||Issue Date: 9 / 2009
Gloria Estefan: Shy Arrival Became Superstar
Gloria Estefan was born Gloria Fajardo in Havana, Cuba on September 1, 1957. When she was two, her family immigrated to Miami, Florida. Her father, a soldier and bodyguard for Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, was forced to flee the island in 1959 when Fidel Castro, a communist dictator, and his forces took over the government.
Gloria Estefan performing
for crew members and their
families aboard the Nimitz-
class aircraft carrier the USS
Theodore Roosevelt. Joshua
Kelsey / US Navy
After coming to the United States, Jose Manuel Fajardo was recruited into a Central Intelligence Agency-funded band of Cuban refugees that was involved in the unsuccessful 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Gloria later recalled how her mother learned that Jose had left: "She had no clue. In fact, all he left was a note that said, 'I have to go somewhere. I can't tell you where I am. It's a covert operation.'"
When the invasion failed, Gloria's family did not know if her father had been killed or captured. "We didn't find out until they actually read the list of prisoners from Cuba," Estefan said. Jose Fajardo was released two years later when President John F. Kennedy negotiated the soldiers' release. The army offered the Bay of Pigs officers the chance to become U.S. Army officers if they learned English. Gloria's father took the opportunity and volunteered for a two-year tour in Vietnam.
When he returned, he was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis, which may have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Her mother had to work to support the family during the day and attended school at night. Gloria's mother had had a Ph.D. in Cuba and had attempted to bring her diploma to the U.S., believing it would help improve her chances of finding a job. Estefan recalls that the Cuban soldiers "ripped it up at the airport. They said, 'If you're leaving this country, you're starting over from scratch.'" Gloria admired the strength and determination her mother showed during this period. "I'm very proud of her because she and my grandmother were really amazing women. And I look up to them," she says. "I really never thought that there was something a woman couldn't do."
When she was twelve, Gloria received a guitar as a gift and took some classical guitar lessons. She later said, "I was singing since I was two years old, but I would sing to myself in my room … I was very shy." She never imagined that she would become a music star. While her mother worked, young Gloria took care of her father and younger sister. She had little social life and used music as an outlet for her feelings. She recalls, "I would lock myself up in my room for hours and just sing. I wouldn't cry -- I refused to cry. Music was the only way I had to just let go."
Gloria enrolled in the University of Miami and eventually received her B.A. in Psychology with a minor in French. During college, she worked as a Spanish/French translator at the Miami International Airport. She had been accepted into the Sorbonne in Paris and was planning to study international law.
In 1975, while she was in college, Gloria had an opportunity to sing at a Cuban wedding. The band performing at the wedding was the Miami Latin Boys, led by keyboardist Emilio Estefan. Putting her post-college plans on hold, Gloria signed on to sing with the band, and in 1978, she and Emilio were married. They have worked together and been married for three decades.
Gloria Estefan worked to overcome her shyness. She recalls, "I was not the performer type. I still, believe it or not, do not love to be the center of attention. I like the behind-the-scenes stuff. I love the writing. I love the recording and making the music. So when I got the opportunity to join this band ... That was a baptism of fire for me to get up onstage." Initially she only sang as part of the ensemble, but she gradually grew more comfortable being out in front and singing by herself.
The group, now called the Miami Sound Machine, signed a contract with CBS Records' Hispanic division. Between 1981 and 1983, they recorded four Spanish-language albums. Their combination of disco, salsa and pop made them a great success in Spanish-speaking countries, but they were little known in the U.S. In 1984, the band recorded an English-language version of "Dr. Beat," a single from their Spanish-language album a Toda Maquina. The single was a hit in Europe, topping the dance charts. CBS Records' Epic label called and wanted to sign up the group. As Estefan recalls, "And we said, 'We are signed to you, on your international label!'" The band recorded English versions of many of the album's songs and released it in the U.S. as Eyes of Innocence.
With 1985's Primitive Love, the Miami Sound Machine recorded their first all-English-language album. The album was a great success, scoring three Top Ten pop hits with "Conga," "Bad Boy," and "Words Get in the Way." The rousing dance number "Conga" simultaneously cracked Billboard's pop, dance, R&B and Latin charts. Individual songs from the album remained on the charts from 1985-1987. Let It Loose, in 1988, went triple platinum. In 1989, Estefan released a solo album, Cuts Both Ways.
During a tour for that album in 1990, Estefan's bus was struck by a tractor trailer. She suffered broken vertebrae in her back that required lengthy surgery. "Yes, the prognosis was that I wasn't going to walk again," Estefan says. But she had her back stabilized with a titanium rod and spent a year in physical therapy; "I worked hard. I worked six, seven hours a day in rehab for a year." In 1991 she released Into the Light, which included the chart-topping "Coming Out of the Dark," a single inspired by her nearly fatal accident.
Her all-Spanish albums Mi Tierra, in 1993 and Abriendo Puertas, in 1994, both won Grammies. Her single "Reach" was chosen as the official theme of the 1996 Summer Olympics. Estefan became the most successful crossover artist in Latin music history, with international record sales close to the 50 million mark.
Estefan and Emilio attribute some of their success to growing up in Miami's hybrid Cuban-American culture. "We grew up in a city that allowed us both identities, so we believed very early on that this could work," she says. She sees herself as a Cuban-American with an American head and a Cuban heart.
Estefan continues to make English and Spanish language albums. In 2007 she released 90 Millas, a tribute to Cuban music -- the title refers to the distance between Miami and Cuba. It is her twenty-ninth album overall, her eleventh studio solo album, and her fourth in Spanish.
She has appeared in two movies: 1999's Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep and For Love of Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story with Andy Garcia in 2000. She has also written two picture books for children in English and Spanish: The Magically Mysterious Adventures of Noelle the Bulldog and Noelle's Treasure Tale: A New Magically Mysterious Adventure. Noelle was the name of the family's bulldog. Gloria and Emilio have a son, Nyab, and daughter, Emily Marie. They live on Star Island, near Miami.
Estefan has sold 70 million albums worldwide and won five Grammy Awards. In 1992, she was invited by President George Bush to serve as a public member of the United States Delegation to the 47th General Assembly to the United Nations. In addition, she was the first-ever Latin female to receive the BMI "Songwriter of the Year" award.
With all that she has accomplished, Gloria Estefan has one unfulfilled hope: "my one dream," she says, "personal and professional, is to perform in a free Cuba."
Alison Pruitt is a freelance writer based in Virginia.