Interview with Emilio Estefan

Whitney Spaner

Cuban immigrants Emilio and Gloria Estefan forever altered America's musical landscape when their brand of Latin pop shot up the Billboard charts in the 1980s. Now, the former Miami Sound Machine members are the producers of the People en Español festival, for which the couple serves as the de facto bandleaders of the Latin-American celebrity community. This year the event returns to New York City, coinciding with the opening of the Estefans' musical autobiography, On Your Feet!, on Broadway.

The Grammy-winning couple will headline the free festival, as well as appear on a panel to talk about the Broadway version of their coming-to-America struggles and successes—including Emilio's escape from Cuba as a young boy and Gloria's near-fatal tour bus accident at the top of her career. The festival's other A-list attendees include Pitbull, Orange Is the New Black's Dascha Polanco and legendary Mexican singer-songwriter Angélica Marie.

In the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15–October 15) we chatted with Emilio about relocating the festival from San Antonio to New York, representing Latino culture on Broadway and why he lives everyday as if it will be his last.

Why was it important for you to have the People en Español Festival in New York City this year?
Emilio Estefan:
Having the festival in New York is the perfect tie to On Your Feet! [The festival is meant] to showcase all of the positive things about Latinos and their accomplishments. There are a lot of people who say Latinos don't do so great in the States and that they don't have the American dream, but there are many that would love to live the American dream, and by sharing that you are able to inspire the new generation. Our Broadway show is a perfect example of this. It's about [Gloria and I] coming to America and how they wanted to force us to change our last name and our sound. We didn't do that.

Who are you most excited to see at the festival? I know Pitbull's going to be there.
Well, I grew up with all of them, so it's like a family reunion. I knew Pitbull when he was 8 or 9 years old. He grew up in my studio. I'm so proud of him and everything he's accomplished. He's such a business guy. He's definitely an inspiration.

You are Miami based, but what have you been enjoying about being in New York?
New York is what the world is all about. It's a mix of different cultures—from Indian to Jewish to Italian to Latino—so you get to learn about all of the communities. I love the energy. It's a really hectic city, but it has a lot of great energy.

What has been your best experience with being part of the Broadway community so far?
One thing I've noticed is the energy—the energy you get before they go on the stage, this energy of pride. Seeing the other plays you get sort of the same feel, but On Your Feet! is the only play with a Spanish feel on Broadway. The cast knows that it's a great chance to showcase a great story about the American dream—a great story about love—and they take a lot of pride in that. I've learned that On Your Feet! has the biggest Hispanic cast in Broadway history. About 90% are Latino, and they come from different parts of the world—Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico.

On Your Feet! is about your life—your highs and your lows. What's the hardest part for you to watch every night?
The part that always touches me is when I decided to leave Cuba at 11 years old. I was getting to be military age, and I had to decide to leave my whole family, because otherwise I would have had to wait until I was 30. That was the law in Cuba; I became a man overnight. I went to my mama and said, "I need to leave in order to bring my family to freedom." When I said goodbye to my grandfather he told me, "Feel my nose. Feel my beard, because we're never going to see each other again." I never saw him again. [Then there is] the whole part about Gloria's accident. It shows you that you can be on top of the world, have a sold-out tour, be number one and still have the doctors tell you, "I don't think she'll be able to walk again." These things are reality. It's what life is all about. I see so many rich and famous people upset about life, but I am the happiest person alive. I enjoy when I buy a pair of shoes! I came from a very well-off family in Cuba, and in eight hours I became homeless. Sometimes life can change drastically in eight hours. I love life. I wake up in the morning and Gloria will say, "Why are you so happy?" And I say, "I don't know if I'm going to be alive tomorrow, so let me live today like it's my last." She always laughs and says, "Our life is like I Love Lucy, but [instead of] Ricky Ricardo, you're Lucy. That's the problem."

What do you hope to say with the festival this year?
I think Latinos need another moment right now. Many negative things have been said [lately], but we're good people. I thought I have to do something to show the best of Latinos; videos and conventions do that. The festival shows great success stories and I'm very happy to be a part of that. I [also] did a song called "We're All Mexican," where I have 40 artists singing as a celebration of the United States of America.

I can't wait to see On Your Feet!
Bring some tissues to cry, but by the end you'll be dancing. We're going to take you on a roller coaster—up and down.