But soon her father would be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (The family believes his medical problems were caused by Agent Orange, the defoliant to which U.S. troops were exposed.) Gloria, barely a teen, was thrown into the role of caregiver while her mother worked and studied for a teaching credential.
"I wanted to be strong for my mom, but it was very tough for me," Gloria says. "If there's ever been a dark moment in my life … well, I wanted to check out. Music was a big escape."
But a young man had come along.
Made for Each Other
Gloria had met Emilio Estefan in the spring she graduated from high school at a jam session at a friend's house. She was impressed: Emilio was in a band called the Miami Latin Boys and worked in marketing at Bacardi.
That summer, she ran into him again at a wedding reception, where he was performing with his band. "I stood there smiling and thinking, 'Damn, there's something about this guy that's charismatic!' "
During a break, Emilio invited her onstage to sing with him, and before the night was over, he'd asked her to join the band. Soon Gloria, who'd never had a boyfriend, was being seriously courted, over the objections of her mother, who was loath to let her daughter abandon her academic plans.
"Oh my gosh, Emilio — he's a dreamer who makes things a reality," Gloria says today of her one love.
The pair married in 1978. "I always felt," says Gloria, "that we were meant to be together."
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After the ceremony, she and Emilio stopped by the hospital to visit José Fajardo, who hadn't recognized his daughter in years. The young couple in wedding attire stirred an old memory. "Glorita," he said, gazing at her.
Fajardo's illness would claim him in 1980, the same year the Estefans' son, Nayib, was born.
The Miami Latin Boys, now rechristened Miami Sound Machine, drew a loyal Hispanic fan base and, with Gloria behind the mike, recorded their first Spanish-language album in 1980. But when their record company refused to back a wider promotional effort, Emilio took their 1984 dance single "Dr. Beat" to mainstream radio stations himself. Soon the song exploded in England and the Netherlands. "We went to Europe and had thousands of people dancing!" Emilio says, standing on his patio on Biscayne Bay. "The reaction was so incredible."
On the plane back from the Netherlands, Miami Sound Machine drummer Kiki Garcia wrote "Conga," and two weeks after its release, it landed among the top 10 on U.S. charts. Miami Sound Machine was on its way. By the late '80s, the band's albums were selling multiplatinum, with billing changing to Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine and, later, to Gloria Estefan alone. Emilio, as her manager, strategically nurtured Gloria toward a solo superstar career. Simultaneously he launched his Crescent Moon label to record the next wave of Latin artists.
"The Estefans created the opportunity for pop music with Latin rhythms to have a permanent spot on the American musical landscape," says John Lannert, Billboard's former Latin American bureau chief.
Next page: A near-death tragedy. »