David M. Benett/Getty Images
Gloria Estefan is a musical icon. Dubbed the Queen of Latin Pop, Estefan started her career at just 16 when she joined Miami Sound Machine in 1975. Not only did the band help pave the way for her superstardom, but it’s also how she met her husband, Emilio Estefan. The pair began dating just eight months after they met in the band, and they’ve been together ever since. Initially, Emilio was working in Bacardi’s marketing department, but eventually decided to quit his job and Miami Sound Machine got serious about making it big.
In 1985, the group had its first hit single, “Conga,” then Gloria slowly began taking center-stage. Soon, she was a best-selling solo act and, as of 2020, had a net worth of $500 million with 12 Grammy nominations and three wins under her belt. But, despite her successes, life hasn’t been all joy and awards for the Cuban-born Gloria — far from it. Starting at a young age and right through her 30s, the talented singer was faced with challenges that often seemed insurmountable. This is the tragic real-life story of Gloria Estefan.
Gloria Estefan’s father was a political prisoner… twice
Al Pereira/Getty Images
When Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1957, the country was governed by President Fulgencio Batista, and her father was working as a bodyguard for the First Lady, Marta Batista, Miami Living reports. Then the revolution started, and Fidel Castro’s regime took power in 1959. Gloria Estefan’s father became a political prisoner — an event the singer will never forget, despite only being two years old at the time. As she told CBS News, “I remember going to the jail with my mom and my grandmother to visit him.”
Although her dad was released after three months and the family managed to flee to Florida, things went from bad to worse. Estefan’s father joined the CIA-backed Brigade 2506; a paramilitary group made up of Cuban exiles living in Miami, which attempted to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. Dubbed the Bay of Pigs invasion, it failed, landing Estefan’s dad back in prison — this time for two years.
As Estefan told The Guardian, “I remember rosaries and my mom dragging me to prayer groups because my dad was a political prisoner in Cuba.” Noting that the situation “was very stressful for [her] mom,” she recalled her mother being “very tense, crying a lot and she tried not to let me see it, but I was very well aware. At the beginning she would tell me that my dad was working on a farm, but I knew he was in jail,” she noted.
She’s been exiled from her home country her entire life
Michael Putland/Getty Images
“I left Cuba for Miami when I was two,” Gloria Estefan told The Guardian in 2013, and yet, as The Washington Post pointed out, she still considers herself to be an immigrant in America. In May 1960, her family fled Fidel Castro’s communist regime, and although she hasn’t returned to her native Cuba since, she holds the country close to her heart. Perhaps part of the reason why is that she was sure their exile would be temporary. “I still have my Cuban baby passport, my round-trip Pan Am ticket, in the safe,” the singer revealed. “Who knew what was going to happen to us? There were so many possibilities, so many things that could unfold.”
What did unfold was an incredibly successful musical career in the United States, but no matter what, Cuba is always top-of-mind. When Estefan was recognized at the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors, for example, the first thing she thought of was “‘el cuartelito,’ the little barracks, these apartments where my mom brought us out of Cuba,” she revealed. “It threw me back in time” (via The Washington Post).
What’s more, she and husband Emilio Estefan (who himself fled Cuba in 1967) have only ever lived in South Florida for one specific reason: “It’s as close as we can be to our roots, and still live in this magnificent country with its freedom and its beauty,” she explained.
Her father’s tragic illness shaped her childhood
Ron Wolfson/Getty Images
Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Gloria Estefan’s father was imprisoned for 20 months and eventually released in 1962. He returned to America, joined the U.S. Army, and moved the family to Texas. Then he left again — this time to fight in Vietnam. As Estefan told The Guardian, “When I was growing up, he was not around.” Once he did come back, the reunion was anything but happy. “He was very sick after being exposed to Agent Orange,” she explained. “He developed multiple sclerosis [and] started losing his ability to speak, as well as his decision-making skills.”
Despite being 12, she became his caregiver. As she told CBS News, “My mama had to work because she realized that my dad was only gonna get more ill.” It was difficult, both mentally and physically. “He was a very big guy, 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds, and he’d start trying to walk to the bathroom and then he’d fall,” she told The Guardian. “I had to find a way to be able to pick him up.”
Speaking with the Daily Mail, Estefan admitted the situation was made worse because “there was never really a relationship there.” She “didn’t really know the man,” yet she “was supposed to care for him,” she reasoned. This lasted until she was 19. “I thought it was going to go on forever,” she admitted. Estefan’s father died in 1980 at age 47.
Gloria Estefan saw herself as a ‘lumpy, fat teenager’
Manny Hernandez/Getty Images
Gloria Estefan’s life was forever changed by her father’s illness. Becoming a full-time caretaker at such a young age didn’t just test her strength, however, it also inspired her. “All through those years of looking after him, I dreaded being in such a helpless condition myself, having no control over my life,” she told the Daily Mail in 2008, adding, “I reacted against it by having complete control. I made sure I was as strong as an ox.”
That meant daily workouts lasting over two hours and a strict diet, which resulted in a complete self-transformation. “When [my father] died, I transformed myself from a lumpy, fat teenager with one big eyebrow and huge cheeks — both sets — to a very fit person,” she recalled. As her sister, Becky Fajardo, unabashedly told Rolling Stone, Gloria “was ugly” as a teen. Then she became fit and lost over 40 pounds, and her full-body makeover was so shocking that, in 1986, “hardly anybody recognized the newly svelte Gloria” at her 10-year high school reunion.
A terrifying road accident left Gloria Estefan broken
On March 20, 1990, Gloria Estefan’s world was turned upside down. She, her family, and her band were traveling between concerts on a snowy Pennsylvania road when their tour bus was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer and slammed into the 18-wheeler in front of it. As Estefan recalled to CBS News, she was “taking a nap on the couch in the front of the bus” when suddenly, according to the Miami Herald, her “body snapped forward violently at the waist, twisting at the same time.”
While husband Emilio suffered small cuts and bruises and their son, Nayib, broke his collarbone, a 32-year-old Estefan was left with a broken vertebra “near the center of her back.” While trauma surgeon Dr. William Pfeifer told the outlet that “she is not paralyzed in any way, shape or form,” the injury did press on her spinal cord, causing numbness in her feet. Dr. Harry Schmaltz told People, “Another half-inch of movement of the spine, she’d be completely paralyzed.”
In addition to physical pain, Estefan suffered emotional turmoil as the incident hit close to home — even causing her to disappear for some time after her injury. As she told the Daily Mail, “All my life I have had a hideous fear of paralysis because I grew up nursing my dad who could not even feed himself — it was ironic that I was also nearly crippled.”
Gloria Estefan’s recovery was long and painful
Russell Einhorn/Getty Images
Although Gloria Estefan was assured she wouldn’t be left paralyzed, doctors did warn that she would likely have a decreased range of motion. Speaking with CBS News, Estefan recalled being told, “‘I’m hoping that you’ll at least be able to walk gingerly, but I don’t think you’ll ever be back on stage.'” This wasn’t her first time facing adversity, however, and she tackled it head-on.
Following her initial hospitalization, the Miami Herald reports that Estefan was transported by helicopter to Manhattan’s Hospital for Joint Diseases Orthopedic Institute, where doctors set about fusing two of her vertebrae together in a four-hour surgery that also saw the installation of two eight-inch steel rods to support her spine. Dr. Harry Schmaltz told the outlet, “I certainly can’t picture anything happening that would leave her unable to give concerts, but she may not be able to do some of the things on stage that she has done in the past.” As People reported, Estefan would need six months of therapy, and, of course, she devoted herself wholeheartedly. “I was doing six to seven hours a day of rehab to try and prevent what they said was inevitable – that I was going to end up in a wheelchair,” she told Express.
Lo-and-behold, less than a year later, Estefan performed at the American Music Awards in a truly emotional comeback. As she told CBS News, “It’s like if I climbed Mount Everest and won the Pulitzer Prize.”
Her dream of being a mother was almost a nightmare
Robin Platzer/twin Images/Getty Images
While Gloria Estefan was working hard to avoid a future in which she would need to use a wheelchair, she was dealt another devastating blow. Speaking with CBS News, the singer revealed that doctors told her she “‘probably won’t be able to have another child.'” A proud mom of one (son Nayib was born in 1980), Estefan had had her heart set on more kids. “That was my plan after that tour,” she explained.
Making everything even more heartbreaking was the fact that she didn’t feel like herself. “The scarring was traumatic,” she told the Daily Mail, confessing, “For a long time, I felt undesirable as a woman.” Recalling the first time she was intimate with her husband, she admitted, “It all felt very alien. My body wasn’t my own any more.”
Slowly, she worked through it, and, in 1992, Estefan’s medical team gave her the all-clear: She could start trying to get pregnant. But try as she might, nothing happened. “It was incredibly stressful,” Gloria told the Daily Mail. “For the first year we just kept on trying, not knowing if anything was wrong.” Eventually, she opted for exploratory surgery during which doctors found the root of the problem: The bus crash’s impact had caused one of her Fallopian tubes to shift. Surgeons fixed the issue, two rounds of fertility injections followed, and, finally, success! In 1994, Emily Marie Consuelo Estefan was born.
A young man lost his life after hitting Gloria Estefan’s boat
Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images
In September 1995, Gloria Estefan experienced tragedy yet again. She was sailing on the waters off Miami Beach with her husband to celebrate the release of a new album when the unthinkable happened. According to The Washington Post, a 29-year-old Howard University law student, Howard Maynard Clark, and his 22-year-old friend crashed into the left side of the Estefans’ 33-foot Intrepid motorboat. Clark fell off his rented Yamaha Waverunner and was sent into the motorboat’s propellers, dying “almost instantly” after suffering “severe head trauma.”
As Emilio jumped into the water to help, Gloria called 911. Clark C. Mitchell, a physician who treated both victims, said the friends “were apparently out just goofing around, and [Clark] glanced off the front of the boat” when the accident happened. Meanwhile, Emilio noted the similarities with their tragic 1990 bus accident, telling reporters, “I was going straight out and felt it hitting my vessel. It had no control.” Florida Marine Patrol spokesman Capt. Mike Lamphear added, “Mrs. Estefan tonight is very, very upset, and she’s doing the best she can to handle a terribly serious situation.”