the piano there and I started to imitate the music I was listening to, and then playing with local neighborhood musicians. God knows we could have never afforded to buy a piano, so for me, it was divine intervention.

One particular song that has been with me through the years is Azucar, by Eddie Palmieri. That song was captivating in terms of the swing, in terms of the essence of what that music conveyed. Being a young pianist myself, it influenced me and opened the doors to so many other things musically.

I worked early on with Celia Cruz, I worked with Tito Puente, I worked with Ray Barretto, I worked with Rubén Blades, all those people represented the best of our culture through their music. I remember my first encounter with Celia Cruz at 21 years of age; I was asked to accompany her on the piano in Toronto. I just went, wow. This music is amazing, this woman is amazing. I worked—again, as a 20, 21-year-old musician—with Israel “Cachao” López, the great bassist from Cuba. These were indelible experiences.

I'm so proud of representing the best of my culture through my music. It's what drives me.

When we did The Capeman, a Broadway show about a Puerto Rican teen, with Paul Simon, I was the musical director. I remember that when it was closing, my older brother was super-angry about it, and I couldn’t understand why. I said I was the one who should be angry because I was going to lose a lot of money. He was going, “You don’t get it. Your nieces and your nephews, when they see that play, they see themselves up on that stage.” Wow. It just blew me away because he was right. Traditionally, when you look at the music on Broadway, there are no Latinos up there. It’s not about us.

I recently worked on On Your Feet with Gloria Estefan, thank God for something like that—not to mention Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda who's been just amazing beyond words; the fact that we're finally being represented, and we should be represented. It's important.

I think it takes a society, a community, a country to be more inclusive. That’s our obligation, to make sure we are able to progress and get along and live together and be positive and come from a place of love. —As told to Katharine A. Díaz

Oscar Hernández, 65, is a pianist, arranger, and composer. He was born in New York City to parents from Puerto Rico. Winner of three Grammy Awards, he has been performing and recording Latin jazz for over four decades and leads the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.