Gloria Estefan on Bringing Latin Music to the World

The pop legend talks about her music, role models, and the future of Latin music

Conga. Dr. Beat. Rhythm is Gonna Get You. Get On Your Feet… and the list goes on. Gloria Estefan, with her husband and music partner Emilio, has had more hit singles than you can count.

Testament to this success, Gloria won the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor in the U.S.) in 2015, and this December she’ll be awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for her contributions to the cultural life of the U.S.; “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”, she says. With Miami Sound Machine, Gloria and Estefan helped bring the sound of their native Cuba to the American mainstream, and projects like We’re All Mexican have led the way in celebrating the contributions of Latinos to U.S. culture. We spoke to Gloria about her influences, the future of Latin music, and what it’s like to make music history.

Gloria and Emilio Estefan, 1990, LIFE Collection

You and Emilio are role models for countless young Latino/as and many of today’s greatest Latin music icons got their start because of you. But who were your heroes when you were growing up?

It’s hard to choose specific people that have influenced you because I think everything you ever listen to influences you in some way. But Celia Cruz, to me, was a great inspiration, as the humble person that she was, and such an amazing performer on stage. Celia stepped on stage, and it’s like the world stood still. I’ve seen her with a sore knee from rehearsing for the Grammys, and then on stage it was like nothing was hurting her. And she was the kindest person I knew, and amazing, so she was a huge influence, both as human and musician. Another one is Cachao, our bassist from Cuba – that maestro – who won Grammys. Andy Garcia and Emilio produced his record. He was the sweetest man who was always telling jokes and had this beautiful smile, with his blue eyes; he was amazing. I think those two represent the biggest influences in my life.

Celia Cruz, 1998, Hispanic Heritage Foundatation

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded you and Emilio the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest civilian honor. What was that like?

This was one of the most emotionally charged awards that we’ve ever received. It was incredibly special because I received it with the love of my life. I don’t think it's been given to a couple before. You know, to be there together, and with this man, who’s the love of my life, who has been by my side through hardships and happiness. My mom was incredibly proud, and my whole family was – it was really special. As immigrants it has always been important to us to promote our culture in the best way possible, and this award was validation that we have contributed positively to the fabric of this great nation.

And that contribution to music, art and culture spans decades. How do you feel that you have helped define what it means to be Latino in the U.S. today?

Having any kind of impact on music is a huge blessing because music is so important to me; music impacted my life in a healing way, and I have a great respect for it. But also, even though we were known worldwide in English, it was important for us to do a record like Mi Tierra [Gloria’s first Spanish-language album] because we thought that it was a good moment where people would be interested in knowing where our sound had come from. It made us feel like we were doing something culturally important for the time, because the sound of the record is so inspired by 1940s Cuba, and it still continues to be listened to and talked about. That’s a really great feeling.

How does that help define what it means to be Latino? I think it helps define what it means to be a human being that’s happy, you know? Being successful in something they love to do with someone they love. And I think it’s a human dream, but also that’s the American Dream, definitely. Of course, for Latinos, that means something extra special in that we came from somewhere else, but were able to live that life and make an impact in this country.

Gloria Estefan, LIFE Collection
Gloria and Emilio Estefan, 1990, LIFE Collection

You have worked with iconic figures in Latin music; musicians who continue to influence music, art, and fashion to this day. Who are some of the most influential figures we should know about?

I’ve been blessed to work with the greats, in both the Latin and the American market. But, of course, the Latin artists are very special to me. They mean so much because they were the people that I looked up to and listened to, even as a small child. We actually made a movie about these inspirational figures, called 90 Millas, which was a tribute to these amazing people. And I got to work with all of them. So, first of all, there’s Celia and Cachao, who I mentioned already. Another, of course, is Santana; we've done quite a few things together and I think he’s amazing. José Feliciano is another; he was on 90 Millas as well, and we had a duet, Tengo que decirte algo, which was so exciting for me to do. Sheila E. is amazing; I’ve worked with her on some projects. The incredible Generoso, Mr Johnny Pacheco–he’s amazing. Then there’s Candido Camero. And, of course, Alejandro Fernandez. My mom was jealous about that one because she really loved him so I played a trick on her in the video–she was laying on a couch made of roses and calling his name and I had him come up and touch her on the shoulder. So these people have been a big part of my life. I feel blessed to have been able to work with them.

Jose Feliciano, 2006, Hispanic Heritage Foundation

Where do you see the future of Latino influence in music and storytelling in mainstream U.S. culture?

I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me what impact Latin music will have in the future. I think it's going to continue to expand, but I don't think it’s going to become just about Latino influences but will just be about different kinds of genres coming together. People are already listening to that, of course, but it’s important for Latinos to continue telling our story, be a presence in the U.S., and put our culture out there.

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