Washington – Iconic trumpet player Arturo Sandoval will be one of the dignitaries honored by President Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Sandoval, former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey will be among 16 people that President Barack Obama will venerate later this year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the White House announced Thursday. They'll join other prominent people to be honored this year, including musicians, scientists, activists — even an astronaut.
Mario Molina, a chemist and environmental scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, will also be awarded the medal.
"I was stunned to learn that I'm getting the medal," Molina said, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I'm also very humbled. The Nobel is given for work that you do in your field. But the Presidential Medal of Freedom is given for people who are thought to have had an impact on society. This is really an incentive to keep working on the issues that I have been involved with, including climate change."
Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy created the modern version of the medal — the highest honor the U.S. bestows on civilians — with the stroke of a pen to an executive order. In the five decades since, more than 500 people have been recognized for contributions to society of all stripes.
"This year's honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world," Obama said in a statement.
Born in Artemisa, Cuba, in 1949, Sandoval started his musical career playing the snare drum in his school’s marching band.
"My father was a car mechanic," he said. "We lived with a dirt floor—we were literally dirt poor. But, it was good. It makes me appreciate everything in my life."
When he heard the trumpet the first time, he knew he had to play it.
At 15, he began his classical music training at the prestigious Cuban National School of Arts. A year later, he earned a place in Cuba’s All-Star National Band. The day Sandoval met a young Cuban journalist was the day he says everything came together for him.
“He asked me if I’d heard of Jazz music. I said ‘no’. He played me Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. And that was it. I thought I have to learn that so bad. I taught myself,” says Sandoval.
But listening to foreign music had its costs.
“They put me in jail for three months for listening to the voice of the enemy,” Sandoval says. At the time, Sandoval was serving his military service.
Sandoval ended up defecting Cuba in 1990 from Spain while he was touring with Gillespie, a heart-wrenching decision for him. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1999.
He lived in Miami for 20 years to be close to his parents, but Sandoval and his family eventually moved to Southern California.
“I can never go back to Cuba," he says. "I’m not allowed to go back.”
The iconic musician says that for him it’s hard to understand and difficult to explain the repression of Cuba.
"No one loves this country more than me--the same maybe, but no one more," he said. "I’ve said it again and again, no freedom no life.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.