Juan Gabriel’s gift to me

Story highlights

Cynthia Hudson says singer Juan Gabriel helped her connect with her heritage

She says his music helped a fair-haired American Latina define herself

Editor’s Note: Cynthia Hudson is vice president and general manager of CNN en Español. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN —  

I cried a tear for “El Divo de Juarez,” Juan Gabriel, when I heard Sunday night that he had died in California at 66. His influence on generations of artists helped to propel Latin music across continents. His life and generosity helped to open our eyes to the injustice of poverty and the acceptance of art, regardless of sexuality.

He was the voice of many, and he helped me to realize that music and language are a part of what make us who we are.

Cynthia Hudson
Cynthia Hudson

He helped me to appreciate my own cultural heritage – to learn more about myself. It was a song of Gabriel’s that did it.

You see, my English name, blond hair, fair skin, hazel eyes and flawless English contrast with other parts of me – my gestures, loud and passionate delivery and love of Latin music.

As a child, I was simply Cyndi Hudson, born in California and living in Georgia and Washington, D.C. But my mother, Ofelia Martin Llambi, was born in Cuba and had met my father, Donald Ray Hudson, when she was a visiting foreign student at Tulane University in 1958. They married soon after my grandparents and mother fled Cuba and its revolution in 1960.

I grew up speaking both English and Spanish. My mother eventually got her doctorate and became a Spanish literature professor and my father got his Ph.D. in business administration after retiring from the Marine Corps, having served as a captain in Vietnam. My grandfather died when I was very young, and so my grandmother Titi lived with us while my family moved around to accommodate my parents’ studies and later their jobs as university professors.

00:58 - Source: CNN
Latin American music icon Juan Gabriel dead at 66

All my childhood my mother insisted that my brothers and I take private Spanish and French lessons, even though it was a financial burden for them. My mother was certain that being bi- or trilingual would be a great advantage to our futures.

In the early 1970s, we drove to Mexico from Miami, where we had just moved so that my father could take a full professorship at the University of Miami. It was our typical long summer vacation, and we would be visiting with cousins I had never met. These were other Cubans who had immigrated to Mexico due to Cuba’s troubles and who were still close to our family.

I’ll never forget the family traveling in the station wagon, my grandmother along for the ride, our group looking almost like a scene from a “Vacation” movie – and hearing Mexican radio stations playing a catchy tune by the latest young star, Juan Gabriel: “Mi Guitarra.”

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    My brothers and I were humming and singing, hearing Spanish music in our car for the three weeks we toured Mexico – from a trip to see the pyramids, the mummies in Guanajuato, the divers in Acapulco and more. It was amazing as we had never really listened to or thought about Spanish music, except to see our mom bringing home records every time she visited family in Miami.

    Miami, where’d we moved for my father’s job, was a strange place for us, as we met cousins we never knew and started to understand that there were lots of people who also spoke Spanish and English, as we had long done growing up, but in towns where it would elicit a strange look and where we rarely met others who spoke Spanish.

    I had never really understood that I was different from anyone: It never came up at school, and my friends never questioned us. But now I recall that when others heard Spanish coming out of my mouth when I was talking with my blond, blue-eyed Cuban grandmother they would often quickly turn and ask: “What language are you speaking?” Of course, upon my response, we got the typical, “Oh, but you don’t look Spanish.” I really had no idea what that meant, because all the people I knew who spoke Spanish at that time looked like me.

    When I moved to Miami I realized that Cubans had become a powerhouse there – educated, industrious and assertive. They were building a new city, and Cuban culture was revered, even though there was pride in being American and gratitude that this country had taken them in.

    And a month after moving, I was humming to “Mi Guitarra” and asking my mom to buy me the album in Mexico. It would be my first Spanish-language album, taking its place next to the Partridge Family, the Doobie Brothers, Chicago and KC and the Sunshine Band.

    “Mi Guitarra” was so simple. It was the pledge of youth to sing to your heart’s content and the sound of one’s guitar that could bridge all cultures, love and friendship – the language didn’t matter.

    Juan Gabriel helped me to realize that I was more than just Cyndi Hudson, but also the daughter of a Latina, the cousin of Cuban-Mexicans and a person with a passion for that part of me that music, language and culture celebrated.

    I have never forgotten how important that one song was in helping me to define myself and embrace every part of who I am, and how that immense blend of ethnicities and cultures has made me a unique and proud American.

    After hearing the news of the singer’s passing, I called my mother and thanked her for insisting that I speak fluent Spanish, as this has helped me build my career.

    Descansa en paz, Juan Gabriel.