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
En español | On the kind of glorious Miami day that puts picture postcards to shame, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the city's most high-profile power couple, stand in the ornate, Moroccan-style entertainment room of their Star Island estate, posing for a photographer.
Playing in the background is The Standards, Gloria's new CD, a romantic, multilingual interpretation of the American songbook. The pair begin to sway, dancing in place. Suddenly, Emilio's hand, which a moment ago was wrapped around his wife's tiny waist, slips lower down her formfitting dress.
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"He's copping a feel!" Gloria exclaims in mock protest, her throaty tone instantly recognizable as the defining voice of the Miami music scene. (Don't miss the exclusive video, below, of AARP's visit to Gloria and Emiliio's home.)
In the mid-1980s, Gloria, now 56, and Emilio, 60, propelled themselves onto the national stage with their Latin crossover band, Miami Sound Machine, for which Gloria sang lead vocals and Emilio played keyboards. They cultivated a Cuban dance beat that sent songs "Conga" and "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" to the top of the charts.
The Estefans' fusion of pop, disco and salsa sold 100 million albums and won Gloria seven Grammy awards. It also paved the way for the crossover explosion of Latin music, mostly through artists that Emilio (who has his own 19 Grammys) brought to the forefront, including Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Shakira.
It all made the Estefans — both Cuban immigrants who arrived in South Florida with next to nothing — rich beyond anyone's wildest imagination. Today their estimated net worth hovers around $700 million, not just from the entertainment business but also from commercial endorsements and shrewd real estate investments.
From Rags to Riches, Literally
Emilio and Gloria Estefan's story of personal and professional reinvention is so extraordinary, in fact, that this year they signed a deal to turn their lives into a Broadway musical.
"I'm so psyched!" Gloria enthuses, sitting in her writing den ("my lair"), where photographs crowd the walls. "There are so many story lines. It's a universal story, it's an immigrant story, and it's a love story. In the United States, if you believe in yourself and you're determined and persevere, you're going to succeed."
To be sure, the Estefans' gated mansion isn't just a testament to affluence. It's a house of love — for each other, for family and for the country the couple says allowed them to become all they are. Gloria insisted they wait to purchase the property until they had the cash in hand: "We've got that immigrant mentality. No mortgages."
"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.
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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."
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."
Still, Gloria so excelled in high school and later at the University of Miami that she was accepted to study international law at the Sorbonne in France.
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."
Must-see video: Top 10 ridiculous 1980s music videos
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.
Tragedy and Recovery
But in 1990, at the Estefans' commercial peak, tragedy struck. The family of three was traveling at night on their tour bus in a snowstorm near Scranton, Pennsylvania, when a speeding semitrailer slammed into them. Gloria, then 32, was thrown across the coach. Hearing the sickening sound of her landing, Emilio, uninjured, rushed to her side as she screamed, "I broke my back!"
Still emotional years later, Emilio remembers the scene. "Everything was so dark," he begins. "'No, no!' I said. Then, 'Where's my kid? Nayib! Nayib!' " Moments later, the 9-year-old — who broke his collarbone in the crash — cried out. Emilio scooped him up and snuggled him next to his mother. "Even with the amount of pain that she was in, she comforted him," he says. "'Everything will be OK, baby. It's just an accident.' She is a very strong woman."
Still emotional years later, Emilio remembers the scene. "Everything was so dark," he begins. " 'No, no!' I said. Then, 'Where's my kid? Nayib! Nayib!' "
Moments later, the 9-year-old — who broke his collarbone in the crash — cried out. Emilio scooped him up and snuggled him next to his mother. "Even with the amount of pain that she was in, she comforted him," he says. " 'Everything will be OK, baby. It's just an accident.' She is a very strong woman."
At the hospital Gloria was hooked up to life support. The doctors told Emilio that she had come within a millimeter of severing her spinal cord and that, if she lived, her days of wearing high heels and dancing were over. Later, at a New York City hospital where she was transferred, a more optimistic team of surgeons inserted two 8-inch-long steel rods to support her spine, and Gloria announced, "I'm going to fight with everything I can to go back to my life."
Today, wearing 4-inch heels, she jokes, "How do you pick up Gloria Estefan?" Pausing for comedic timing, she responds: "With a magnet."
But for the first weeks after the accident, Gloria was helpless, needing someone to turn her, dress her and bathe her. Get-well wishes came from fans worldwide. "I learned firsthand the power of prayer," Gloria says. "People will never realize how much their good thoughts helped me."
A year later, she was on stage.
At the time of the accident, the Estefans had been planning for another child, but due to internal injuries she suffered, Gloria began having trouble conceiving. Finally, after fertility treatments and surgery, she became pregnant, and Emily was born in late 1994. Today, her mother says, "I sit in awe of this little girl."
Now 18, Emily plays drums in a band called the Groove Dogz. (Gloria serves as their roadie.) She begins studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston this fall, and her mother calls her the family's best musician.
Nayib, now 32, writes songs and builds cases for electronic musical instruments. Like his father, who produced a documentary about the history of Cuban music, he's interested in filmmaking and hopes to one day make a movie of his own.
Both kids are proud of how their parents use their celebrity as a platform to help others. For example, in 1997 the couple started the Gloria Estefan Foundation to aid victims of spinal cord injuries and to support economically disadvantaged children. "My parents want to put good out into the world," says Emily, "to spread messages of love and hope."
As the Miami sun begins to set, Gloria and Emilio gather the family at their home.
"Ooh, Sasha!" proud abuela Gloria coos, pulling her 10-month-old grandson from the arms of Nayib, who lives across the street with his wife, Lara Coppola (of the Coppola film family).
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With the dark-haired infant present, his grandparents pause to reflect on their remarkable journey. "Age gives you something that you cannot buy," says Emilio. "It gives you wisdom, balance and peace."
Gloria finds herself feeling liberated in a way she didn't expect. "This is the time in my life when I'm doing everything I want to do, when I want to do it," she says. "It's 'me time.' "
Much of what Gloria wants to do revolves around her civic-leadership role in Miami, where she and Emilio are regarded as not only accessible citizens but good neighbors. When the music business took a downturn 10 years ago and the couple were struggling to support their 3,000 employees, they found jobs for them in their hotels on South Beach and in Vero Beach, and in their restaurants in Miami, Hollywood and Orlando. Currently Gloria is campaigning to restore the Miami Marine Stadium, an engineering marvel that has been closed since 1992. Its architect, Hilario Candela, is from Cuba.
"Our culture, the culture of my parents and grandparents, is going to be wiped off the face of the earth if we don't save it," Gloria says, leaning down to pet one of the family's seven dogs.
She resumes speaking, her voice full of melancholy: "There's something that pulls me to Cuba and its plight, even though I've been here for more than 50 years. That love of a homeland that no longer is the same reaches into every aspect of who I am."
Emilio also feels drawn to call attention to his native culture. He sits on a commission exploring the creation of a national Latino museum in Washington, D.C., and is producing his first feature film, a comedy about acceptance and understanding of cultures and diversity. In addition, he wrote The Rhythm of Success — How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream, and collaborated on the book The Exile Experience: Journey to Freedom.
A paid ambassador for AARP, Emilio has emerged as the go-to guy for corporations seeking to reach the Hispanic market. "I'm doing the biggest things of my life right now," he says.
But, in the end, it's the smallest things that matter. In the couple's entertainment room, Gloria's rendition of "What a Difference a Day Makes" comes on the stereo. It's the first song she ever sang with Emilio's band, when no one could have foreseen how much was in store for these exiled Latin lovers.
"What a difference 30 years makes," Gloria says to her husband. She and Emilio put their arms around each other and finish their dance.
Alanna Nash is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to AARP The Magazine
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