MIAMI — Her father was working on a farm in Cuba somewhere. That was the story that Big Gloria, a towering 4-foot-11 — she fibbed about that, too — told her daughter.
Glorita knew better. Her father, a cop who had served in Cuban first lady Marta Batista's motorcade and later joined a CIA-backed brigade of island exiles, was in prison, captured by Cuban forces after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
"My mother was trying to protect me," says singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, 60, a member of this year's class of Kennedy Center Honors recipients. We're talking at her sumptuous Miami island estate, swelling with Picassos and Boteros and a kennel's worth of rescue dogs, the Intercoastal Waterway lapping at its edge. "But I knew what was going on."
Her family, like many Cubans, believed that their sojourn in Miami would be fleeting. Any day they would all be reunited in Havana after Fidel Castro's revolution crumbled.
"I still have my Cuban baby passport, my round-trip Pan Am ticket, in the safe," says Estefan, who has a way of making visitors feel at home, even when home is a palace swarming with staff. "Who knew what was going to happen to us? There were so many possibilities, so many things that could unfold."
What unfolded was this: Estefan stayed in the United States and went on to sell 100 million albums and amass seven Grammys. Her band, the Miami Sound Machine, became the exporter of a propulsive Cuban-infused rhythmic pop, a 1980s hit factory, many of the songs co-written by Estefan: "Rhythm is Gonna Get You," and "Conga." She became a titan of Latin music, a godmother to younger performers, an emissary of the Cuban American dream, beloved.
Her childhood had presaged no such glory. Her father, who had been jailed for three months after Castro took power, eventually brought his family to Miami in May 1960. He joined the CIA brigade and spent two years as a political prisoner, ultimately released through an exchange program initiated by President John F. Kennedy. He later enlisted in the U.S. Army, served in Vietnam and returned an invalid, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a wretched 13-year slog until his death in 1980.
"When I met her, there was a lot of sad in her face," says Emilio Estefan, Gloria's first and only boyfriend, and her husband of nearly 40 years, who left Cuba in 1967 at age 14. "I made sure she became a happy person."
Few artists are as yoked to one place as the Estefans, who have lived only in South Florida since arriving from Cuba. "It's as close as we can be to our roots, and still live in this magnificent country with its freedom and its beauty," says Estefan, who's wearing a clingy black dress on her tiny frame, and vertiginous Prada suede pumps.
The couple lives on a city island compound rivaling any resort. They are, to employ a favored Estefan term, beasts at business: They own hotels, restaurants, a recording studio, a publishing company, real estate, a minority partnership in the Miami Dolphins.
"They're like Miami royalty," says Rebecca Fajardo Cabrera, Estefan's younger sister. "You can't have dinner at a restaurant with them without 40 interruptions."
Their estimated wealth is between $500 and $700 million.
"Emilio is the idea guy. He sees the big picture, he's the dreamer. I zero in on details. He hates finances. I love that," Gloria says, gesturing across the bay to property they own. "We love real estate. We love tangibles. We have an immigrant mentality."
She views herself as an immigrant, an exile, though she has lived in the United States all but her first two years.
She was born Gloria María Milagrosa Fajardo García Montaño y Pérez in Havana in 1957. ("Got rid of Milagrosa — the miraculous one — too much pressure," she says.) Cuba, a place she won't visit, defines her. She is the first Cuban American and seventh Latin artist to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. Two years ago, both Estefans received the Medal of Freedom.
She attended the University of Miami while performing nights and weekends, and considered a career in law or psychology. Then the music thing worked out.
In her early 20s, with Emilio and the Miami Sound Machine, she first conquered South America with original Spanish-language songs. In South Florida, meanwhile, they worked the bar mitzvah-and-quinceañera circuit, begging to get local radio airplay.
"We were famous there, but we were not famous here," she says. "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."
Finally, success. Recording in English made the difference. Estefan became the Latin pop princess of the '80s. Top of the world. A son, Nayib, born in 1980. (Daughter Emily arrived 13 years later.) And then, the accident.
A reason to get back onstage
Estefan considers the 1990 crash, when she was 32 and her tour bus was rear-ended by a semi near Scranton, Pa., her crucible. The accident is a constant in conversation, in her bio. She was nearly paralyzed and required seven hours of daily rehab for nine months.
"Maybe this is the only reason I became famous, because right now everyone is watching," she recalls thinking at the time. "Maybe I need to be an example. It became my reason to get back onstage." By this time, she was a solo artist — the Miami Sound Machine disbanded in 1989 — recording hit albums in English and Spanish.
The Estefan bio musical "On Your Feet!", which played Broadway for two years and is now touring nationally and in Europe (it comes to the Kennedy Center in January), may be the only play that features a bus accident as the dramatic turning point.
Estefan's life does not otherwise lend itself easily to theater. She and Emilio "are very well respected. There's never been a scandal or rumor or a bad thing attached to them," Rebecca says. Oscar-winning writer Alexander Dinelaris ("Birdman"), charged with transforming the couple's life into a winning script, told them: "You've been happily married for 35 years. You have two healthy kids. You're a writer's nightmare."
But her father's extraordinary story — a Cuban and American patriot who suffered imprisonment and a debilitating illness — proves to have been a principal motivator of her drive and resilience. That's the part of the play — not the crash — that often reduces Estefan to a puddle.
"With her father in a wheelchair and, all of a sudden, this was a possibility, she was determined that she was not going to end up like that," says Patti Escoto, a close friend since ninth grade at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy.
Her father's story also informs her politics. Estefan remains so fiercely critical of the Castro regime that she says she declined Pope John Paul II's request to accompany him on his 1998 visit to the island. Three years earlier, she did entertain 10,000 balseros, Cubans who tried to escape illegally by raft, at Guantanamo. Same island, different story.
"It kills me that, as a Cuban exile, I can enjoy anything I want in Cuba, and Cuban citizens can't," she says. "I don't want to go and have to shut up, or say something and have to go to jail."
The Estefans mostly keep their views on American politics quiet. In the highly charged world of Miami's Cuban American community, "you're always going to tick someone off," she says, although she uses a more vulgar phrase.
The couple hosted fundraisers for the Clinton Foundation and Obama and the Democratic National Committee in their home, in the two-storied entertainment pavilion where she's sitting.
"They're presidents. I'm an immigrant," she says, emphatically. "If they ask, we say yes. But we've never given one cent to any political campaign. Never." She and Emilio are registered as unaffiliated.
She used the DNC fundraiser to speak with Obama about Cuba's Ladies in White, relatives of jailed dissidents who were arrested for championing human rights.
Earlier this year, when fellow Kennedy Center honorees Norman Lear, Lionel Richie and Carmen de Lavallade announced that they would or might skip the traditional White House reception — President Trump bowed out a few days later — Estefan said that she welcomed the opportunity to meet Trump and address immigrants' rights and their contributions with him.
The Estefans had already challenged him through music. In 2015, after candidate Trump disparaged America's neighbor to the south, Emilio wrote and recorded "We're All Mexican" with a cavalcade of stars, including his wife.
'The power of prayer'
"Care for a little drinky-poo?" Estefan asks, hoisting a bottle of Grey Goose vodka backstage at the Miami preview of "On Your Feet!" She is currently off hers, given the towering heels.
Estefan is your new best friend yesterday. Mixing drinks for guests. Sharing videos of her 5-year-old grandson Sasha singing and pummeling the drums, another Estefan performer in the making. Her assistant has been with her for 13 years. "People tend to stay with us," Emilio says.
But not forever. Estefan's powerful, tiny mother died in June. A Miami celebrity and a YouTube star as a rapping grandmother with the hip-hop name Rapuela, Big Gloria was a force to be reckoned with.
"My mom was a born star," Estefan says. "I don't like being the center of attention."
Good luck with that. "This is what you were supposed to do," Emilio scoffs.
Her voice is an alto rasp that "has a certain kind of hoarseness that I love," says her friend Rita Moreno, a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2015. "She can fill a salsa-type rhythm but also sing the hell out of ballads. Very few people know how to access that passion, that hurt, that sense of romance."
At the same time, "she has a very spicy sense of humor," Moreno says "She and Emilio are like a vaudeville act. She makes fun of his pronounced accent."
Estefan teases Emilio every chance she gets. "This is what an American looks like. We speak English. Well," she says at a reception after the show, looking at Emilio, "him not so much."
That piquant humor emerges in the somewhat odd Estefan family tradition of scaring the living daylights out of each other, hiding behind doors, jumping out from under beds — and recording it for posterity. "Look at Emily, she's collapsing on the floor," Estefan says, sharing a recent recording and erupting in laughter.
"My mom is always strange, really warped and really strange in her humor," says Emily, 22, a Berklee College of Music graduate, a drummer and performer whom her mother describes as, yes, "a beast. The best musician of us all."
Estefan's pride in her family is always on display. After joking about Emilio's accent at the post-show reception, she adds that "I only have seven Grammys. Emilio has 19." He continues to be an in-demand producer for Latin artists.
She attends a monthly prayer group with her Dirty Dozen, 12 friends from Our Lady of Lourdes — plenty of gossip, food and wine, then the rosary.
"A beautiful thing to say, like meditation," she says. "I don't really follow any dogma, but I do believe in the power of prayer, because I've felt it."
Her performing days are largely behind her. Charity events? Certainly. She flew to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief with a plane full of Latin entertainers. But whether she's performing it or not, she's proud of the music she's made.
"If I could only leave one album behind, it would be 'Mi Tierra,' " the 1993 Spanish-language album singing of "my beautiful homeland" and "the land that you ache for," she says. "It spoke of who we were, to reflect on Cuba B.C. — Before Castro — when it was free."
Her homeland remains a constant, nearly six decades after she left it, and became an exile.
"Our focus long-term is our responsibility to our people, our culture," she says. When she learned that she had been awarded the Kennedy Center Honors, "I was blown away, because I know the type of people that get this, the very small number who get this," she says. "It threw me back to 'el cuartelito,' the little barracks, these apartments where my mom brought us out of Cuba. For some reason, it threw me back in time."
Her father was still in prison in Cuba, and there were so many possibilities, so many things that could unfold.