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By Jen Rose Smith
D.C. On Your Feet! Gloria Estefan goes from the conga line to the history books.
Wielding a rose-printed gown and a youthful shimmy, Gloria Estefan danced across the stage and into history at D.C.’s DAR Constitution Hall in March 2019. That night, Estefan and her husband Emilio jointly accepted the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, becoming the first Latino musicians to win the exclusive award. Her signature curls tamed into a chic ponytail for the occasion, the 61-year-old, Cuban-born artist then performed alongside daughter Emily Estefan and a lineup of music legends including Patti LaBelle, Jose Feliciano, and Cyndi Lauper.
It was a fitting tribute to a career that’s spanned genres, cultures, and decades. “This show is a reflection,” Estefan said from the stage where she stood alongside Emilio, “of so many different people like us who have moved here to make a better life, who love our country deeply and are proud to be Americans.”
The coup acknowledges the Estefans’ place on a very short list of America’s most beloved musicians, along with pioneering music-makers and fellow prize-winners Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson. “To be receiving this amazing popular song prize from the Library of Congress is beyond our wildest dreams,” said Gloria Estefan in a red carpet interview with WTOP.
During their trip to D.C., Gloria and Emilio Estefan also visited the Library of Congress to see the exhibit Here to Stay: The Legacy of George and Ira Gershwin and pay tribute to the duo who inspired the award. It proved to be a moving experience for the couple, who shared their mutual admiration for the legendarily gifted brothers.
“From the moment I started singing, I was drawn to the iconic songs of the immensely talented Gershwin brothers and have had the privilege to record several of them,” said Gloria, who browsed some of the collection’s lyric sheets, librettos, and sheet music. “As a songwriter, it’s probably the highest honor you can get,” said Emilio in conversation with Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. “It’s an incredible award because it was so difficult for us in the beginning, coming to America,” he added. “They opened the doors to us in such an incredible way.”
When the Estefans return home to Miami, they’ll have to make room for their newest trophy on a crowded award shelf, because their work has racked up accolades from many of music’s most prestigious gatekeepers. Since hitting the Top 10 while fronting Miami Sound Machine in 1985, Gloria Estefan has sent three songs to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart, winning three Grammys, four Latin Grammys, the BMI President’s Award, and a coveted place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame along the way.
It’s a collection that takes even Gloria by surprise, as she admitted in a recent conversation on her YouTube channel with daughter Emily, who is also a musician. “It’s in those rare moments when I’m actually watching one of those videos they put together before I do a speech,” said the elder Estefan. “That’s when it really hits me, all the stuff we’ve done.”
Accepting so many accolades has kept the Estefan family jetting into the nation’s capital often. (Gloria has even been spotted posing with the Turkey in the Terminal at Reagan National.) In 2015, Gloria and Emilio Estefan came to D.C. to receive America’s highest civilian honor, when President Barack Obama awarded the couple the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Recounting their chart-topping record sales, the then-president noted the hurdles facing any artist hoping to touch audiences in two languages. “Some worried they were too American for Latins and too Latin for Americans,” said Obama before presenting the gleaming medals. “Turns out everyone just wanted to dance and do the conga.”
More recently, Gloria Estefan returned to D.C. to host the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors, presenting awards to Cher, Wayne Shorter, Reba McEntire, Philip Glass, and the co-creators of the musical Hamilton — Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler, and Alex Lacamoire.
That same year, D.C. residents packed seats for a toe-tapping crash course on Gloria Estefan’s life when the biographical musical On Your Feet! arrived at the Kennedy Center in January. It was an enthusiastic reception. “People who claim they aren’t happier when they leave “On Your Feet!” than when they arrived,” wrote Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks, “aren’t adequately in touch with their feelings.”
The Tony Award-nominated show follows the musical duo through their early lives in Miami, a whirlwind romance, and boundary-breaking careers — and it doesn’t look away from the many challenges they’ve faced along the way.
Born in Havana to a Cuban family with musical roots, Gloria arrived in Miami as a toddler in 1960; locked away in a safe inside her Miami home are a Cuban passport and a round-trip Pan Am ticket — bittersweet mementos that prove the family hoped to return to the island when better days arrived.
Even after decades in the United States, where she has deep roots in a city that’s embraced her as a hometown hero, Estefan is pained by Cuba’s lack of political freedoms, and she still hasn’t returned to the country. “It kills me that, as a Cuban exile, I can enjoy anything I want in Cuba, and Cuban citizens can’t,” Estefan said in a 2017 interview with the Washington Post. “I don’t want to go and have to shut up, or say something and have to go to jail.”
Life in Miami could be hard, too. “When I moved to Miami, my mom and I were on our own because my dad was a political prisoner in Cuba,” Estefan recounted from the stage at the Women Leaders of the Americas Forum earlier this year. Her father would go on to serve in the Vietnam War (and later suffer debilitating health issues as a result of exposure to Agent Orange) and an early number in On Your Feet! depicts a young Gloria recording a song for her absent parent while strumming a guitar:
Cuando salí de Cuba
Dejé mi vida, dejé mi amor
Cuando salí de Cuba
Dejé enterrado mi corazón
When I left Cuba
I left behind my life, I left behind my love
When I left Cuba
I left my heart buried there
Singing became a refuge for Gloria. “It was my release from everything, my escape,” she said to Rolling Stone in a 1990 interview. “I’d lock myself up in my room with my guitar. I wouldn’t cry. I was afraid that if I let go just a little bit, it would all go. I would sing for hours by myself… It was my way of crying.” Her mother and grandmother’s strength would also prove formative for a young girl finding her way. “My first experience of womanhood was watching women in my household doing it all,” said Estefan at the Women Leaders of the Americas Forum. “I learned from example.”
Her maternal grandmother, Consuela, was a special inspiration. “She raised me. She was my hero,” said Estefan in a 2019 conversation with The Palm Beach Post. After arriving in Miami at age 56 — and without knowing a word of English — Consuela started an informal Cuban street food business that would support the family through hard times. Consuela’s kitchen became a gathering place for the Cuban community, and Gloria’s grandmother encouraged the young girl to show off her beautiful voice. “She would make me sing for them,” said Estefan to the Post. “I would say ‘Abuela, I’m too shy. I love to sing, but I’m too shy.’ She would say, ‘You have a gift. You have to share that gift or you won’t be happy.’”
Decades after her first number one hit, Gloria Estefan is paying that support forward by helping up-and-coming Latino musicians following in her footsteps. In June, Gloria and Emilio Estefan joined the Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation to award a $200,000 scholarship to 17-year-old Spanish pianist Sergio de Miguel Jorquera, a gift that will fund him through all four years at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
Estefan’s avid support of arts education guides the work of the Gloria Estefan Foundation, whose projects have included sending the entire South Florida Youth Orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall in 2018. Speaking to an audience of young women at the Maurice Gusman Concert Hall earlier this year, Estefan doled out advice to her ambitious fans. “Find something that you’re passionate about,” she said. “Success is not something that is easy. It really takes a lot of hard work. You have to believe in yourself and forget about negativity.”
The music world the next generation of Latin artists face has been transformed in the years since a young Gloria Estefan made national headlines fronting the Miami Sound Machine. While it’s hard to recall in a modern era when the pop charts are infused with Spanish samples and cumbia-inspired beats, a bright line once separated Latin sounds from mainstream, English-speaking music radio in the United States.
“The Estefans created the opportunity for pop music with Latin rhythms to have a permanent spot on the American musical landscape,” said former Billboard Latin American-Caribbean bureau chief, John Lannert, to AARP in 2013. With Gloria Estefan’s contralto setting the mood, Miami Sound Machine kicked open the door in 1985 with the song “Conga,” which wriggled its way onto dance floors around the world. (Its legacy can still be felt at weddings, when guests who can’t tap out a meringue rhythm kick up their heels to a routine with blessedly few rules.)
For that song, Gloria decided to sing in English, a choice that would help define her career. To this day, she touts the way music can bridge divides. “We really tried to keep our Cuban culture, our Latin culture, alive in our music,” she said during the recent celebrations for the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. “If I had to leave only one thing behind, it’s the fact that we are this cultural blend, which really represents the greatness of this culture.”
That willingness to weave genres together sometimes brought criticism, but Estefan is prepared to defend the value of her own approach. “At first everyone said it was watered-down salsa,” she said to the Los Angeles Times in a 1990 interview. “But it’s more, not less. We have other options that other people don’t try, and I happen to be proud we’ve been able to bring it to them in this form.” It’s proved a powerful blend, and one that’s rocketed Estefan’s music to the top of the charts again and again.
After sending conga lines across the globe, Gloria’s husky croon launched the romantic song “Words Get in the Way” to No. 5. In 1993, the Grammy-winning, Spanish-language album Mi Tierra paid tribute to her Cuban roots with sounds pulled from the island’s traditional bolero, son, and danzan sounds. She joined “Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz for the 2000 single “Tres Gotas de Agua Bendita,” then worked with producer Pharrell Williams to craft 2011’s super-danceable hit “Wepa.”
Due out later in 2019 is a continent-hopping album of her own songs reinterpreted with Brazilian beats and instruments. “I am so excited about this project,” Estefan said to Billboard last year. “We’ve taken our top hits and gone to Brazil and re-recorded them in completely Brazilian rhythms — some well-known, some not well-known,” she explained. “We’ve been really meticulous in making sure we celebrate the music of Brazil in the right way.”
In coming years, Gloria sees even more cultural blending for Latin music, as a young generation of artists enters a scene she helped to pioneer. “I don’t think it’s going to become just about Latino influences but will just be about different kinds of genres coming together,” she once said to Google Arts & Culture. “It’s important for Latinos to continue telling our story, be a presence in the U.S., and put our culture out there.”