Gloria Estefan: ‘The Cuba my children learned about doesn’t exist any more’

Latin legend Gloria Estefan looks back at her earliest musical influences, her 'rollercoaster' success in the mid-80s and a life-altering coach crash...

Being 16 was one of the roughest times in my life because my dad was very ill. He came back from Vietnam with Agent Orange poisoning. We could only afford a nurse while I was in school – so from 14 I took care of him and my sister after school because my mom was working during the day and studying at night. When you are that young, you never think anything is going to change. So I thought I would be trapped forever, looking after my dad. It is not that I didn’t want to do it, but it is a lot of responsibility for a young girl.

Music was my escape. I would lock myself up in my room with my guitar and just play. It was the most lovely part of my life but I played alone. I did not like being centre of attention. That is still part of my nature, but you get used to it. I wore out Tapestry by Carole King and had to buy a few copies of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road because I kept scratching it. I remember sitting in my room reading the liner notes Bernie Taupin wrote about where the inspirations came from. That album really moved me.

My first memory of a song that made my hair stand on end was Ferry Cross The Mersey by Gerry and The Pacemakers. I was with my mom at the laundromat and it came on the radio. I now realise why it spoke to me so much – you can hear maracas and bongos, it was very much in the Latin style. Even The Beatles were really enamoured of Latin music then. We have the microphone used by The Beatles for their first demo, which was Besame Mucho, in our studio. We bought it from the Prince’s Trust – we got it away from Phil Collins!

My mom was the diva of the family. When she walked into a room, you knew it. They tried to take her to Hollywood as a kid after she won a contest held all over Latin America to find the singing double for Shirley Temple. But 20th Century Fox said only one of her parents could go with her. It nipped her career in the bud. Every time my mom’s friends were around, I would hear: “Gloria Maria!” in that sweet tone and think, ‘Oh no, she’s going to make me sing’. And it is hard to sing when everyone in the room is staring at you and crying because they get so emotional. I would sing songs from Cuba.

1973

The year Gloria turns 16

• The UK joins the EEC

• The 700 islands of the Bahamas gain independence from London rule

• Pizza Hut serves its first deep pan in Britain (in Islington)

The first time I saw [husband] Emilio, he was wearing very short shorts and playing an accordion – so it looked like he was naked! Our all-girl school had a brother school and we wanted to put a little band together for our parents. We went to a boy’s house, and his dad, who worked at Bacardi, said there was another guy working there who already had a band called Miami Latin Boys. That was Emilio. I was sitting on the floor, he played some stuff, we played some stuff, he said he liked my voice, I said thank you, he left, that was it. But three months later, my mom asked me to go to a wedding since my dad was ill. I see this boy playing The Hustle on the accordion and the band was so charismatic. He asked me to sing a couple of Cuban standards, and because everyone in the place knew me, I got this standing ovation. He asked me that night to join the band.

Education was so important to my family. It was seen as a way up for us. We were immigrants in a new country – so you want a way you can better yourself. I had a double major in psychology and communications and a minor in French. I then applied to the Sorbonne in France and was going to study international diplomacy, but at the same time I joined the band. Only for fun at that point! I took my mom, grandma and sister to my first rehearsal, and we had a nine-piece band crammed into the teeny-tiny apartment where Emilio lived with his parents.

At one point we would play a 50,000-seat stadium in Latin America then come back and do a wedding for 200 people in Miami,

It was a big step to give up our jobs because health insurance was so important. Our son was in and out of hospital because he had asthma. But what a great opportunity to make a living at what we love. At one point we would play a 50,000-seat stadium in Latin America then come back and do a wedding for 200 people in Miami. Most bands do not cross over – but we were so exciting and had such a different fusion style.

The success in the mid-1980s was literally like being on a rollercoaster. Everything was exploding so quickly. I remember doing 31 shows in a row in 31 cities, on a bus. I was with my husband and my son and my mom came on the road to help look after our son. We were living a dream already. I loved creating the songs – the studio is my happy place still to this day. At a listening party for [breakthrough single] Doctor Beat in Miami, I remember saying I think it is going to get way bigger, but I can’t imagine it getting better because of the magic we were feeling at that moment. I would tell my younger self that life is going to go very fast, so try to pay attention.

Recovering from my accident [Gloria broke her back in a coach crash in 1990] showed me the power of prayer. Knowing what we had been through with my dad, who was in a wheelchair, I found I had a discipline I never imagined I could possess. Every day I would focus on small steps, on tiny victories. The only thing I wanted was to be independent and walk again. I could feel their prayers in that hospital like I was plugged into the wall. An energy you could not believe.

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My mom really put Emilio through his paces – for 12 years! Oh, Lord, it wasn’t until after the accident that she fully realised how supportive he was of me. All these years later, I would tell my younger self to relax, because both of us were afraid to mess up the professional thing by involving the personal relationship. We are proud that now we can share our story through this music in a deeper way than people may have known from listening to our records.

The Cuba my children and grandchildren learned about from my mother doesn’t exist any more. So we have tried to save it for them through keeping our culture alive. When Castro got into power, everything got locked down. Artists were silenced. Music stopped growing because nobody could express themselves how they wanted. We wanted to write new music as if it was taking up where the sound ended in the golden years of Cuba in the 1940s. I am so proud of the way we represent our community.

gettygloria
In the studio as Miami Sound Machine began to grow in popularity. 1980. Image: Getty

Everyone should be able to visit Cuba. But when Pope John Paul II invited me to go to Cuba he understood that I couldn’t go – because it would have turned a spiritual thing into a political thing. He exuded this aura and goodness, but I couldn’t have sat there without saying something and didn’t want to cause trouble. The people of Cuba have gone through such a lot.

The song my younger self would like most is Mi Tierra. After my accident, we decided to focus on things we felt were important to our culture. We won our first Grammy for the Spanish album we did. If there was one album to leave from us, it would be that one. It feels like home and expresses the sentiment of anyone who is away from their country and the nostalgia they feel for things they will never feel again – the smells, the sights, the sounds. It was meant to be a uniting force. No matter where I go, people tell me that song and that album inspires them.

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan opens at the London Coliseum on June 14