Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s new musical is foot-stomping riot of colour and catchy tunes from the couple’s 90 million-selling archives.
On Your Feet: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan celebrates the 40-year love story of the Cuban escapees who started with nothing and built a £400million empire together.
But the facts behind the music tell a much darker tale – from nursing her disabled father to the near-fatal accident that left her paralysed and fighting for her fertility.
Gloria has faced more than her fair share of trials and tribulations
Her story is brought to life in stage show, On Your Feet
(Image: Johan Persson)
Gloria was just 18 months old when her middle-class family fled Cuba for the United States in 1959 following the rise of Communist dictator Fidel Castro.
Her mum ‘Big Gloria’ had her PhD in education certificate ripped up at the airport, leaving the family destitute.
Mum ‘Big Gloria’ was stripped of her teaching qualifications upon leaving Cuba
They settled in Miami, Florida, but as her mum worked night and day to retake her exams, Gloria’s dad Jose Fajardo was imprisoned in Cuba for two years for fighting against Castro’s army in the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Upon his release he joined the US military and was sent to Vietnam – where he was struck down with multiple sclerosis believed to have been caused by Agent Orange – a chemical used to kill crops in herbicide warfare.
A carer at 16
Gloria speaks about her father’s time in Vietnam
(Image: Getty Images)
With her mum as the sole bread winner, care of her dying father fell on a 16-year-old Gloria’s shoulders.
“He started losing his ability to speak, as well as his decision-making skills, and he would forget that he couldn’t walk and would stand up,” Gloria, now 61, previously told The Star online.
“He was a very big guy, 6ft tall and over 90kg, and he’d start trying to walk to the bathroom and then he’d fall.
“So I had to find a way to be able to pick him up off the floor. It was a difficult thing to handle but it made me stronger.
“I would just sing and sing, because I wanted to be strong for my mum. I didn’t want her to feel worse about the situation because there was nothing else I could do really.”
Despite her heavy burden, Gloria excelled at school and graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in psychology.
She also worked as an interpreter for US Customs at Miami International Airport, where the CIA tried to recruit her as a spy.
“They realised I was someone who could pass as a regular person without raising any eyebrow,” she told the Miami Herald.
“So the CIA approached me and wanted me to train in their Atlanta HQ.”
But a chance meeting at a friend’s wedding was to change everything for the star.
Gloria’s mum did not initially approve of Emilio
In 1975 she met keyboardist Emilio Estefan who invited her to join his group, the Miami Latin Boys.
Her mother disapproved – both of her pursuing music and Emilio – and a feud began that would run for 15 years.
But encouraged by her grandmother, Gloria agreed to be the band’s lead singer and the name was changed to Miami Sound Machine.
Three years later she married Emilio and their son Nayib was born on their second wedding anniversary.
“I never would have thought that I would get married at 21 and much less be a mum by 23,” she told the Guardian.
“But once I did get married and I was so certain that I wanted to be with him for the rest of my life, we wanted to start a family right away.”
That same year though, her dad finally succumbed to his illness aged just 47 and never got to witness the international success that was about to come to his daughter when her 1984 hit Dr Beat exploded in the international charts.
The crippling accident she was lucky to survive
By the late 80s the band’s albums were selling multi-platinum and it was soon decided to drop the group name and market Gloria as a solo artist.
She was seriously injured in a crippling crash at the height of her career
But their relentless work commitments were exhausting, and Emilio had to convince his tired wife to perform a gig in Scranton, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1990.
Driving home through the night in a snowstorm, the tour bus was smashed into by a semi-truck, throwing Gloria, then 32, across the coach.
Emilio recalls hearing the sickening sound of Gloria landing as she screamed, “I’ve broken my back!”
“Everything was so dark,” he told AARP years later, revealing how their injured son Nayib, then nine, tried to snuggle up to the paralysed star as she soothed him.
“Even with the amount of pain that she was in, she comforted him,” he said.
“‘Everything will be OK, baby. It’s just an accident.’ She is a very strong woman.”
Gloria, Emilio and their son Nayib pictured the year after the accident
(Image: Ron Galella Collection via Getty)
Gloria was placed on life support and warned she might never walk again.
After being flown by helicopter to a New York hospital, pioneering surgeons implanted two titanium rods to stabilise her spine.
“There were times when the pain was so bad I prayed I’d pass out,” she would later recall.
But despite her grim prognosis, she astounded medics by not only walking again, but returning to stage 10 months later.
Sadly, her medical battles weren’t over though. She and Emilio had been planning another child at the time of the accident, but her injuries had left her with serious fertility problems.
Pictured with Emily, the daughter she thought she would ‘never have’
“It was incredibly stressful. For the first year we just kept on trying, not knowing if anything was wrong,” she told People.
Invasive surgery revealed her fallopian tube had shifted, and one that was repaired she was given fertility injections and finally conceived Emily, the “daughter I thought I could never have”, in 1994.
* On Your Feet: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan runs at the London Coliseum until August 31