May 15, 2000

Don't cry for me Fidel Castro

She escaped from Cuba at the age of two; as a teenager she nursed her dying father; in her 30s she was almost killed in a car crash. Gloria Estefan has survived all this and in the process has sold 70 million records and amassed a $300 million fortune. But she still has one ambition left: to sing to a liberated Cuba.

By Charles Laurence. Electronic Telegraph. UK. ISSUE 1814. Saturday 13 May 2000

TONI the bodyguard is watching her every move. His charge is Gloria Estefan, the 5ft 2in diva of the Latin disco beat.

She is on the other side of a studio in Miami's South Beach, talking to her husband, Emilio. They are partners in business, as well as in music and marriage, and are utterly engrossed in a conversation about Estefan's new album, Alma Caribena, which means 'Caribbean soul'.

'She looks good doesn't she?' says Toni, his hair cropped close and his massive-muscled shoulders bared to the Miami heat. 'With that body, you would never think that Gloria is a woman ofÉ of her years. And her face! Unmarked! Beautiful!'

Estefan is, in fact, 42 years old. Her son, Nayib, has recently celebrated his 20th birthday, and she has been married to his father, Emilio, for 22 years. She is wearing a lot of make-up, beneath which are deepening lines left by tropical sun and years of striving work.

Maturity has prompted, in part, her return to the mournful Spanish lyrics and traditional salsa beats with which she first made her name in 1985. Female pop stars, she declares, have 'a shelf life', and she has no intention of exceeding hers. She plans to make the global tour promoting Alma Caribena her last, as for her such tours are 'boot-camp' nightmares of physical exertion and emotional stress, and they are the last thing about her career that she will miss.

Since her 1985 hit single, Conga, Estefan has sold more than 70 million records and amassed a fortune of $300 million. The Estefans are hugely rich, in a way which draws a distinct line between the new America of the Cuban immigrants who now dominate Miami, and the rest of the Yankee nation to the north. The couple are using their wealth to take over the city and turn it into a sort of Estefan hacienda. They own a hotel in the tourist hot-zone, in Ocean Avenue, and they put their old beans-and-rice friend from the local cafe into the restaurant next door. They have Bongo's Cuban Restaurant in Disney World up the road - now there is the Latin crossover into mainstream America - and are about to open a second version in Miami's vast new sports arena. In a city of Latin family dynasties and backroom deals, that food franchise has a much greater significance.

Estefan takes pride in how many she employs, and how many families are hers in the city. This number will top 1,000 when the new Bongo's opens. She is rumoured to drive a very hard bargain indeed, but the queen of the hacienda boasts that they also have the best healthcare, pensions and insurance. 'They are my people,' she says, and these days she actually prefers staying at home - looking after her second child, Emily, five, and counting her money and her people - to performing.

The Estefans' home is a sizeable chunk of Star Island, which tourists glimpse in the bay as they drive over the MacArthur Causeway from the airport to their art-deco beach hotels. Armed guards man the checkpoint on the only bridge to the island. There is one mansion for Emilio, Gloria, their children and their six Dalmatian dogs, and a second for Emilio's parents and visiting squadrons of relatives.

Then there is their film production company; the wholly owned recording studios where Ricky Martin, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and many others of Latin blood cut their records; and a music-publishing business which owns everything Estefan has ever sung, and some 3,000 songs besides. 'I own 30 per cent of the global Latin music charts,' boasts Emilio, a tycoon in silver earrings.

His wife is the unofficial mayor of Cuban Miami, the figurehead on the prow of an extraordinary immigrant ship. It is a community with wild and dangerous passions running just below its manicured American surface, as demonstrated by its recent vociferous support of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban refugee. Estefan herself has become a nightly face on the local television news for her role in the case. So a woman who rarely grants a showbiz interview appeared twice on CNN's Larry King Show to plead Elian's case in the custody battle, and then joined the human barricade around his relatives' house in a vain attempt to keep the boy in Miami. When Elian was seized at gunpoint by Federal agents, Estefan closed her studio and her restaurant for a day as part of Cuban Miami's day of protest.

'Elian stands for every Cuban child,' she tells me, her eyes blazing and her manicured hands bunching into fierce little fists. 'He stands for everything Castro has done to ruin lives and divide families. I know this because I too am a child of Cuba. It is easy for you - you in the media - to call us zealots, and the Banana Republic of Florida, but it is Castro who holds a father as hostage, who won't let another child I know of join his mother, who uses children against the exiles who are and will always be his enemy. However long we live here, however much I feel at home in Miami, I - like everyone else - am an exile, an exile who cannot go home.'

Later, hunched over a picnic table, Estefan sips from a plastic bottle of mineral water and tells me how she still feels that her spirit was broken on the wheel of exile, the little girl who lost her childhood to the fate of a father ruined in the dirty Cold War battle for Cuba.

Estefan was two when she arrived in Miami in the great Cuban exodus that followed Castro's triumph in 1959. She still has her $26 round ticket from Havana to Miami, its return portion symbolically unused. In a humble way, her bloodline went to the heart of that old regime: her father, Jose Manuel Fajardo, had been a soldier of the dictator Batista's bodyguard. And he remained in the eye of Cold War history when he joined the infamous CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. He was arrested on a Cuban beach by his own cousin and spent 18 months in a Castro jail. His disappearance - he left a note on the kitchen table in Miami, saying he was off on a secret mission - is among his daughter's earliest memories.

Then there were days of real poverty. The Cuban immigrants had yet to make their fortunes, and Estefan's mother scraped up food and rent money from charity and part-time jobs. 'We spent all our time lighting candles in the churches and praying for father's safe return,' she says. 'But even then, as a little girl, I knew that he was really in prison and that God had nothing to do with it. Since then I have never had any belief in religion.' Estefan chants, meditates and does yogic breathing exercises, but - unusually in her community - is equally dismissive of the Roman church and Cuba's voodoo-like Santeria.

Her father came home when President Kennedy, whose death is forever linked to Havana gangsters and the Bay of Pigs, organised a repatriation deal with Castro. With a promise of immediate American citizenship, and with no other skill to hand, Fajardo signed up with the US Army. 'We spent the next two years on a military training base in South Carolina,' Estefan says, 'and they were the happiest times of my whole life. I was just a normal little girl, in a settled world, waiting for my father to come home, and knowing that he would.'

Then Fajardo went to Vietnam and did not come home for two more years. The plan had been for this sacrifice to set up the family as new American citizens, with a savings account and a grant for college. Instead, the big, athletic and incurably macho Fajardo came home to a long, inexorable decline into bedridden paralysis. To this day nobody is quite sure whether he was simply doomed to multiple sclerosis or whether he was another victim of Agent Orange, the Americans' jungle defoliant which poisoned their own troops. Until she was 17, and he finally died, Estefan devoted most of her life to nursing her father. By the end, he was a humiliated man reduced to the fury of knowing that it was his own daughter who would have to clean the mess left by his loss of physical control.

'It was so terrible that, in the end, not even the love with which I nursed him could help his misery,' says Estefan, a tremble of emotion running through her face. 'I spent my childhood alone, overweight and ugly, angry at everything, and knowing nothing of a life beyond this sadness.' But Estefan did have a guitar, and a radio from which, unconsciously, she was picking up an American teenage culture that would eventually transform her life.

At this stage, however, Estefan would play alone in her room because 'it was then that I could cry'.

Emilio Estefan - the son of a Cuban mother and a Lebanese merchant and professional gambler who had also fled Castro - was an up-and-coming businessman when he met Gloria. He already had a Corvette sports car, and his own Cuban band played weddings and birthday parties. The band, soon to become known as Miami Sound Machine, advertised for a singer and they found the 18-year-old Gloria.

For 10 years Miami Sound Machine were a big money-spinner in the world of Latin pop, then Emilio decided to exploit the echoes resonating between white-boys' disco and his own modernised, jazzy salsa. By the mid-Eighties, with Estefan singing in English and dancing like a natural-born Madonna on their videos, Miami Sound Machine had conquered the American market, and it seemed that life was sweet.

But, in March 1990, Estefan suffered a road accident which almost left her a cripple - and which has become the defining moment of her life. She still has an elaborate titanium frame supporting the bones of her spine, which was broken when her tour bus crashed between gigs. At that time Estefan was among the handful of the world's most recognisable stars. She had a son, and she had grown from an ugly duckling into a woman of particular Latin beauty. She had a dynamo of a husband who took his marriage vows seriously, and of whom she can still say, 'Just because we have been married for 20 years does not mean we are dead between the sheets. No! No!'

But none of this helped her when she regained consciousness amid the wreckage. 'I could not feel my legs, and I knew that I was paralysed,' she says. 'For me, this was a premonition of my worst fate proved right. When I was a child, I always ran up the stairs two at a time, and when I reached the top I would say to myself, one day I won't be able to do this because like my father I will lose the use of my body. Now I knew it had happened.'

Estefan remembers groping around the bus for Nayib, her son, who had broken a shoulderblade. Then she shouted for her husband. Emilio, who had escaped with a gashed hand, had found Nayib and was organising help.

The crash confirmed all Estefan's worst fears. 'For months afterwards I was locked back in myself, just as I had been when I was a child. But also part of my premonition had always been, strangely, that I would lose my body but in the end it would be all right.'

With the best treatment an American fortune can buy - and with an extraordinary display of fervour by fans, ranging from teenagers keeping vigil outside the hospital to Cuban exiles performing Santeria spells - Estefan recovered. She then produced her daughter - the only time I hear her use the word 'miracle' (to conceive Emily she had to have another operation to repair a fallopian tube damaged by the crash) - and can even dance for her videos again.

And yet despite this, I am startled to discover that her lyrics (of which her PR has issued translations) are almost entirely composed of maudlin, baroque Hispanic misery:

'For a kiss, for a kiss, for a kiss/ simply for a kiss/ my love, you betrayed/ because you are a coward who doesn't know how to love/ or appreciate the love I gave you that was always faithful'.

How can a woman who has achieved her every ambition devote an album to sounding utterly miserable? Part of the answer is simply tradition: Estefan's music is part modern disco, but it is also not far from the gipsy warble heard in the background of innumerable cheap restaurants. This is what Estefan finds when she reaches down into her performer's heart: 'I know I have a good life. When I do these songs, it is like being an actor, I reach for something in my own life which matches the song, and that is easy for me with the sadness and the fear. I have had a life in which I have had to face every big fear, and it has not been pleasant.'

This is why, for all her crossover fame and fortune, Estefan has stayed so closely tied to her community of Cuban exiles. 'More than anything I want to be able to go back to Cuba, to have a house to visit there, to know my roots,' she says. 'I lost my father as a little girl, and I want to able to find him again in my heritage.'

And this is why Estefan professes to have just one ambition left. She wants to see Castro toppled and then, like a latter-day Evita, to return in triumph to Havana to sing for Cuba.

'Then, at last, I could sing for my people,' she says.

'Alma Caribena' is out on Monday

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