Mention salsa in Orange County, and the name Rae Arroyo often enters the conversation.
She is the Tuesday night host of the Latin Connection, which has been bringing the salsa sound to Orange County for 10 years on station KSBR-FM (88.5), which broadcasts from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. from Saddleback College.
During the day, she and her husband, Damian, operate their record shop, the Salsa Connection, in Garden Grove.
At 51, she is a walking library on such salsa greats as Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Ray Bareto and her favorite, Tito Puente.
Not bad for a Jewish woman from New Jersey.
What's even more interesting is that Arroyo can roll her Rs and has learned to pronounce the names of different salsa bands, or bandas, like a pro.
"People laugh when I tell them I'm not Latina," she said in a recent interview. "I laugh at myself sometimes because I'm such an advocate for Latinos. But you know what? I'm a salsera. One hundred percent salsera. I just love the music. In fact, my husband, who is Puerto Rican, taught me the language, and he had to be taught the music from me!"
Arroyo is pleased that some Los Angeles Spanish-language radio stations that used to stick to Latin pop-rock are acknowledging Southern California's increasingly diversified Latino audience by playing more salsa.
"Ten years ago, not too many of these radio stations touched the stuff, until the movie 'Salsa' came out. Now, they're jumping on the bandwagon," she said.
Salsa has become so popular in Orange County that she has opened her own small club in Santa Ana. She plans to have live salsa bands every Sunday afternoon.
Since July, she has been working as a weekend disc jockey at Ruckus Restaurant in Orange. Each Friday and Saturday night, Arroyo closes her record shop at 7 p.m. and then rushes to the restaurant in Orange, where she sits and waits while the waiters push aside the salad bar and stack the tables and chairs, revealing a dance floor.
For four solid hours, she mixes her music from mellow to hot, just to keep the audience dancing.
As customers enter Ruckus Restaurant, they often recognize Arroyo and give friendly waves in her direction as she points to vacant chairs.
"That's a listener of mine," she said. "She and I go way back. Hey, hi, Linda. Look, there's an extra seat over there. Sit there. I'll talk to you in a minute."
She added: "I like to kick off with something hot, then move into something mellow. Perhaps a merengue, and then open the night up with a salsa. You got to keep the dancers on their feet and play a variety of music to keep them happy."
For Arroyo, her love of salsa began when she was young. At age 13, she remembers that her father, a jazz devotee and Sephardic Jew who was born in Turkey, introduced her to the Puerto Rican- and Cuban-flavored urban sound.
"He was a sewing machine operator in New Jersey who really enjoyed his music on the weekends," she said. "He gave me this love for the music."
In November, Arroyo recently got on stage at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and introduced Puente, a salsa master.
For Arroyo, it was her moment in the sun.
"That was really one of my greatest pleasures," she said.
"When I was 14, I saw Tito for the first time at the New York Palladium. I kind of snuck in, ordered a Coke, and when the music started, I got swept away by his playing, and tears started rolling down my cheeks.
"This man's music, his salsa, still makes me get emotional."