GLORIA ESTEFAN: always on her feet

Gloria Estefan
Photo BY JESUS CORDERO

 

The extraordinarily talented Gloria Estefan has been on her feet since she was a little girl. A Cuban immigrant, Gloria made her mark in America garnering numerous awards and a host of devoted fans around the world.

She became an international success in the mid-70s when she partnered with Emilio Estefan to become the lead singer of his band, Miami Latin Boys, which later became the renowned Miami Sound Machine. Gloria and Emilio married a few years later and became a dynamic force in the music industry.

Their inspiring life story plays out each night at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway in the very successful show On Your Feet! It’s a fabulous and engaging musical about their lives that will have you singing long after the evening is over!

Singer, writer and philanthropist, Gloria has overcome obstacles all her life and perservered with grace. She’s a shining example of courage — someone who always lands on her feet.

tg: We are honored to have you aboard! You are an inspiration to all of our readers. You were born in Cuba but left when you were very young. Do you have any memories from that time?

Gloria: I was so young. I am sure most of my memories are things that I’ve heard from my mom and my grandmother. There is one memory that does stand out: When the revolution in Cuba took place, my father, who was a police officer, and his father, who was a commander in the army, were both arrested by Castro.

I remember my mom, my grandmother and I were trying to get to see them so we could give them care packages, and I remember how frightening the whole situation was. I remember being very thirsty and wanting water while we were waiting for them. One of the guys nearby pulled this metal cup from the wall and put water in it. My mom, as a mom would do, was trying to stop me from drinking it. The man got very upset and said if the water was good enough for him it was good enough for everyone, and I drank it. I got a horrible infection in my mouth from it and was ill for several weeks. That incident has stuck with me from the Cuba of that day. I do have beautiful, nostalgic memories from the stories my mother, grandmother and whole family told me, and those are always with me too.

“I spent my whole young life loving my dad from afar.”

tg: You must have been so proud of your dad and of all he did to bring your family to the United States.

Gloria: My dad was a very idealistic man. Originally, he had been chosen to escort [Marta Fernández Miranda de] Batista, the First Lady of Cuba, and people were confused by that and thought he was her bodyguard. He was not a bodyguard; my father was a very moral police officer and he wanted to be in the military. His father, my grandfather, was in the military and he didn’t want to be accused of nepotism, so he actually ripped up my father’s application to the army. When my dad asked my grandfather what had happened, my grandfather told him that people might think because he was in the military, that my father would get special privileges if he joined also. That’s why my dad became a police officer.

My father was an amazing man. He knew very clearly what was coming in Cuba and knew that it was important to take me and my mom out of there as quickly as possible. He traveled to Miami on the ferry to find a place for us to live. He brought us to America and then he disappeared. He left us a note, but he couldn’t tell us that he was going to train for the Bay of Pigs invasion. He came back the night before the invasion; I remember it clearly because the next day, which was the day of the invasion, was actually his birthday, April 17. After the invasion he became a political prisoner for two years and when he came back he joined the U.S. Army. The Army offered all the Cubans who had been involved in the Bay of Pigs the opportunity to enter the Army as officers if they spoke English. My dad took an intensive English course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was gone for six months.
I spent my whole young life loving my dad from afar. Our happiest years were when we were stationed in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, before my dad went to Vietnam. I have beautiful memories of our family life for two years, but when my dad came home to us in Miami, after Vietnam, he was very ill, and we eventually found out it was from Agent Orange poisoning.

Gloria's Family
Gloria with her mother and father, Gloria and José Manuel Fajardo.

I really didn’t have the opportunity to have conversations with my dad. By the time we were able to be together he was already very ill and I was taking care of him. My father was quite a man; all of his friends admired him. He was the type of man everyone wanted on their team. He was the head of the Tanks Division in the Bay of Pigs, and I’ve heard amazing stories of his great courage and strength of character. He rarely spoke of it; he didn’t like to toot his own horn. I have a lot of his personality. He was very quiet but also funny and a bit sarcastic, and his brothers and his mom, they were all musical. He was the only one in his family who didn’t officially sing or play an instrument, but he was very musical in his own way. He was a gorgeous man. He was an athlete, and I have the Bronze Medal he won for the Pan Am Games in Mexico in 1955. He was on the Cuban volleyball team. He was also an amazing jockey. My dad was an all-around wonderful guy.

tg: When you were young you played the guitar and wrote poetry. Did you aspire to become a singer? Did your mother inspire you? Tell us about your cousin and her influences on your career.

Gloria: No aspirations at all. Music was my escape while I was home helping my mother and taking care of my father. It was my own personal catharsis. I would lock myself up in my room and just sing and cry. The tears would come; I wanted to be strong for my mom through the whole process of my father’s illness. I didn’t want my mother to see the cracks, so music was my escape.

I don’t enjoy being the center of attention; it’s not my nature. My mom was the diva in the family. She still has a very big personality. She actually won a contest to be Shirley Temple’s double. Hollywood had an international contest because they wanted to dub Shirley Temple’s movies in Spanish and my grandfather had a conniption and said there was no way my mother could go and he nipped that career in the bud.

Growing up around my mom, it was natural to me that she would be the center of attention and the star. She was always the person who would sing and tell jokes at family parties. It was not my intention to perform, but I did start sending my cousin Merci Navarro tapes of me singing. Merci’s father was stationed in the Air Force in Hawaii and Merci sent me back tapes of herself playing the guitar, and when she got to Miami we would sing duets and harmonize together.

Merci was really driven. I remember we sent a tape to The Ed Sullivan Show; we were going to call ourselves the Foreign Imports. At the time, I was only doing that for her. Later on when I joined the band I brought Merci along with me. I was told they couldn’t hire anyone else, and I said I was just doing this for fun and that whatever they paid me I would split with my cousin Merci. I also knew my mother would be happier if I wasn’t alone out there with a bunch of guys playing music.

We eventually named our publishing company Foreign Imported Productions from the old name Merci and I were going to use. I started in the band just for fun. I had several jobs at the time: I was in the college work-study program; I was an interpreter at the Miami International Airport for French and English. French had been my minor in college and although I was a psychology and communications major, I loved languages. I joined the band because I thought it would be a great opportunity to make music with actual musicians and it all grew naturally from there. I never really thought about being famous by any stretch of the imagination. It just happened.

tg: Fast forward to 1975 when you met Emilio. He heard you sing, and you could say the rest became history. The Miami Latin Boys became the Miami Sound Machine and you became an international success.

Gloria: Yes indeed. Emilio had a band in Cuba when he was eight years old. When he came to the States he had to go to high school at night so he could work. It was tough for his parents to find jobs; they didn’t speak English, and they were already older so Emilio always had to work. He started the band because he loved music. He started playing the accordion for tips in restaurants and by the time I joined in 1975 his band had grown to nine pieces. He had a full horn section and percussion, and they rehearsed in the apartment that he shared with his parents.

We had been trying to form a band for a one-night retreat, and Emilio had been invited over to give us some tips on how to get a band together. He listened to me sing that night. He had brought his accordion over and was wearing some very short shorts. He gave us some tips and we thanked him and went our separate ways, back to our lives and to our schools.

That summer my mother insisted I go with her to a wedding of the daughter of one of my dad’s army buddies. When I walked into the reception hall a band was performing and the lead guy was playing Do the Hustle on his accordion, which I thought was very brave. He had charisma. When I got closer to the band I recognized him, and he remembered meeting me the night he came over with his accordion. He asked me to sing a few songs with the band. I knew all of these Cuban standards I had learned to sing with my grandma. I loved Cuban music and I sang two classic tunes, and at the end of the night Emilio asked me if I would be interested in joining the band because they didn’t have a lead singer. I told him I couldn’t. I knew my mother would kill me and at the time I was super busy. I had two other jobs; I was still an interpreter at the airport, and I was teaching guitar at a community school two nights a week plus going to school full time. Emilio tracked me down two weeks later and said, “Look, we just do this for fun. We rehearse one night a week or possibly two and we play on the weekends.”

He asked me to bring my mom to a rehearsal so I brought my mother, my grandmother and my sister, and I remember standing with my back against the wall in this tiny apartment. I told my mom I really wanted to join the band. She wasn’t happy about it, but I was 18 at the time. I joined the band and that’s how it all started.

Emilio and Gloria Estefan
Photo BY JESUS CORDERO

tg: You became very successful, married Emilio and had a son together. In 1990 your tour bus was involved in a terrible accident with a tractor-trailer and you were seriously injured. How did you manage to come back from such a traumatic injury? I am amazed at your determination. You couldn’t walk, but you persevered and became an example for all of us.

Gloria: Thank you very much. My experience with my dad was a very difficult one and at the same time I learned a lot. I knew a lot about the spine and how it works. My dad had MS and was in a wheelchair, and I knew exactly what my family was in store for if I ended up in that chair. But I would have found a way to live a life where I give back, and I would have kept writing. The accident and the realization of what I faced made me fight very hard. I also had people’s prayers. I had been to Catholic school and prayer was always a very ethereal concept. I could physically feel people’s prayers when I was in the hospital. It was a force I could never imagine and I channeled it. I meditated every day lying in the bed. I would channel those prayers, and finally when I got home, I would rehab seven to eight hours a day.

In the beginning I couldn’t walk but I would do whatever I was capable of doing. I would float in the pool and strengthen myself that way. I also used biofeedback and massage, but the bottom line was I had a bit of a crises and I realized the situation I was in. I let myself grieve, but knew I had to move forward. I did my utmost to give myself the best outcome possible, and I worked very hard and never let myself get down. I pumped myself into getting out of bed and starting over.

I had very small goals each day so I could achieve something.Even though they were small goals in my mind, I focused on what I could do each day. At first I was only thinking about walking and being independent again. I wasn’t thinking about getting back on that stage. Four months after my accident, when I was finally able to put on my underwear by myself, I wanted to throw a party! At that point I thought, “If I can do this then I can be an example to all of these people who are sending me amazing letters and prayers.”
These are people who have never met me but were so incredibly kind, gracious and generous with their time and their love. I thought maybe it’s all about this; about coming out of things and giving back. Then it became a goal of mine to try to help with whatever people in need may be going through in their lives. I had a bigger purpose than just getting back on stage to sing again. I wanted to show people that no matter what happens to you, you can have a hand in the outcome.

tg: I’m so proud of you; you have amazing strength of character.

Gloria: Thank you. A lot of the strength came with me as a kid. Going through the experiences I had as a child wouldn’t allow me to just let myself wallow. I had a son and a husband who needed me; I had a family. I had my mother and I was her rock and her support, and I had my younger sister and it was important for me to do my best for them. It was a good motivator. I also had my fans who had sent so much love my way and that was such a good part of the inspiration that moved me forward.

tg: The musical On Your Feet!, which is based on your life story, is getting rave reviews. What prompted you to write it?

Gloria: I was approached 25 years ago by the Nederlander Organization about writing something Latin for Broadway. It would have been something like Into the Heights, but I was at the peak of my career and knew something like this would be time consuming. Emilio and I knew this would require lots of our time, dedication and work and if we took it on we weren’t going to do it halfway. We decided that someday in the future, if the opportunity arose again, we would take this on and go for it.

On Your Feet! is a story about our lives — to share the contributions that immigrants have made to this country. That’s a wonderful thing to do.  I’m proud of the show and of the wonderful performers. I told Ana Villafañe, the lead in On Your Feet!, that she has the hardest job in show business. There is nothing more difficult than what she has taken on; working in a Broadway show. The singing, the dancing — the musical performers work harder and more often than any other entertainers. I have great respect for them.
I also told the performers that they have the opportunity, every single night to inspire someone by what they are doing on that stage. There are so many subplots in the play; there’s the situation where my mom stopped talking to me because I made the decision to take my sister on the road. My mom was against it and I didn’t do what my mom wanted me to do. I thought it was important for me to do something for my sister and my mom wouldn’t speak to me. When I had the accident my mom hadn’t spoken to me in two years.
That whole scenario plays out on stage each night. Perhaps someone in the audience is experiencing a similar thing in his or her family. The play shows the importance of communication and how life can change in one moment. It teaches you not to waste a second of your life. There is also the accident that happened when we were at the top of our game. When we were rear-ended by that bus, Emilio was actually on the phone with his brother in Miami who was heading our office there. He was reading Emilio the headline from the Miami Herald that essentially said “Gloria and Emilio have the world in their hands.” As he was reading that line we were rear-ended by that bus and everything shifted. You go from the best moment in your life to the worst in one split second.

“We have to stay on our feet, evolve and grow, and that’s why we wanted to do this show.”

Emilio and Gloria
Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio Estefan. Last year they were honored to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barrack Obama — one of many awards they have received over the years. Photo: Omar Cruz

Our music, the music that the audience has heard through the years, coupled with the amazing performances of the actors, singers and dancers in On Your Feet! is the essence of the play. The time spans from when Emilio met me to when I got back on stage at the American Music Awards after the accident.  Alexander Dinelaris Jr., who won an Oscar for Birdman, wrote our amazing book; he is also an immigrant and we were on the same page.
When we were talking to him about writing this book he told me he had done so much research on our lives; the one thing that struck him was how many times we had gotten back up on our feet. That is exactly why we chose the title On Your Feet! It’s not just the song Get On Your Feet, which had become such a big hit, but he said you’ve had adversity and gotten through it and succeeded. You had to leave your country and start over here in the States. You had to overcome those who said your music would never work and people who told you to change your name and your sound. He was right; we stuck to our guns and that’s why the play is called On Your Feet! It’s what we as human beings need to do every day of our lives no matter what happens. We have to stay on our feet, evolve and grow, and that’s why we wanted to do this show. It’s on the Great White Way, one of the most iconic places in the world, and it’s quite an honor and a privilege to have our life’s story being told in that venue in that way.

tg: You are multi-talented. Talk about the children’s books you’ve written.

Gloria: I am a writer so any time I can expand on this I do! The beauty of writing the Noel books was watching my dog Noel, who was this amazingly inspirational force in my life. My mom was a teacher, and my goal was to have these books become a resource for teachers, and it has become that.  My first book was about maintaining who you are and what makes you special and how that is a very big gift. What you may think is a shortcoming may become your most important contribution to the world. I was a big Dr. Seuss fan so I’ve kind of written a 31-page song. I worked closely with the illustrator with pictures of the actual Noel, and everything in the book was inspired in some way from the experience of having her. I am working on the third one, Noel and Lulu, which will be about sibling rivalry. I try to have a moral in the book and be very true. It’s a lot of fun for me to be a writer and expand and grow. Writing is really what I love the most; of the four careers writing has been the biggest motivator because through my writing I can reach people that I may never meet. I perform on stage and feel very comfortable there. I receive letters all the time about how my songs inspire my fans and got them through a tough moment. Songs were my saviors when I was growing up and a way for me to connect with someone that I may never meet. As a writer I have a very strong interest in what makes us the same rather than different.

tg: As publisher of a national travel publication, I’d like to know if there is any place on your bucket list that you would like to visit; some place you’ve never been to before?

Gloria: My gosh, we’ve traveled so, so much. I would like to visit Bhutan. I’ve heard that it’s a very special place. I watched a documentary on Bhutan that said it was the happiest place on Earth. I was very curious about that. It’s high in the mountains near Tibet and it’s supposed to be very spiritual. You have to be accepted as a tourist there and I am anxious to visit.

tg: What’s your best vacation spot, your happiest place on earth?

Gloria: It’s my home in Vero Beach. I love being there, and I always say it’s really my happiest place on earth.

tg: You’ve made great inroads with spinal cord research through your Gloria Estefan Foundation.

Gloria: My father was in a wheelchair, and I had the debilitating accident that resulted in my not being able to walk for a while, so I know firsthand the struggles families and individuals face with these types of injuries. It’s so important to me to help find a cure for spinal cord injuries. Our original purpose with the Foundation was to be part of spinal cord research. The Foundation works alongside the Miami Foundation to cure paralysis and we are already in healing trials. We have no doubt that ultimately a cure will be found and that’s our goal — to help make this happen.

Renee Werbin
Renee Werbin

Publisher and Co-Founder

Publisher, Co-Founder and CEO of SRI Travel

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