‘Our focus long-term is our responsibility to our people’
Gloria Estefan views herself as an immigrant, an exile.
Born in Havana in 1957, Estefan left Cuba when she was just two years old. Her father, who had been jailed for three months after Castro took power, brought his family to Miami in May 1960.
He joined the CIA brigade and spent two years as a political prisoner, ultimately released through an exchange program initiated by President John F. Kennedy. He later enlisted in the U.S. Army, served in Vietnam and returned an invalid, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a wretched 13-year slog until his death in 1980.
Estefan went on to become the most successful Latin crossover artist in music history, selling more than 100 million records. In the 1980s, her band, the Miami Sound Machine, became the exporter of a propulsive Cuban-infused rhythmic pop. Estefan co-wrote many of the songs, including “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” and “Conga.”
But her father’s story has always remained in her heart, mind and music.
“Our focus long-term is our responsibility to our people, our culture,” Estefan said.
On Sunday night, Estefan was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington. She is the first Cuban American and seventh Latin artist to receive the Kennedy Center Honors.
“No one ever gave a song more emotional honesty than my Gloria Estefan,” actress Eva Longoria said Sunday at the event’s 40th ceremony.
Estefan married her first and only boyfriend, Emilio Estefan, almost 40 years ago. Emilio left Cuba in 1967, when he was 14 years old. Together, the two Cuban Americans built an empire. Their estimated wealth is between $500 and $700 million.
Before she conquered the music industry, Estefan attended the University of Miami while performing nights and weekends. She considered a career in law or psychology. Then, in her early 20s, things started to take off.
With Emilio and the Miami Sound Machine, Estefan conquered South America with original Spanish-language songs. Meanwhile, in South Florida, they worked the bar mitzvah-and-quinceañera circuit, begging to get local radio airplay.
“We were famous there, but we were not famous here,” she said. “Doing stadiums in Latin America, sometimes 25,000 people or 50,000. Then we’d come back to Miami and do a wedding for 200.”
Recording in English made the difference. Estefan became the Latin pop princess of the ’80s. She went solo in 1989.
Then, in 1990, a semi rear-ended her tour bus near Scranton, Pa. She was nearly paralyzed and required seven hours of daily rehab for nine months. Estefan was 32 at the time. She considers the crash her crucible.
“Maybe this is the only reason I became famous, because right now everyone is watching,” she recalls thinking at the time. “Maybe I need to be an example. It became my reason to get back onstage.”
The Estefan bio musical “On Your Feet!”, which played Broadway for two years and is now touring nationally and in Europe, features the bus accident as a dramatic turning point.
Estefan’s life does not otherwise lend itself easily to theater. She and Emilio “are very well respected. There’s never been a scandal or rumor or a bad thing attached to them,” Rebecca says. Oscar-winning writer Alexander Dinelaris (“Birdman”), charged with transforming the couple’s life into a winning script, told them: “You’ve been happily married for 35 years. You have two healthy kids. You’re a writer’s nightmare.”
But her father’s extraordinary story — a Cuban and American patriot who suffered imprisonment and a debilitating illness — proves to have been a principal motivator of her drive and resilience. That’s the part of the play — not the crash — that often reduces Estefan to a puddle.
“With her father in a wheelchair and, all of a sudden, this was a possibility, she was determined that she was not going to end up like that,” says Patti Escoto, a close friend since ninth grade at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy.
Estefan’s mother, Big Gloria, also influenced her daughter. She was a force to be reckoned with and became a Miami celebrity and YouTub star as a rapping grandmother with the hip-hop name Rapuela.
“My mom was a born star,” Estefan said.
To this day, Estefan remains fiercely critical of the Castro regime. She says she declined Pope John Paul II’s request to accompany him on his 1998 visit to the island. Three years earlier, she did entertain 10,000 balseros, Cubans who tried to escape illegally by raft, at Guantanamo.
“It kills me that, as a Cuban exile, I can enjoy anything I want in Cuba, and Cuban citizens can’t,” she says. “I don’t want to go and have to shut up, or say something and have to go to jail.”
The Estefans mostly keep their views on American politics quiet. They’ve lived in Miami since coming to the United States. In the highly charged world of Miami’s Cuban American community, “you’re always going to tick someone off,” Estefan said.
The couple hosted fundraisers for the Clinton Foundation and Obama and the Democratic National Committee in their home, but they have “never given a cent to any political campaign,” Estefan said. She and Emilio are registered as unaffiliated.
She used the DNC fundraiser to speak with Obama about Cuba’s Ladies in White, relatives of jailed dissidents who were arrested for championing human rights.
Earlier this year, when fellow Kennedy Center honorees Norman Lear, Lionel Richie and Carmen de Lavallade announced that they would or might skip the traditional White House reception — President Trump bowed out a few days later — Estefan said that she welcomed the opportunity to meet Trump and address immigrants’ rights and their contributions with him.
The Estefans had already challenged him through music. In 2015, after candidate Trump disparaged America’s neighbor to the south, Emilio wrote and recorded “We’re All Mexican” with a cavalcade of stars, including his wife.
In Miami, they are considered “royalty,” Estefan’s younger sister, Rebecca Fajardo Cabrera, said.
They are, to employ a favored Estefan term, beasts at business: They own hotels, restaurants, a recording studio, a publishing company, real estate, a minority partnership in the Miami Dolphins.
“Emilio is the idea guy. He sees the big picture, he’s the dreamer. I zero in on details. He hates finances. I love that,” Estefan said. “We love real estate. We love tangibles. We have an immigrant mentality.”
Today, her performing days are largely behind her, although she still does charity events.
Certainly. She flew to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief with a plane full of Latin entertainers. But whether she’s performing it or not, she’s proud of the music she’s made.
“If I could only leave one album behind, it would be ‘Mi Tierra,’ ” the 1993 Spanish-language album singing of “my beautiful homeland” and “the land that you ache for,” she said. “It spoke of who we were, to reflect on Cuba B.C. — Before Castro — when it was free.”
Gloria Estefan left Cuba as a young child, but the island defines her, and her music was originally published in The Lily on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.