2017 Honoree Spotlight: Gloria Estefan

Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine brought a Latin-infused sound to the American mainstream.

Born in Havana, Gloria Estefan fled with her parents to Miami shortly after the Cuban Revolution. Her father was a Cuban soldier prior to the Castro regime taking power and was jailed for his participation in the Bay of Pigs Invasion before joining the US military and serving in Vietnam.

She and her family grew up believing that their return to Cuba was inevitable but also with an immigrant mindset to work hard and achieve the American dream.

“I studied psychology and communications majors and a French minor,” Estefan said in a 2016 interview. “I studied that because, you know, we’re immigrants and it was very important for my mom to make sure we all had jobs.”

Graduating from the University of Miami, Estefan worked as a translator for the Customs Department of Miami International Airport. She had a talent for music, meeting her long-time husband Emilio Estefan who encouraged her to join the band that would become Miami Sound Machine for fun. She recalls being asked by her grandmother and mother to sing for friends when she was young, but being in the spotlight didn’t come naturally for a performer who would go on to sell 100 million records.

“I didn’t like being the center of attention and when [my grandma] would have me sing for my friends, I would kind of stare at the floor and sing, but I would pour my heart and soul into that but I always felt that I needed a career,” Estefan said.

Estefan grew as a performer with Miami Sound Machine. The band released its first album in 1977 and built a growing audience with its Spanish-language music, particularly in Latin America. Success in the US, though, proved more difficult.

“We were famous there, but we were not famous here,” Estefan told the Washington Post. “Doing stadiums in Latin America, sometimes 25,000 people or 50,000. Then we’d come back to Miami and do a wedding for 200.”

In the 1980s, the band began recording increasingly in English, won radio DJs over, and had massive success with songs like “Words Get in the Way,” “Anything for You,” “1–2–3,” “Bad Boy,” and “Conga!” — all of which reached top 10 on the US charts.

As Rolling Stone’s Daisann McLane wrote, “Miami Sound Machine was always more than just another pop band; it became a symbol of the new bilingual, multicultural Miami, and of the aspirations of its huge Cuban community. This is a story of immigrants who reached for the American dream — and of what happened when it came true.” Doug Adrianson of the Miami Herald summed up their importance to south Florida by asking “How many rock bands do you know of who get awards from the local chamber of commerce?”

In 1989, Estefan became credited as a solo artist and released the widely popular album Cuts Both Ways. While touring in support of that album a year later, Estefan’s bus was hit by a semi-truck during a snowstorm. Estefan was nearly paralyzed, fracturing and dislocating vertebrae in her spine. She went through a four-hour operation as surgeons implanted two eight-inch titanium rods in her back.

Estefan spent the better part of a year going through extensive rehab, but she returned to the stage triumphantly, performing “Coming Out of the Dark” from her new album Into the Light at the 1991 American Music Awards to a standing ovation. She would go onto record many more albums, write two children’s book, make several film and television appearances, and in 2015 a Broadway musical called On Your Feet! Premiered about the life of Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

Estefan has won seven Grammy Awards, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, an MTV Video Award, and is on VH1 and Billboard’s list of 100 greatest artists of all time. After being announced as a 2017 Kennedy Center Honoree, Estefan said, “Little did I imagine when my parents brought me as a toddler to the United States from Cuba, in order to be able to raise me in freedom, that I would be receiving one of this nation’s greatest honors.”

2017 Kennedy Center Honoree Spotlight:

Carmen de Lavallade
Lionel Richie
LL Cool J
Norman Lear