Pop Culture

White House celebrates Latin musical heritage

The White House became "La Casa Blanca" on Tuesday, celebrating Hispanic musical heritage with a South Lawn concert and such guests as Gloria Estefan, George Lopez, the Bachata music group Aventura, Jose Feliciano and more.

President Barack Obama said Latin music, while hard to define because it comes in so many forms — from salsa to merengue and Bachata to reggaeton — speaks to everyone in a language they can all understand.

"It moves us, and it tends to make us move a little bit ourselves," Obama said in brief remarks before the infectious rhythms began pulsating on the White House grounds. "In the end, what makes Latin music great is the same thing that's always made America great. The unique ability to celebrate our differences while creating something new."

"In Performance at the White House: Fiesta Latina" is the third in a music series launched by first lady Michelle Obama to celebrate various genres of music. Jazz and country music events, with workshop for music students, have been held. Classical music is on tap for Nov. 4.

Tuesday's musical extravaganza came during the month dedicated to celebrating the culture and traditions of Hispanics, the nation's largest minority group at 15 percent of the U.S. population, according to Census Bureau figures.

A large, white tent erected on the lawn was the setting for the musical performances. A see-through panel behind the stage afforded the nearly 400 guests, who sat at cocktail tables, views of the White House South Portico bathed in light.

Hosts Jimmy Smits, Eva Longoria Parker and Lopez joked that Obama is really Latino.

"He just doesn't know it," she said.

Added Lopez, as the audience laughed: "Lives in a house that's not his. ... Says he's gonna change and nobody believes him. Very Latino."

Obama proved what he said about the power of Latin music. He wiggled his hips and took a few turns on the dance floor with singer Thalia after she said: "Mr. President. With all due respect, will you dance with me?" He complied as she approached the table where he sat with Mrs. Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia.

Mrs. Obama moved in her seat, snapping her fingers to the music.

By the end of the concert, the First Family was on its feet, clapping to the beat. The family then went on stage to thank the performers. Mrs. Obama and Malia held hands and danced, while the Obama did the same with Sasha. Malia, then Sasha, also paired off with Sheila E. on the drums.

Feliciano said during a rehearsal break that it was his third time performing at the White House. He performed for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

"I'm bipartisan," Feliciano said.

He said the concert is good, but Latin performers should be "part of the whole," not just trotted out for Hispanic heritage month.

"It's about time. After all, the only time that Latinos are called upon is when the elections are around," Feliciano said.

David Hidalgo, a singer-songwriter for the Chicano rock band Los Lobos, said the concert is important because it gives performers "a chance to show a little bit of our culture." The group performed its hit "La Bamba."

Marc Anthony, Pete Escovedo, his daughter Sheila E., and Tito "El Bambino" also performed. Sheila E. was musical director and leader of the house band.

Other notables at the concert included Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic member of the high court. She posed for photos with everyone who sought them. Also present were Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and members of Congress.

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Renowned Latin American chef Maricel Presilla was guest chef for the evening. She worked with the White House kitchen staff to prepare a menu assorted finger foods, including Cuban roast pork, Puerto Rican pasteles, Argentine beef empanadas with red chimichurri, Guatemalan slaw and chocolate-cheese flan with hibiscus sauce.

Earlier Tuesday, Longoria Parker, a star of "Desperate Housewives," and music producer Emilio Estefan met with other members of the National Museum of the American Latino Commission to discuss plans for a possible Latino museum in Washington.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said Salazar asked the commission to report back in a year on whether a museum or some other project dedicated to Latino history, art and culture is feasible. Becerra had sponsored a bill for a museum but said he'll wait for the commission's recommendation before taking further action.

Tuesday's concert was to be televised Thursday by PBS, and Saturday by the Spanish-language television network Telemundo.

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