Gloria Estefan: An exclusive look inside the life of a music legend -- in and out of the spotlight
“’Balance’ is the key word in my life.”
By Bonnie Siegler for CATALINA
Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia, better known to music fans all over the world as Gloria Estefan, was born in Cuba in 1957 but moved to Miami as an 18-month-old baby. Dabbling as a singer/songwriter for many years, she later became romantically involved with the Miami Sound Machine’s band leader, Emilio Estefan and the two married in September 1979. The power couple have two children, and, for many, they are the pride and joy of Miami, but Estefan has known many highs and lows in her life.
On March 20, 1990 while traveling to a show in Upstate New York, a tractor trailer slammed into her tour bus with an impact so great that she fractured her vertebrae requiring a complicated surgery and a painful and slow recovery. Estefan has been back on her feet – and then some! – keeping a hectic schedule with the release of her highly-anticipated CD (“The Standards”), overseeing her successful Miami Cuban restaurants, and playing her favorite role – as wife, mother … and grandmother.
CATALINA’s publisher, Cathy Areu, had the pleasure of sitting on a CNN panel with Ms. Estefan and asking her myriad questions between commercial breaks. “She smiled knowing that I was so giddy just sitting next to her,” Areu told me before I met with the star.
Here, I bring you my one-to-one interview with one of music’s best-known “divas,” for your reading pleasure:
Catalina: You are an inspiration to so many artists of all generations, but who inspires you on a regular basis and how?
Estefan: Oh gosh. My first big inspiration was my grandmother. She was an amazing woman and so ahead of her time. She was born in 1905 and in 4th grade, wanted to be a lawyer in Cuba. She got yanked out of school because she had four brothers and sisters and had to go to work. She taught herself. When she came to the U.S. she started her own business and was able to buy her house.
She was always a very spiritual person, very go-getter and a woman way ahead of her time. So she was my very first big influence and continues to be, actually. Emilio and I started the restaurant because that was her dream and she was never able to find somebody that would invest; they would look at this little, old lady and think what does she know? So the restaurant not only promotes our culture through food, kind of like what we do with music, but it also fulfilled her dream.
My kids inspire me and now my grandbaby who is such a joy. Emilio inspires me because the word “no” does not exist in his vocabulary. He gets up every day like he was a kid with that same desire to do something, move on … he’s a motivator and doesn’t see any barriers; he only sees possibilities.
Catalina: Are there any dishes that you serve that pay homage to your grandmother and what she made at home?
Estefan: Certainly. She was an amazing cook and to us, that’s why it’s so important to us to have that food be like home cooking. My favorite food is chicken fricassee, which she made – it’s kind of her recipe that we use, although she never had recipes, and I was in the kitchen with her everyday. Sometimes she’d do a wedding for 800 people, and I was in there helping with tamales and all these things. I wish before she threw the things in, that I would have put them in a measuring cup. Just learning from her, I can make almost anything. I’m a good cook and not that I do because we have a great chef at home and I have no time, but I make the best pancakes and the kids always have me making them.
Catalina: You’re a mother, wife, grandmother, businesswoman, and entertainer, so what are your 3 most important tips for reducing overall stress in your life?
Estefan: Number one is “balance” – key word. You can’t focus on everything at the same time. So be in the moment and don’t stress about anything else because you can’t be in the moment, be fruitful and useful if you’re already thinking and stressing about the next moment. There’s just nothing you can do about it so plan, definitely because you need to be organized.
Emilio and I have always had long range plans, but don’t focus on. Then you take little baby steps towards that plan so that it doesn’t make you crazy. You can only focus on what’s happening immediately in front of you. And if not, and stressing about everything, you can’t enjoy life.
Women, in particular, we want to be mothers and babies take precedent overall. So I also have a list of priorities. My priority has always been my kids. I’ve been able to bring my kids to work with me and I control my work environment; not every woman can do that. And you have to make choices. So have your priorities. “Balance” is the key word in my life.
Catalina: What is a perfect day for you and how often do you get those?
Estefan: A perfect day would be doing absolutely nothing with nobody waiting and me having nothing to do. We have a beach house in Vero Beach, Florida. We’re surrounded by natural preserve and the ocean, so the only energy there is nature energy and the people you want to bring into that environment and share with you. That, to me, is my escape. Anytime I’m there I’m happy and everybody we bring there is happy.
All we do is spend the day between the beach, pool, talking, being with each other – just spending time with family and people who you love – that’s my favorite thing. But I also love going to the movies, I love going to dinner with friends but to me, my perfect day is there on the beach.
Catalina: On your CD, it seems you’ve returned to the standards which, for a lot of us, is within a certain comfort zone of our lives. Why release this album now?
Estefan: I ’ve been thinking of doing this forever because I grew up listening to this music … this is my heart. Even when I was a little kid with my mom’s records of Johnny Mathis, Henry Mancini … I can still remember those album covers like it was yesterday. The orchestral arrangements were such rich music. The lyrics, the melodies, it was a very rich time in American music.
Even in the Cuban world, I learned really old songs to sing on my guitar from my grandma – songs of her time and my mom’s time – the 40s, 50s. It’s not stepping back into this weird zone with these songs.
Thirty years ago when we performed “Conga” on the Johnny Carson Show, the other song that I sang was “Good Morning Heartache” with the piano. The first standard that I sang that we could do a twist to – “What A Difference A Day Makes “—was the first song I sang with the Miami Latin Boys on October 25, 1975, and we hadn’t even changed our name yet. It was my first professional gig with them and of course we did it in disco. So each song was chosen for a reason. And when in the studio, my 18-year-old daughter was there and I sang “Embraceable You” to her – it probably means your significant other but there’s no reason it couldn’t be a parent or child or someone you love.
Catalina: I read where you said once Cuba became a free nation that you’d go back and do a concert …
Estefan: That would be a dream: to sing in a free Cuba? Are you kidding? I’ve sung all over the world to probably every culture except my own. There are Cubans everywhere. I rented a camel from a Cuban in Morocco (laughs) in this ancient city. Although they are very different people now in Cuba than the culture that left – my parents’ culture. Cuba is still very much in my heart – at least the Cuba of my parents because I left when I was 18 months old.
I want them to have the freedom that we enjoy in most of the world. Sometimes when I take a hot shower, I think of Cubans because they don’t even have water, much less hot water. Those little things we take for granted in most of the world and I know, for a fact, the struggles they’re going through on a daily basis just to survive … and this is my history.
Even in Miami I’m considered a Cuban exile. So whenever they write about me, I’m not from Miami, it’s Cuban exile Gloria Estefan. So it’s kind of weird not to have your homeland or access to it. For example, they wanted me to do that show where they go back into a celebrity’s life and they came to pitch me, and I said, “I’ll be happy to do it but I guarantee you that you’re not going to find information because there are no records in Cuba.” Sure enough, they couldn’t do it. I have a huge family in Spain, and they’re still there but that’s just one side. They had no way to trace my father’s family so I couldn’t do the show.
Catalina: How do you think you and your music have influenced generations of other Latin singers?
Estefan: It’s a privilege to have anyone listen to you music. I think we just pushed that door open a little further. Feliciano started it, Santana. Desi Arnaz way back in the 50s. Carlos Gardel. Quincy Jones had all these amazing Cuban players in his band and they were influenced by them. So Latin musicians have been influencing music for a very long time. For us when we came thru in the 80s, we had a mix because that’s who we are culturally – our roots and American music, funk, dance music. To most everyone, Conga was a pop tune and a lot of fun to dance to but Miles Davis, who was a big fan of ours, once told me that he could hear the Afro Cuban complex rhythms in our music. You don’t have to understand music…you just have to get it or it has to move you. Emilio had a band in Cuba when he was eight years old – we have both had music in our lives for a long time and we’re respectful of that privilege.
Catalina: You’ve won many musical rewards but ultimately, how would you like to be remembered?
Estefan: I wrote a song about that called “Remember Me With Love.” I just think if I’m been able to make someone happy, be a part of the soundtrack of their lives, maybe speak for them through a moment in a song that they wanted to tell someone something… the other day I went to a friend’s wedding and they played Conga. Everybody just rushed to the dance floor and it made me so happy. To have done something that makes someone get up off their butt and run onto the dance floor to just let go and have fun – to me, that’s the best.
Catalina: Describe yourself in three words.
Estefan: [laughs] It’s hard for me to pick three words for anything. Happy, fulfilled, mom.