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Puerto Rico Mourns Passing Of Puente As A Native Son

June 2, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN (AP) - Puerto Rico embraced Ernesto "Tito" Puente as a native son, and on word Thursday of his death the government declared three official days of mourning. (SAN JUAN (AP) - Puerto Rico cobijó a Ernesto "Tito" Puente como un hijo nativo, y en un reportaje de su muerte realizado el jueves, el gobierno declaró tres días oficiales de luto...)

"It hurts all of us," said Carlos Romero Barcelo, Puerto Rico's lone delegate to the U.S. Congress. "He put Puerto Rico's name in lights."

The New York-born Puente died Wednesday at age 77. While remembrances came in from the world over, many artists in the island who worked with Puente over the decades were stunned at his passing.

Graphic artist Nestor Otero said Puente gave Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and around the world a sense of belonging to a single community. Puente "incorporated our music in the international vocabulary," Otero said.

Otero said that watching Puente play at New York's Palladium or the old Huntspoint Palace was like seeing Puerto Rican actor Jose Ferrer on film and exclaiming, "Wow, he's a Puerto Rican just like we are."

Puente's triumphs were Puerto Rico's; each time he won a Grammy - five in all - this island of 4 million celebrated. Over the years, he nurtured an adoring following among Puerto Ricans, Cubans and others who basked in his U.S. success, be it at New York's legendary Palladium dance hall or in local radio studios in San Juan.

As an arranger, Puente "was the best in Afro-Antilles music," said longtime Puerto Rican radio personality Mariano Artau, who hosted Puente decades ago on his local midday radio show.

Angel "Lito" Pena, one of the island's leading composers and arrangers, said Puente had an uncanny ability to communicate his exuberant musical vision - and because of that became the crossover star in the United States who opened doors for later generations of Latin musicians.

"He was an innovator whom everyone wanted to imitate because God had chosen him to fulfill a mission," Pena said.

Puente's brand of Latin jazz was influenced by traditional harmonies in the United States without abandoning the rhythmic roots of Puerto Rico, said Pena, founder of the Pan American Orchestra.

Puente appeared a little tired during his last performance in Puerto Rico earlier this year, said Dennis Rodriguez, a conga player and longtime friend of Puente. But Rodriguez said he preferred the memories of an exhilarated Puente rocking the walls of Brooklyn's St. George Hotel in the 1970s - and noted that Puente, despite his health, had no thoughts of retiring.

"He died with his boots on, valiantly, knowing that the best way to leave this world was to do what he was doing,"

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