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AARP The Magazine

Gloria and Emilio Estefan Have Rhythm — and Lots of Romance

Five decades, 26 Grammys and $700 million later, the couple revel in hard work, determination and the power of love

Gloria and Emilio Estefan (Courtesy of Estefan Enterprises, Inc)

The Estefans in 1985, unveiling the Miami street sign created in their honor. — Courtesy of Emilio and Gloria Estefan

"My success is not about money," explains Emilio, a gregarious man with an open smile. "But the real estate — as an immigrant, you always want to have a backup. Something happens to you, you don't want your kids to go through what you went through."

See also: AARP interview with Julio Iglesias

Emilio Estefan was 14 years old when he left Fidel Castro's Cuba. With his father, he flew to Spain, his mother's native country, to get a visa. A year later, in 1968, he relocated to Miami, where he, his dad and 15 cousins shared a cramped apartment. Skilled at playing several musical instruments, Emilio soon realized his talents could work in the family's favor.

"I saw a guy playing accordion in a local restaurant at night," he remembers. "I went in and said, 'Do you mind if I come for lunchtime? I play accordion, and you just give me food for me and my dad.' "

The job nourished body and soul. "Music took me away from the pain. It took me nine years to raise enough to bring my mom and older brother from Cuba to Miami. That was nine years apart from my family."

Castro came to power in 1959, when Glorita, as Gloria was known, was 18 months old. Until that time, her parents — Gloria, a teacher, and José Manuel Fajardo, a police officer who rode in the motorcade of the wife of then Cuban President Fulgencio Batista — enjoyed an idyllic life in Havana.

Fajardo, his family says, was a political idealist: incorruptible and devoted to Batista. So, at the first opportunity after the revolution, he flew with his wife and Glorita to exile in Miami. He secretly joined a U.S.-backed effort to overthrow Castro — the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Gloria Fajardo learned to make dinner from Spam, stood in line for government cheese and waited for news.

See also: The Mirabal Sisters, 50 years later

When Cuban armed forces defeated the invaders in 1961, José was jailed for almost two years before being released as part of an exchange between the U.S. and Cuba. His ordeal so affected his daughter that decades later it inspired political activism of her own.

In 1992, Gloria was part of a United Nations committee that produced the first human rights report on Cuba. And in 2010, she led a Miami march in support of a Cuban opposition movement.

"As an immigrant, I appreciate, far more than the average American, the liberties we have in this country," she says as she leads a guest into the kitchen for refreshments. "Silence is a big enemy of morality. I don't want our blunders in history to get repeated."

Gloria's impulse to right wrongs goes back to 1963, by which time her father had become an American citizen and an officer in the U.S. military stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Gloria was in first grade there, trying to fit in despite not being fluent in English. After a fellow student called her stupid, she quickly mastered her second language, illustrating the drive that would define her.

"Six months later," she says, beaming, "I stole the reading award from him."

When her dad was deployed to Vietnam, Gloria and her mom returned to Miami, where young Gloria began to blossom as a singer. She'd send her father tapes, and José responded with the promise "You are going to be a star."

Next page: Love, marriage and international fame. »

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AT HOME WITH GLORIA AND EMILIO: Here's your invitation inside the Star Island, Miami Beach, home of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Grammy-winning music makers — and happliy married couple for 35 years.

 

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