It was a night of glitz.
A steady stream of stars, from Rob Thomas, David Matthews and Herbie Hancock to Salma Hayek, Fher and Ozomatli, gathered at a Los Angeles hotel to pay tribute to Carlos Santana as the Latin Grammy Person of the Year.
But when Santana finally went onstage, it wasn’t about the glitz and the glamour. He dedicated the evening to “the women in my life,” particularly his mother, and his wife, Deborah.
And when he spoke, it wasn’t about the millions of albums he’s sold, or the dozens of Grammys he’s won or the numerous honors he’s received as possibly the single most successful, recognized and influential Latin musician alive.
It was about something much greater than that.
“My agenda is unifying the collective consciousness of the world,” he says. “If I could establish one thing before I die, it would be to plant seeds of a vision that everyone all over the world would have water, electricity, food, and education for free.”
And so it is for Carlos Santana.
While some stars revel in the importance of it all—the big cars, the big diamonds, the big bucks—Santana has assumed his music, his wealth and his fame as a vehicle for something else.
“It’s a glorious time for me,” he says privately. “I feel very grateful that we can do things that can do a difference in the world.”
Those “things” range from the singular music that can touch the hearts of millions, to hands-on philanthropy.
On the one hand, Santana is in the midst of recording his upcoming album, the follow-up to 2002’s phenomenally successful Shaman (which in turn, was the follow-up to Supernatural, which sold 25 million copies worldwide). Like his two previous efforts, this is a joint effort with music industry mogul Clive Davis in which Santana pairs up with a host of artists from around the world.
“What we did was we crafted songs like glass slippers and then we find the Cinderellas,” says Santana, explaining his extraordinarily successful creative formula.
Since Supernatural, multiple artists have tried to duplicate the Santana way: the trademark guitars and Latin percussion and the multigenre collaborations.
“They’re trying to sell cars, tacos. And they all sound like me,” Santana says. “And I laugh. They don’t have my heart and my intentions. I tell my daughters, ‘You can have fun playing hide and seek with yourself, but I’ll tell you who you are.’ You are your intentions. The reason Santana is very popular, or at least successful, is I concentrate on the whole thing. And when I play this music, I’m like my father. My eyes are really bright. And I see if I can look into their eyes and direct that melody. Take them out of their doldrums existence.”
As for the collaborations, he says, “My heart is open to complement. Not to compete.”
It’s not just a musical concept.
Always known for his altruism, Santana’s breadth of philanthropy has come to the forefront in recent years thanks to the work of his Milagro Foundation, which he created with Deborah in 1998.
Dedicated to help underrepresented and underprivileged children in health, education and the arts, Milagro is funded mostly by Santana himself; 25 to 50 cents of every concert ticket he sells, for example, goes directly to the foundation, as does a portion of his record sales. A percentage of sales of his Carlos Santana shoe line, sold nationwide, also heads to Milagro.
Last year, Milagro distributed roughly $250,000 to more than 65 organizations worldwide, ranging from schools in Haiti to grief counseling youth programs in New Mexico to counseling for former child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
Those efforts are in addition to Santana’s other philanthropic endeavors. Since last year, for example, he and Deborah have actively supported programs to help with the AIDS pandemic in South Africa, and $1 of each concert ticket sold for Santana’s last tour went to those programs.
“We feel very passionate—my wife and I—that we can make a difference,” says Santana. “Our new motto is that you can do something from the heart, make a difference in the world, and still be profitable. It’s a very win-win situation concept, for live people in the planet.”
The Santanas’ new motto is actually a continuation of a path they had both individually embarked more than 30 years ago.
Woodstock had just happened. Santana, newly arrived to the music scene with his debut album and the hit single “Evil Woman,” had played the main stage at the festival and his music was on people’s radars.
Deborah had heard Carlos Santana’s music but had never met the man. She wasn’t attracted to his fledgling fame, but rather something deeper.
“We met at a concert here in Northern California,” says Deborah Santana. “And we had both started to meditate and look for a spiritual path, and that’s what connected in the beginning.”
After they married—31 years ago—Deborah took an active role in her husband’s career.
“My management is my wife and I,” says Santana today, when asked who handles him. “And my publishing is my wife and I.”
And Milagro is also Santana and his wife.
Initially, Deborah would personally sort through the many and myriad requests that Santana would receive every year from organizations and individuals looking for help and financial aid.
It reached a point where, “I didn’t have a running tab to see how we were contributing around the world,” says Deborah. “I couldn’t manage all the requests.”
Someone she worked with suggested creating a foundation, “and the name was ‘Milagro,’ because that’s what we think children are.
“We really believe that helping children is the hope for our future,” adds Deborah, whose three grown children have all worked at Milagro and helped with its endeavors.
Although Milagro helps many very different causes, and rotates its aid from year to year, it gives ongoing support to a few organizations, including two dedicated to helping abused children.
Giving such help is particularly important to Santana, who suffered sexual abuse as a child and only spoke publicly about the experience after the release of Supernatural.
But in his case, giving back and making a difference is not just about giving out money but assuming an entire attitude toward life.
“I dreamed of being with Desmond Tutu, Mr. Jimmy Carter, Mr. Harry Belafonte, because I feel people like that are committed to transforming this planet and changing things for women and children,” says Santana, citing personalities with whom he’s worked with for various causes.
“And if you want me to be like a Mexican and say, ‘Thank you for letting me come here,’ Come on! This is 2004. And yes, I’m grateful to God and people for the lifestyle I live. But that doesn’t mean people own me and I have to say what they want me to say. I have to say what’s in my heart. In my heart I have good intentions and I want to see equality for women. When men, rappers, talk about women like bitches, that’s still my sister, my daughter. And in order to correct this planet we have to raise the consciousness.”
In a way, you could say Santana’s entire career has been all about raising consciousness. Born and raised in the Mexican village of Autlan, Santana was introduced to music by his father, a mariachi violinist. Santana’s trajectory, from interpreter of traditional Mexican music to rock ‘n’ roll, from Mexican immigrant to international superstar, has become a symbol of what can be accomplished as a Latin immigrant in this country.
“There’s a beautiful part in the Selena movie, when she’s on the roof, and the sister says, ‘Selena what are you doing there?’ And she says, ‘Looking at the stars. I represent the dreams and aspirations of my people.’ Man, that’s deep. That’s who Ritchie Valens is, Los Lonely Boys, and me. Whether Puerto Ricans, Mexicans like it, I represent the highest there can be. I never present myself borracho, high. I always present myself the same way. I have to present myself in a way that’s correctly with dignity in front of my mother, my sisters, my wife and two daughters. That’s why I’m really important to the Latin community. I will never let you down. I might not be what you want me to be, but I represent you.”