Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson catches up with Gloria Estefan backstage after a performance to talk about the show and her thoughts on U.S. overtures towards Cuba. Her father spent two years as a political prisoner in that country.
Interview Highlights: Gloria Estefan
How many times have you seen the show at this point?
“You know what, I was talking to someone today saying, ‘I wish I would have counted,’ because it's been a ridiculous number. But the good news is it never gets old, and it’s not because it’s us, cause I really don’t sit there going 'oh my God, that’s me on stage,' it’s not that way at all.”
It doesn’t feel like it’s you onstage?
“No, when I look on the stage, I don’t think of it as me. We look at it as a production that we tried to create a wonderful journey and a kind of a roller coaster ride for the audience, and we were really trying to get the best possible show together, so when I sit there I look at the audience, I look at their reactions, I notice the nuances that the actors threw in every time that changes up the show. They never do two exact shows. That’s the beauty of live theater, it changes. The evolution of it has been incredible and it’s very exciting to watch.”
You weren’t necessarily going to be a musician. You got a degree in psychology.
“Yes, I studied psychology and communications majors and a French minor. I studied that because, you know, we’re immigrants and it was very important for my mom to make sure we all had jobs, and even though I sing since I talk, and I would entertain my mom and my grandma, who was my hero, I didn’t like being the center of attention and when she would have me sing for my friends, I would kind of stare at the floor and sing, but I would poor my heart and soul into that but I always felt that I needed a career. When I saw Emilio and met him and right out of high school I joined the band for fun that was the whole idea. It was never gonna turn into a career and slowly and naturally, things grew, we fell in love, we were together, our songs that we started writing he wanted to go to the store and record and so we did that and he got on the radio in Spanish and it took off in Latin America and we were bilingual and everything just grew so naturally and it wasn’t until we had our son already that we made the decision that, alright, we’re going to go for this.”
How did you get over not wanting to be the center of attention?
“You know what, doing it over and over and over and little by little realizing that the only thing people wanted to see was how I felt about music and letting that come out.”
Another incredible thing about your story is how long the two of you have been together.
“Yes, he was my first and only boyfriend. I tell him he got a great deal, especially in the ‘70s, oh my God, the sexual revolution. It was a crazy time. He changed my life, my destiny, my history, but it’s all been good.”
One review of the show said that there wasn’t enough tension between the two of you.
“That’s what Alex Dinelaris said. He told us, ‘you guys are a nightmare to write for because there’s no conflict.’ I go, let me introduce you to my mother, who tortured Emilio for 12 years until that accident happened and she realized that he really loved me for me and that he wasn’t going to run and cut and run and leave me there. But she was afraid, you know, musician dude comes here and takes my daughter away and is he the real deal? So she really – we took it easy on her in the play, let me put it that way.”
When you talk about the accident, you are referring to the 1990 crash that you were involved in. You ended up spending a year doing physical therapy.
“Yes, yes. I was paralyzed in that accident and my doctor thought it was nothing short of miraculous when he saw me back on that stage 20 days shy of a year. That accident, they literally had to get him water and he couldn’t believe it. The last thing he thought he would see was me dancing like that and I purposely did a lot of the choreography that I didn’t even do much of in my shows so that the audience could feel really relaxed and realize, you know, that it was going to be okay. But the prognosis was not that. The prognosis was that I could possibly learn to walk again but they doubted that I could get back on stage and that I’d have another baby, which we ended up having our daughter Emily after that.”
How are you doing now, 26 year later?
“Well I’m still titanium reinforced. I’ve got 8-inch rods in my back and I have to work out a lot to feel my best. When I slough off, I pay, you know, I get a lot of aches and pains. If somebody jumped in my body, they’d probably be in a lot of pain, but I ignore it pretty much. But yeah, I still have to continue the rehab. It’s a never-ending cycle, which is good, you know, it has some good side-effects, to keep fit and healthy. But I’m great, there’s nothing that I really can’t do that I want to.”
Is it true that it was difficult to get DJs to play the song 'Conga?'
“It was. First of all, they told us it was too Latin for the Americans and too American for the Latins. So when they would hear the track, they loved it. They thought it was really cool, but they were not going to take a chance on playing it and we had the best focus group of all. When we wrote that song in Europe, we came back and we played gigs, and we were playing that song on all of our gigs before we even recorded it and people would flood to the dance floor as if they were hearing a hit, so we were completely sure that it would happen. So Jeff Shane, who’s represented in the play, literally called a friend of his in the Midwest and pulled in a favor and said, ‘please just play it once for me.’ The guy played it, and the phones went crazy, people were calling in from insurance companies saying that everyone was doing the conga all around the floor of the office, and that’s the kind of impact that ‘Conga’ would have when it was on the radio and getting played, but it took a year to get to the Top 10.”
Did you ever think of calling the show ‘Conga’ instead of ‘On Your Feet?’
“Well, the reason we didn’t do that was because of Alex’s approach. It’s not just an empowering title, it’s literally how Emilio and I, constantly through our lives, have had to get back up on our feet. Our families had to leave their homeland and start over in a new country. Then we had to talk people into supporting our sound and what we wanted to do and then literally, after that accident, I had to learn how to walk again. So it was just for us the most fitting title and we thought that that’s what we want people to do that may feel a little down then come to check out the show, or besides just entertaining them, maybe make them feel if they gave up some dream, maybe they can still do it.”
What do you think of the new relations with Cuba now?
“You know what, I think it’s time to start chipping away at what’s happening there. For me it’s a very difficult thing because my father spent two years in a Cuban jail and I am probably persona non grata to their government. They call us the Miami Mafia, Emilio and I. Fidel Castro has, out of his own mouth on shows when he was still doing the round table shows, slammed Emilio and I because we have been very vocal against that government, but you know, who wants the same government after 57 years? The people of Cuba deserve a change. While they’re still there, things aren’t getting better for the Cuban people. What is changing though is that the Cuban people are changing. Obama’s visit was incredibly popular. He is incredibly popular, and I saw something happen there that never would have happened. After his visit, a lady that heard Raul Castro say that there were no political prisoners in Cuba, she was so incensed that she went out in the street and started yelling anti-government slogans and words and immediately they came to arrest her and for the first time, the other people, her neighbors, came out to defend her to the point where they couldn’t take her away. And that never would have happened before, so people are getting a lot more vocal and maybe little by little that will eventually change the government as well.”
You have accomplished so much already, you have a Broadway show, received the Presidential Medal of Honor, and you probably still have so much more to go.
“You know what, Barbara Streisand told me that day, she got it that day too, and she said to me, ‘you’re very young to be getting this award.’ I go, maybe I’m younger than you think. But I like the word ‘only’ before the 58, thank you very much for that. Mainly I just try to do what we have done throughout our lives, that yes there’s a section of our lives that we focus very hard on the work because you have to take advantage of the momentum and the moment that you have the music. But In try to spend a lot more time with my family, with my mother, and now we have a grandson, Sasha, and I will choose that over work a lot of the times and I told Emilio when I was young, I’m going to work really hard so that one day I won’t have to work that hard and I can pick and choose what I want to do and I am taking full advantage of that. He cannot let go. He’s a beats for working, he thrives on that. I think he’d die if he had to retire, but I really do very carefully choose what I give my time to because you know, time gets shorter and shorter and it’s a beautiful privilege to be in that position.”
Songs In This Segment
All songs from the cast album of "On Your Feet"
- John DeFaria, Clay Ostwald & Jorge Casas "Get On Your Feet" performed by the "On Your Feet" cast
- Enrique Garcia & Gloria Estefan "1,2,3" performed by the "On Your Feet" cast
- Enrique E. Garcia "Conga" performed by the "On Your Feet Cast"
- Gerald Jackson and Peter Jackson "Turn the Beat Around" performed by the "On Your Feet Cast"
- Gloria Estefan, Cuban-born American singer and songwriter.
This segment aired on April 28, 2016.