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The Good Life

On Their Feet

The inspiring story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan is the American dream come to life
By Mervyn Rothstein | From Jeremy Piven, March/April 2016
On Their Feet
Photo: Art Streiber/August

Emilio Estefan Jr., music producer, songwriter, restaurateur, entrepreneur and Broadway producer, is having lunch at Larios on the Beach on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. The restaurant has top-of-the-line Cuban food and is one of seven he and his spouse, the celebrated Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, own in South Florida. The 62-year-old is dressed in a black crewneck sweater, black pants and sneakers; he sports a salt-and-pepper goatee, and a sparse head of similarly colored hair. And he is one of the nicest multimillionaires you'd ever want to meet.

Forbes magazine estimates the couple's combined net worth at between $500 million and $700 million, but Emilio refers to himself as "this Cuban refugee guy" who used to play the accordion for tips. He is marveling at how far he has come, evident in a card that came in the recent batch of mail—an invitation from the White House to attend the Christmas party.

As he takes a taste of tres leches cake, he wants to be clear that his success "is not a Latino story. It's not a Cuban story. It's an American story. It's about dreams. It's about people. It's about immigrants coming to a new place." An important distinction, he notes, because of all the recent debate about immigrants in the United States. Last year, in response to what he dubbed "a lot of negativity about Hispanics," he made an all-star video with Carlos Santana, Pitbull, Eva Longoria, Rita Moreno, Whoopi Goldberg and others, called "We're All Mexican."

He is only Mexican symbolically. He is very much, quintessentially, Cuban-American. And the tale of his life, from his arrival in Miami at age 15, and that of his wife, who came at age 2, is running on Broadway, on a stage nearly 1,300 miles north at the Marquis Theatre. On Your Feet! is the song-and-dance-filled saga of these two champions of Latin music, and it opened last fall. The public is loving it. The musical—directed by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell, with choreography by Sergio Trujillo and a book by Alexander Dinelaris—is taking in more than $1 million a week. The critics love it as well, calling it "infectiously fun," "exhilarating," and "inspiring."

"We always hoped the show would have this type of response," says Gloria Estefan. "But you always take a risk anytime you do anything artistic. What we wanted the show to do was what I've seen in the last 30 years our music has been able to do throughout the world—to unite. To make us feel we are more the same than different."

The musical stars newcomer Ana Villafañe as Gloria and a young Broadway veteran, Josh Segarra, as Emilio. It shows the couple's serendipitous meeting as young Cuban immigrants in Miami—he an accordionist and leader of a small band that played at weddings and bar mitzvahs, she a teenager who loved to sing. And it continues through the terrible bus accident that broke her back and her arduous year of painful and ultimately inspiring and complete recovery.

Most of all, it is in the tradition of the best jukebox musicals, like Jersey Boys about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons or Beautiful about Carole King, with a well-written and effective story and some of the most memorable and entertaining popular music. The On Your Feet! cast of 30 moves rhythmically, hips swiveling, to the throbbing, exciting Latin beat, the Estefans' singular Afro-Cuban sound triumphant.

Eight times a week, for the show's two and a half hours, an audience of up to 1,600 people silently or quietly sings along to their favorite tunes. And at the first-act climax, as the sound of "Conga," Gloria's first major hit, pulsates through the theater, the cast jumps into the aisles, performers coaxing audience members to get up and dance and join the swivel-fest.

The costumes are replete with the sequins and pastels and the bright colors of Miami, where much of the show is set. The choreography bounces to the salsa beat. The show, with its largely Hispanic cast, is part of what has become an increasingly diverse year on Broadway. "We're changing the Broadway demographic a little bit," Emilio says. "Our show is helping to bring new people to Broadway. And we're so proud of that."

Emilio says he was approached by the theater-owning Nederlander Organization (which operates the Marquis) as long as 25 years ago about doing a Latino show, but he thought the timing wasn't right. Years later, he finally decided that the project would work, so long as he maintained control over his tale. "Sometimes they want to change the story to make it more commercial. I wanted this to be honest. I want to tell the truth so people can see the American dream. One of the dancers in the show said to me, ‘This is our story.' I think it truly resonated with all of them."

The musical opened last June in Chicago, where it was a success, and then headed for New York. "People are surprised," Emilio says. "They go in expecting to see a revue, with all the hits, and they find the show has such a strong message."

Emilio Estefan has won 19 Grammys. In addition to albums and recordings with his wife, he has produced for Jon Secada, Ricky Martin, Celia Cruz and Marc Anthony; he has helped create and produced the Latin Grammy Awards; he was president of artistic development for Sony Music; he has won the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters' Hall of Fame and the BMI Songwriter of the Year Award; he has produced and directed music videos and documentary films; worked in television and movies; he has produced music for the Super Bowl halftime show; and he has produced many entertainment events at the White House, for several presidents.

In addition to the restaurants, he and Gloria own two South Florida hotels. The first of their new Estefan Kitchen Express restaurants opens in March at Miami International Airport. Their Estefan Enterprises company employs nearly 2,000 people. Their Crescent Moon studios is the birthplace of many hits. In 2002, Emilio was appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. And Emilio has been a best-selling author (via his 2010 autobiography, The Rhythm of Success—How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream). He is also a spokesman for Botran rum. Last November, he and Gloria were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, both have won the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and their Gloria Estefan Foundation benefits many charities.

Gloria, who is 58, has won seven Grammys and sold more than 100 million records, with multiple awards. The artist behind "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" and "Get on Your Feet," as well as her 1985 breakthrough song, "Conga," has performed for seven presidents, two popes, and given concerts all over the world.

Emilio was born in Havana and learned to play the accordion at a very early age. At 14, in 1967, he decided to leave Castro's Cuba for "a better life" and to be saved from a long stint in the military. "I am always thankful that we live in an incredible country, and more than anything else, we don't take freedom for granted."

His mother was from Spain, allowing him to get a Spanish visa. He and his father flew to Madrid hoping for U.S. visas. His mother decided to stay in Cuba. "It's drastic when you leave your family in Cuba knowing you will probably never see them again. And except for my mother, I didn't see them again," he says. "When I got into the plane I cried the whole night, from Havana to Madrid. I remember coming out and holding my dad and saying, ‘Dad, did I do the right thing?' And he said I had."

He speaks of a scene in the play where his grandfather reaches out to him and says "touch me," because he knew he would never see him again. "Every time I see the show and see that scene I cry," he says. "I try to hold it in but I can't, because all the memories touch me."

While his family was "well-off, but not rich," the wealth stayed behind. "When you left Cuba you left with what you had on you—you were not allowed to take anything—no jewelry, nothing, just whatever you were wearing."

He and his father thought they would get visas quickly, but it took a year, during which they were poor and nearly homeless. "I used to have to go to a church for food. I saw a restaurant where a guy played the accordion. I used to sit outside and listen to him. So I asked my dad, do you mind if I ask this restaurant to let me play—because I wanted to play music, it was a healing thing for me." He told the restaurant that he was from Cuba and offered to play. Payment would be in food for himself and his father. He performed at lunchtime.

Finally, he arrived in Miami. His aunt and uncle had a house there, and although they didn't have children of their own they shared their home with 14 youngsters who had escaped from Cuba. "I convinced my uncle, without my aunt knowing, to buy me an accordion," Emilio says. "I think it cost $177." When he brought it home, his aunt was not amused, wondering how he would justify the price. "I went to an Italian restaurant and applied there to play for tips. The minute somebody gave me five bucks I used to go to the 7-11 next door to buy a sandwich, eat something quick and go back to work."

In Havana, Emilio had gone to school with members of the Bacardi Rum family, so he went and applied in Miami for a job with the company. He also had to go to night school. "So I used to work at Bacardi, go to night school and after 9 o'clock I would go to the Italian restaurant.

"I used to play a lot of traditional Cuban music, and the Bacardi family were really nostalgic about their music. So it was one of the family's 60th wedding anniversary, and they asked me to come with a conga player or something so we can dance. I went to their house, and when I played the Cuban music it was the hardest thing for them, because they were missing their Cuba. They gave me a big tip, and from that day they started calling me for parties. And that's when the Miami Latin Boys, my band, became popular and famous in Miami."

Gloria and her family had moved to Miami from Cuba in 1960, when she was 2, after Fidel Castro had taken power. Her father had been a soldier and a bodyguard for dictator Fulgencio Batista's wife. He took part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and was imprisoned by Castro for two years. He served in Vietnam and later was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, blamed on his exposure to the warfare herbicide Agent Orange.

Gloria's mother worked and went to school at night—"my mother had a Ph.D. in education from Cuba," Gloria says, "but when she went to the airport to leave, they tore up her diploma, telling her she was not going to take her credentials with her, so she had to revalidate her teaching credentials here." So after her own school day, Gloria took care of her dad, as well as her younger sister.

While she dreamt of being a psychologist, music was "always my first love," says Gloria. "I sang since I talked, but being from an immigrant family it really wasn't the kind of thing you risked. You needed to have a solid educational base and a solid career in order to make your way."

Her grandmother encouraged her to sing at small events, but she demurred. "I would say grandma, there's no way, I'm shy, it isn't me. And she would always tell me, this is your gift, this is what you're meant to do on this Earth, and it's going to fall in your lap and I hope you realize and accept it the day that it happens because you're not going to be happy unless you do so. She was pretty prophetic."

Gloria met Emilio in 1975, when she was 17. "I went to an all-girl Catholic high school and we used to play guitar at the folk classes, and sometimes the boys would join us," she says. "I became good friends with a guy named Raphael who played guitar and sang. Raphael wanted to get a band together for one night to play at a religious encounter center." Her friend's father worked at Bacardi, and he told her he would bring over a guy who had a band to give them some pointers. "So Emilio showed up in these very short shorts," says Gloria, "and with his accordion."

Emilio was taken with Gloria's sound. "She had a beautiful voice, warm and really shining. But I noticed that she looked down most of the time. She looked sort of depressed. I didn't know, but I guess it was because of her father. And I said hello, you have a beautiful voice, and then I left."

Three months later, he saw her again, while playing at a wedding in Hialeah, Florida. "I said, ‘Are you the girl that I saw?' And she said yes, and I asked her to sing two songs with us. Because she grew up with her grandmother, she knew all the old Cuban standards. And people went crazy. I asked her to play with the band."

"I was dragged to this wedding by my mom," Gloria says. "It was one of my dad's Army buddies. She kind of guilted me into it because my dad was very ill already. I tried to get out of it but she really talked me into going. And when I walked in to the party there was Emilio playing ‘Do the Hustle' on the accordion with his band."

After she sang, he asked her to join the band. She said no. She was in school and working two jobs. "He tracked me down," she says. "He asked me to come to his apartment to sing. I showed up with my mom and my sister and my grandma." Emilio asked her to join again. "I knew that my mom was not going to be happy about it," she says, "but I finally stood up to her. And my grandma said, ‘This is what I told you would happen. You're about to turn 18 years old, and this needs to be your decision. I told my mom I wasn't going to quit school, but I really wanted to do this, and of course she wasn't happy, but there was nothing much she could do."

That was the end of the Miami Latin Boys, and the birth of Miami Sound Machine. Gloria sang. Emilio led and would also play conga drums. He stopped performing with the band in the mid-1980s.

Emilio and Gloria had a long fight—covered in On Your Feet!—to persuade record executives to market their sound not only in the Latin market, where they had attained success, but in the mainstream. "They told me we had to change our last name," Emilio recalls. "That's when I got pissed. I said I would never change it. That's my grandfather's and father's name. I have to respect that."

Early in the play, when a recording executive insists on restricting the Estefans to the Latin market, Emilio says, "You should look very closely at my face, because ... this is what an American looks like." The audience applauds and cheers, in an explicit indication of the changing demographics of the American population.

In March 1990, at the height of their success, Gloria and Emilio were involved in a bus-tour accident near Scranton, Pennsylvania, that threatened her life and her career and almost left her paralyzed. (Emilio was slightly injured.) A truck crashed into the band's bus.

"I had had this bad feeling," Gloria says, "that something terrible was about to happen. I was very nervous. We had just met President [George H. W.] Bush [about taking part in the war on drugs]. And when I opened my eyes when the bus stopped—I was taking a nap in the front of the bus to try to refresh for the show—it was like an explosion, and the first thing that went through my mind was oh my God, they put a bomb on the bus."

It was "mayhem. Emilio was standing over me bleeding. My son [Nayib, 9 years old at the time] had been in the back of the bus with his tutor. I kept calling his name because I wasn't hearing him at all. I was on the floor of the bus; I told Emilio, I think I broke my back because I couldn't stand up."

Gloria finally heard her son's voice. "My soul came back into my body," she says. "I really didn't care that I couldn't get up. I was just so worried about him. I couldn't see at that moment that he'd broken his clavicle. He wasn't even complaining. He just kept on saying, ‘Mommy, why can't you get up?' I tried to calm him down. I said, ‘Sit down, hold my hand, it's going to be OK.' "

She was in "excruciating pain, which actually gave me a lot of hope. Because having had my dad in a wheelchair, I was very clear that if I was feeling pain I knew that the cord hadn't been severed. But I knew I'd broken my back. I had no doubt. But my job as a mom was to keep my son from going into shock."

Emilio fainted when he heard how bad Gloria was injured. "I thought she would never walk again," he says. "I was touching her hand and saying, ‘I'm here.' She was lying down on a board and with a collar on her neck. She told me she was going to be OK. She said the doctor told her she had broken her back but she was going to be OK. I think she was a lot stronger than me, to tell the truth."

Gloria was flown to New York City, where doctors used titanium rods to realign her spine. After a year of intense physical therapy, she returned triumphantly at the 1991 American Music Awards.

"Gloria worked so hard to get back on stage," Emilio says. "It was amazing. She wanted to be able to walk because she thought of her dad and her experience with him, and she didn't want that for me. The first day Gloria dressed herself, she was crying. She was so happy about being able to do that."

"Laying on the floor of that bus," Gloria recalls, "I thought maybe this is the whole point of my fame. Because I really couldn't understand how come, not ever wanting it, I had achieved all this amazing fame, and I thought maybe I'm meant to go through this in public so people can see—everybody goes through difficult things in life, it's just a matter of how you deal with it, how you handle these challenges, that makes a difference in your outcome."

Other than wanting to walk and be independent for her family, she says, "because I'd lived that experience with my dad, I thought maybe this is a good opportunity for me to transcend the pop-star role or the musician role and have a more human impact."

Emilio considers one of his crowning achievements to be the creation of the Latin Grammy Awards. "The first Grammy I got was not on the telecast," he says. "And when I got the Grammy they didn't give me the statue. They gave a diploma. I thought this was unacceptable. So I went to Mike Greene [C. Michael Greene, then head of the National Academy of Recording Artists] and said I don't think this is fair. If we win a Grammy, we should get the statue."

Emilio also thought there should be a separate Latin awards show instead of just a category. But Greene "said that's going to be impossible, Emilio, to create a Latin Grammy. I said, will you work with me to make it happen? We went to Les Moonves (Leslie Moonves, then a major CBS executive, now executive chairman of CBS] to talk with him. It took us 14 years to create it, but we did it." The first Latin Grammy show was on CBS in 2000; No. 16 was telecast last November.

These days, the Estefans live in Miami, on Star Island, on the waterfront of the Intracoastal Waterway, with many glorious palm trees as neighbors. They have a two-story, four-bedroom house, with an adjacent seven-bedroom, 8,000-square-foot space in which they mostly entertain. Nayib, now 35, has given them a grandson, Sasha, 3. They also have a 21-year-old daughter, Emily, who is starting her own singing career. "When Gloria came out of surgery they said they didn't think she would be able to have more babies," Emilio says. "That's one reason Emily is so special."

For Emilio, a typical day involves getting up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and having a cup of Cuban coffee. He rides his bike and feeds about "200 birds—they recognize me when I am coming on my bike." Much of the early part of the day involves messages, e-mails and meetings for Estefan Enterprises. And then in the afternoon, after lunch, he goes to Crescent Moon. This day at the studio he will spend more than an hour refining one track of the original cast album of On Your Feet! then work with an arranger, "probably until midnight," writing a new song for Usher, who is due at the studio the next week to record a new album.

Emilio and Gloria's catalog of accomplishments is huge, but there is one thing they both would still like to do: "sing in a free Cuba," Gloria says.

"I would like to play in a free Cuba before I die," Emilio says. "I would never go until we have free elections and new leaders. It can be a small concert, nothing big. To perform in my homeland. Miami is my home. I've lived most of my life here. I came when I was 15 and I'm almost 63. But I want to play in a place that is always a part of me."

Mervyn Rothstein is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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