Cuban-American icon Gloria Estefan’s music has soundtracked the lives of Latinos all over Miami and beyond. Not only is she an eight-time Grammy Award winner, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and the first Hispanic woman to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, she is also a Miami local and University of Miami alumnus.
With hits including “Conga,” “1-2-3” and “Get On Your Feet,” Estefan’s career opened the door to a new era of Hispanic music and paved the way for other Hispanic artists to do the same.
The Queen of Latin Pop returned to campus on Sept. 16 for a screening of “Young Frankenstein” at the Bill Cosford Cinema. Before the event, Estefan sat with The Miami Hurricane and spoke about the importance of education, embracing your culture and finding your passion.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
TMH: Tell me about your time at the U, and what it is about your experiences that keeps bringing you back?
Gloria Estefan: Well, I’m also on the board of trustees so that also keeps me coming back. I never would have imagined when I was walking these halls, not particularly these halls because they weren’t around when I was here.
I started, actually, I did college work-study in the summer of ‘75 and started [that] September here at the U. I had taken a test called the CLEP college level examination program. I started as a sophomore because I had a really good prep school Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, and I got 30 credits and it helped a lot. I was on national direct student loan and a lot of scholarships. But the U was still expensive back then, but it was my dream school — after the Sorbonne, which I had been accepted to in France. And I was going to go, but then I met this guy and played for his band, the Miami Latin boys, and well you know what happened, there things got a little complicated.
You know, I loved every minute of coming here, but at the same time I was coming here I had two other jobs and then three when I joined the band. I was carrying a full load from eight in the morning to noon. I would change in my car on the way to my job at the airport as an interpreter, because French was my minor. I was in customs and immigration translating six days a week from one to nine at night. Two nights a week I taught community school guitar at West Miami Jr. High from 9:30 to 11:30. And whenever I wasn’t sleeping, I was doing homework and things of this nature.
I couldn’t really participate in the social aspects of the school that all my friends were enjoying. In Miami Latin Boys we played at the Rathskeller, and we also played outside in that patio, I don’t know if it looks the same but it was by the pool. And that was a blast.
It was a lot of hard work I remember at that time. I studied psychology and communications, the communication school was just starting. But it helped me a lot. Just even to get more comfortable with myself in the band. And I just remember wonderful things. I love learning. The school was excellent. I had a great philosophy teacher, which I studied and still up to this day love philosophy.
And every time I come back here, I’m blown away by how it’s changed. I used to play racquetball. I taught Emilio racquetball and we would come to the courts at the school. Then I couldn’t play with him anymore because he’s too competitive. Killed me when we played.
But it’s all beautiful memories, really.
By continuing to pour back into the U, what is the legacy that you hope to leave on this campus?
Well, I hope that they realize how important education is and even more so now extended education. You know, higher education that you need to get a good job. Before, if you had your B.A. you were good. Now, I would suggest that everyone get a Masters, at least. And if you can go for a PhD do it.
I would say study as long as you can, because once you’re done, you’re in life and life gets complicated. Sometimes it’s hard if you stop studying and then planning to come back like “Oh, I’m gonna take a year.” It gets harder every time you stop your education to come back to it.
But I would say enjoy every minute. Learn as much as you can. Involve yourself in as many activities as are good without, you know, messing up your academic record. And just have a great time. This is a wonderful university. It’s grown in leaps and bounds. It’s incredibly respected. We are now one of only 62 schools included in [the Association of American Universities].
And we live in paradise. So if you’re not from here, enjoy while you’re here. And if you’re from here, aren’t we lucky?
Knowing that Miami has always served as a hub for hispanic, specifically Cuban culture, what do you feel is the importance of continuing to see that representation and presence today?
It’s important to keep your culture to stay connected to your roots and who you are. In my instance. And I think in any instance it only makes you stronger, better able to communicate with more people in the world.
We have to nurture our differences and our different cultures. It just makes us richer.
The U.S. is an amazing tapestry of cultures from everywhere in the world, we’re built by immigrants and continue to be pushed forward by immigrants. Be proud of where you’re from and don’t ever negate it because it just makes you a much more interesting person, more diverse, more well versed to be able to speak to a plethora of people all over the world.
Since the beginning of your career you have embraced your culture, even when others told you otherwise, and that has paved the way for many other hispanics to do the same, what is your advice to young hispanics today facing similar challenges?
I’d say first, find your passion. Because you’re going to spend most of your waking hours working. And if you can do something you love, it doesn’t feel like work. So find what really makes you happy to do.
I would say, again, your culture is a strength, not a detriment, but you have to sharpen your skills. If you’re in this country, you have to know English, know it well, be able to compete. That gave me an edge because I could go all over the world and sing both in English and in Spanish. I could speak to anyone because English is spoken pretty much in every other country to some degree.
Find your passion, hone your skills. Keep your tools sharp, you have to keep getting better and better, whatever it is you’re doing. Don’t try to get shortcuts, and anything worthwhile isn’t easy. Get ready to put in the work and the time.
But we live in a country that allows us to do anything that we dream of. No one’s gonna stop you saying “No, you belong to this class. You can’t come up here.” The only thing that will stop you is your own limitations that you’ve put on yourself. Work hard. Work hard at everything that you love.
And sometimes along the way we have to do things we may not love so much just to survive. But always be on the journey to finding what you love to do, because that’s the best thing you can possibly do for work.
Your music has always served as a vehicle to lift spirits, inspire others and shine light on darkness, can you talk about what you do to channel that positive mindset amidst life’s chaos and challenges?
You know, I felt very old when I was a little baby, a little kid. I don’t know if it’s, you know, I do believe in reincarnation, but I think I’ve been around this rodeo a few times. And I was always excited. I was always comfortable in my own skin. I was excited for what was ahead.
I have two amazing women, my grandmother and my mother, who were amazing examples that [women] do it all, because they did. So I never grew up thinking “oh, I’m a woman. I’m limited.” No. I think we can do everything.
But you know, music was my lifeline. It saved me from some of the toughest moments in my life, other people’s music. I would just lock myself in my room with my guitar and play their songs, get my cassette, record off the radio, figure out the cords. It was soothing to me.
I sing since I talk so it came with me, and those people’s lyrics their messages got through to me. When I got the opportunity to make music for other people, it was a huge responsibility and a privilege. And I still see it that way. To have a platform where I can share my thoughts and ideas with people that I might never meet, to me is the most incredible blessing that I could have. And I don’t take it lightly.
Whenever I do make music, I either do it to entertain you just so you can have fun and forget about your worries, or give you words like in the love songs for situations where you may not know what to say to somebody and maybe one of my songs can say it for you or to empower you and songs like “Get On Your Feet” and “Reach” and there’s “Always Tomorrow” to remind you that, you know, we all go through stuff. “Coming Out Of The Dark,” which was a big thank you to everybody that prayed for me after my accident, and I felt that energy I channeled it in. It felt like I was plugged in, and I really learned what the power of prayer is all about in that moment.
That’s the kind of things that I want to share. I’ve written things that have come from dark places that I haven’t shared because they were just to purge [out]. I don’t want to make people feel that.
It’s a beautiful privilege. And I thank God every day in my life that I’ve been able to make a life of music.
Just to end on a fun note, tell me about what Young Frankenstein means to you and why you chose it for tonight’s screening.
Absolutely. I’m gonna tell you what I’m going to talk about later.
Young Frankenstein marked a before and after in my life. And I’ll tell you why.
It was Emilio and I’s first date. And I found out later he didn’t really go to movies. So he asked me “What do you want to see?”
And it was playing at the Trail Theatre on Eighth Street and 57th, and I told him I’m a huge Mel Brooks fan. He didn’t know who Mel Brooks was. “Oh, yeah, me too.” Right. And I go “Great, this new new movie is coming out, Young Frankenstein. I’d love to go see it. Let’s go.” He goes “Great. Let’s go. Let’s go.”
We go to the movie, and when we walk outside, he looks at me and he goes “You know I didn’t find it that scary.” I knew it was gonna marry that man that day, because I looked at him and I go, “What parts did you find scary? Because it’s a comedy!”
And he was just so, you know, genuine and obvious that he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about that it just endeared him to me very much and I go “Okay, I think this is the guy.”
It was our first date, so, it holds a very deep memory and meaning in our love story.
And I’m a huge Mel Brooks fan, what can I tell you, all my life. I wrote parodies, it’s got music in it that I love. You know, it’s got actors that I love and continue to do amazing things. I love Mel Brooks, what can I tell you, love him. Some of the things you couldn’t play right now without cringing a little bit, some of his movies, like “Blazing Saddles,” but he’s brilliant, and I love it.