The seven-time Grammy Award-winning superstar—whose new CD is “Miss Little Havana”—shares how she’s been able to balance her career with raising children and reflects on her 33-year marriage.
Singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Gloria Estefan to this program. The seven-time Grammy winner has been a popular force in the music business now for 30 years.
Gloria Estefan: Ooh. (Laughs)
Tavis: Sounds strange, huh? (Laughs) Was I not supposed to say that?
Estefan: No, that’s great. I love it.
Tavis: She is out today with her first English-language CD since 2003. We’ll talk in a moment about where she’s been.
The much-anticipated disc – I love the cover – it’s called “Miss Little Havana.” A deluxe edition of the project and includes a special 25th anniversary remix of one of her biggest hits, “Conga.”
Before we get to all that, though, here now some of the video for the single, “Wepa.”
Tavis: Where you been, Gloria Estefan?
Estefan: I haven’t gone anywhere. (Laughter)
Tavis: 2003 – we’ve been waiting on you.
Estefan: I’ve been enjoying life. No, we had – no, I’ve had a couple albums. One of them was “Unwrapped” back in 2004. Did a tour then, my last big tour that I announced to my fans, and everybody got confused, thinking I was retiring. I said, “I’m not retiring, I’m just not going to do those big tours anymore because my daughter, I wanted to enjoy her, and that’s what I’ve been doing – enjoying every second of her life.
She was on the basketball team, she’s in the jazz band, so I wanted to be there to see everything she’s doing, and I’ve been enjoying it very much.
Tavis: As a mother, how do you balance all that? How have you personally over these years balanced the artistry, the touring, the being a mother wanting to be there for your kids? How do you balance all that?
Estefan: Well, exactly that. I’m lucky that I can take my kids to work, that’s number one, and that’s what I did. With my son, he traveled the world with me on every tour. He wasn’t a lover of school, so it was easy with him. I had a tutor on the road, keep him at the same level, so when he’d pop back home he’d go right back in.
Emily, on the other hand, came in later in my life. I really wanted to relax and enjoy the experience and not go out and work while I was having her. I didn’t tour until she was about 16 months old. Took her along as well, but then once she started doing her school career, and she does love it and she’s on teams and things, I backed away from mine so I could enjoy her life, because I know how quickly it goes.
Tavis: So what’s better, since you’ve done both – earlier in life or later in life?
Tavis: Yeah? (Laughter)
Estefan: I had two only children. I thank the Lord that I had my son when I did, because I’m fortunate to have – well, he’s a man already. He’s married, he lives here in L.A. I was able to devote all the time to him, and then he was already almost 15 years old when Em was born, so I was able to give her the one-on-one time, and he was out of the house by 18, so I would have been serious empty nest.
So it’s been very nice that I’ve been able to give them each the full-on attention that kids deserve to have. Sometimes parents, when they have a lot of small children, it’s hard because your time’s got to get divvied up. There’s no other way.
Tavis: I was reading an article about this not long ago. I know this is not your case, or not the case with you, given what you just said. I was reading an article not long ago about the tough decisions that parents have to make sometimes – that is to say parents who have a pretty serious career going on, and sometimes certain parents end up resenting, to your earlier point, that they have to pull back to give their kid what they need at a certain point in life.
You obviously never had that feeling.
Tavis: But what do you say to parents who are resentful of the fact that these babies they brought into the world, they now have to pull back to be there for the kid?
Estefan: Well, I would hope that first before they have the baby they think about what it’s going to entail, but I think that ultimately, even if you have a really busy schedule, if the time that you do spend with your child, whether it be an hour or two, is quality time, where you’re actually really giving attention to the child, playing with them, talking with them, even if it’s just really coloring, really giving them one-on-one time, I think it’s important to have a happy parent.
A parent that’s upset or resentful is not going to be a great parent, so if you do have a busy job and that’s just the way you’ve got to make – make it work. Figure out what you can do, make sure that the child knows that they’re important to you and that you’ve got to work for a living.
Everybody’s not as fortunate as I’ve been that can have their hubby with them on the road, that we can do whatever we want and mainly be honest with the kids. Just the time that you do give them, make it be great time. It doesn’t have to be hours.
There’s some people that are 24 hours with the baby and it doesn’t make a difference. They could be anywhere.
Tavis: You said your hubby on the road, and as you’ll recall from a few minutes ago, the minute you walked on stage after we met I asked, “Is Emilio here?”
Tavis: I’m such a huge fan of his, and –
Estefan: I am, too. (Laughter) Thank God.
Tavis: Well, we’re not fans in the same –
Estefan: – after 33 years, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, we’re not fans in the same way, but –
Estefan: I know, I know.
Tavis: But I’m such a huge fan of his, and to your point now about hubby on the road, the obvious question, what’s the secret? You’re in Hollywood, and this doesn’t always work for 33 years for both people in the business, and yet you and Emilio make it work.
Estefan: Listen, it doesn’t work just for people in the business. Sometimes it doesn’t work for people out of the business.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s true.
Estefan: I wouldn’t recommend working with your partner for everyone, because it’s tough. There’s got to be a really keen balance. You’ve got to know when to stop being the manager and become the husband. I can’t go home and complain to my husband about my manager. (Laughter) So it is a fine balance.
There’s no secret, by the way. I think the main thing is a lot of respect. Even though we’re very different personality-wise, which is a good balance, we really do have the same priorities and values. The same things are important to us.
Family is number one for him above everything else, and he’s a guy that has done it all. He worked his way up really from nothing in this country and he has no qualms about doing anything and helping me out whatever way is needed, and I likewise of very supportive of what he does outside of my career with other artists.
He’s won 19 Grammys. I’m seven, he’s got 19. So I’m very, very – I’m a big fan of his also, in the way that you are as well, besides the other obvious things.
Tavis: To your point about coming to this country, how much of your – and I know in Miami, where you live, and in Florida, one never gets away from these immigration debates. It’s impossible to get away from them. They’re so truncated and so phony, there’s no real conversation in this country, as you well know, about immigration reform.
But how much of your drive or your success or anything else you want to tell me has to do with the fact that you came here from someplace else? Any of it at all?
Estefan: Of course, I think it has a lot to do with it. First and foremost I think that immigrants, at least I can speak for myself, I don’t know about anybody else, but I can tell you that I really appreciate the freedoms that this country affords us and the democracy that we live, the republic which we enjoy, a lot more than some of the natives here that have been here for generations, because I don’t take it for granted.
In Cuba, where I was born, we still see the incredible abuse towards the people of the country, the locked-down, repressive atmosphere that’s in there, and they’re almost frozen in time back there.
So that, I’m very appreciative of, and I also, having traveled the world, know that the United States is one of the few places where there really are no limitations. As long as you’ve got drive and hard work and a good idea and you can get out there and do your thing, there’s no social classes, so in a lot of countries there’s a big history of regardless of how much money you may make, there’s still that little thing where you’re not in society. That doesn’t exist here.
This is really an open society and everyone’s got a shot. The thing is you really have to work hard and do it. But I appreciate this country very much. When my parents left Cuba, my mom had a Ph.D. in education, my father was also a college graduate.
The first generation that left, very hard-working people, and they wanted to make a success of their lives wherever they were. So I know that that’s what everybody strives for here, the freedoms of this country, and we truly appreciate it, I think.
Tavis: Let me just ask a follow-up before I move on, because I know how the media works, and this is going to be on the Internet in a matter of minutes.
Estefan: Yes, instantly.
Tavis: Somebody’s going to start picking apart what you’ve just said about coming here from Cuba, so let me just – I think I know what you mean by it, but I want to be clear. You’re not suggesting that classism isn’t real. You’re not suggesting that racism still isn’t real.
Estefan: Oh, no, it’s real.
Tavis: Yes, you can accomplish if you work hard. I just want to make sure you – that we’re on the same page.
Estefan: Oh, no, no, for sure.
Tavis: You’re not suggesting that classism and racism are nonexistent.
Estefan: Listen, those are human things.
Tavis: Okay, all right.
Estefan: Wherever there’s a human being there’s going to be somebody that tries to hold you back. No, but I’m saying like for example in Europe there’s the upper crust, and these are long, historically families and social systems that have certain established rules that’s harder to break into.
You can be a success, I’m sure, but those aren’t here. The celebrities are kind of like the royalty in this country, but still, there’s no limitations in that. Nobody in this country gets stopped from doing anything, and yes, of course there’s going to be racism and there’s going to be oppression and there’s going to be all those things. As long as there’s human beings on this Earth, we’re all learning what’s the right way to be.
Tavis: To your point now, I assume that you want a little bit of this, you and Emilio want a little bit of this because it’s what sells records and sells concert tickets, so you want a little bit of celebrity worship.
Estefan: They still sell records? (Laughter) I don’t know about that.
Tavis: Or downloads – downloads.
Tavis: But to your point about celebrities and how they’re regarded in certain parts of the world, you think there is too much celebrity worship in this country? Are we are a society just run amok with infatuation with personalities and celebrities, entertainment?
Estefan: Again, again, I think this is a human condition. Obviously to the masses the people that somehow become famous or infamous, depending on what it is that happens, they’re looking to you to say show me how or I want to look like that or I would love to have this kind of thing.
So I just think it’s a human thing as well. I look at things very much on that level. It’s not so much for me where you come from, who you are, what race you are. We’re just human beings that are still a work in progress and there’s a lot that we’ve got to overcome, so that we can all be equal.
So as long as there’s someone to look up to, and of course the media, there’s a frenzy the minute that you’re on a bunch of covers or on a successful TV show or a movie. People are going to look up to you, and that’s just the way it is. They’re going to expect things from you, and sometimes opinions, sometimes not. Sometimes they want you to shut up. But yeah, they’ll definitely look at you.
Tavis: When I last saw you, at least on a TV monitor, when we were engaged in conversation, my friend Larry King, before he retired, called me one night and said, “My boys have a baseball game tonight. When you leave your show can you come to CNN and sit in for me?”
Estefan: I remember well.
Tavis: You remember this?
Tavis: So I go sit in for Larry King, lo and behold, and I’m so excited, Gloria Estefan is the guest that night, live from Miami. So I get a chance to talk to Gloria Estefan that night, sitting in for Larry King, and the occasion, as I recall, was that you had decided you and Emilio were hosting a fundraiser for Barack Obama at your home, your lovely home in Miami, which raises the question for me of how active you are going to be, if at all, this time around, in the 2012 race.
Estefan: Well, I’ve got to tell you, as a policy I don’t like to become a spokesperson for a candidate. However, if I admire someone, most definitely I’m going to be honest about it if asked.
It was an honor for me to host President Obama in our home, especially because I wanted to have him there to be able to show him a lot of pictures from Las Damas de Blanco and the abuses that were going on in Cuba, hand him letters from (speaks in Spanish) and dissidents that are really, really paying the hard price down there for speaking out against the government.
It was wonderful to have him there. Emilio and I, nonaffiliated, and we don’t give any money to any campaign. This has been historically for us, because I think that my fans are on both sides, or however sides there may be, if there end up being three or four. Usually there’s only two.
I think that everybody’s got to make up their own mind and not just decide because they like your music or they like what you do that they’re going to vote for the candidate that you support.
So to me, that’s a very personal issue that everyone really needs to get involved in. I voted, always vote. It’s very important to me. My kids, I take them with me since they were little, so they realize it’s a responsibility.
So if they ask me I’m always going to be honest, but I don’t campaign. I never have for anyone.
Tavis: What’s been your process over the years for deciding when, whether and how you want to use your music to make statements about a variety of issues? Obviously you’re thoughtful, you have opinions about issues, you care about issues obviously in the world.
Estefan: I do.
Tavis: You are a humanist, and every artist has to figure out his or her own way in the world, musically, with what they do want to say and don’t want to say. We have a great time being entertained by Gloria Estefan, you make us dance and have a good time and all that, but have you figured out lyrically, musically, where, when and how to make a statement?
Estefan: Well, it’s important. I’m glad you bring that up because it’s important to me that the words that I put out there into the cosmos, into the universe, be empowering or somehow positive for people that hear them, or maybe be cathartic if someone is having a relationship that’s having a tough time.
When it comes to politics, music was my escape from that. My dad was a police officer in Cuba, he was jailed immediately upon the revolution happening. He went back in Bay of Pigs, spent two years as a political prisoner there. Came to the U.S., joined the U.S. Army, went to Vietnam, came back with Agent Orange poisoning.
So to me, politics was such a negative thing in my life and it was always a touchy subject, because we paid a very dear price. My dad gave up his life for two countries – the country of his birth and our adopted country that opened their arms to us here.
But I do like to, on songs with (speaks in Spanish), which talks about freedom of speech, very subtle in there. There’s a lot of songs like “Coming Out of the Dark,” “Path of the Right,” “Love Always Tomorrow” that are meant to hey, stick it out, get stronger, learn how to be stronger, be a better, more complete person.
Those kinds of issues, again, I studied psychology, so even though I didn’t become a clinical psychologist I somehow still through my music try to reach these people and whoever’s listening out there.
I’m so lucky that my music has been to them what other people’s music was to me growing up that helped me through a lot of tough times. So that’s kind of where I talk to them.
Whatever I’m feeling at the time, sometimes it’s straight-up fun. This record, for example, “Miss Little Havana,” is a return to dance, and it explores a lot of different avenues of dance, like what I do with Pharrell, then Emilio did a section where he produced four tracks with four different producers and kind of explores different kinds of club music and dance music.
That’s all fun, and it ended up a pretty sensual album. I feel very comfortable in my own skin. I really have enjoyed myself. Everything reflects upon what’s going on in your life at the moment.
Tavis: How did the club thing, the dance thing, the sound, at least, end up being your bailiwick? Was that by design, or did something just happen and it clicked in that way?
Estefan: You know what? Nothing’s ever been by design. Emilio and I love music. He had a band in Cuba when he was eight years old. I’ve sung since I talked, when I’m two, but what I sang was ballads, because it’s very hard to do a dance track with your little acoustic guitar when you’re a kid. (Laughter) Yeah, it’s not good.
I certainly loved it. But when I joined his band I was 17 years old. I joined the Miami Latin Boys was the name at the time, and I loved that they played this really old Cuban music dance stuff, because they played dance. He didn’t have a singer in the band, they all did it together. He played the accordion.
I had learned all this kind of stuff and listened to my mom’s Cuban records that they smuggled out eventually and would play guitar for my grandma and learned all these songs. So when we came together, those influences came together.
I brought the ballads to the band, I learned how to do the dance music and found that I could play percussion and that it came very natural to me. I come from a very musical family. So it all just happened very slowly, and as we started writing our stuff we had this vocabulary from both worlds that we could really bring into our own
It was never like, “Oh, let’s do this because this is what’s happening.” It’s like we were excited about oh, you know what? This sounds really good. This rhythm sounds really good melded with this, and this sounds really hot, and we liked it.
So it was always about expressing ourselves and hoping that everybody came along.
Tavis: Back to “Miss Little Havana.” You said something a moment ago that I want to come back to, Gloria. I made a comment and you joked, “They still sell records?” (Laughter) Which was funny, and I want to come back to it because the record business moves like the speed of light, like the speed of sound.
So although you’ve done stuff since 2003, when you did an English project, when you stay out of the game for any space of time –
Estefan: Like five seconds?
Tavis: Yes, exactly, speed of light, speed of sound, how do you know – they say get in where you fit in, but how do you know where to get in, how do you know how to fit in? How do you know that your sound is so relevant, because the business changes so fast.
Estefan: Well, I don’t think you ever know. As an artist, you never know. Hopefully you’re not really banking on that, because if you’re trying to do what’s popular now, you’re way behind already. By the time you record it and do it and try to copy it, it’s moved on.
I think the business of music has really taken a huge hit. There’s no doubt about it. But an artist is always going to produce their art, their music. They’re going to paint, they’re going to write. We enjoyed a vast amount of time where the music industry was really a great business and there was the opportunity to worldwide sell a product if you got lucky enough, like we did, that you were popular in many different countries.
Imagine multiplying those sales. So it was great, we enjoyed it. Does that mean that now that that’s gone we’re not going to make music? If I got something to say – and I’ll tell you how this happened. Pharrell came to me with an idea. He really wanted to do this project, he wanted to get into more Latin sound and he had some songs that he’d written for me, which I loved.
It piqued my interest. I thought, oh my God, I would love to see what this baby turns out like, of Pharrell and mine, musically. It’s that excitement that does it for me. I don’t know any other artists, but I’ve really got to feel like there’s something that I want to express and share with my fans, and that’s always been the only thing that I have used as a criteria for putting something out there. But the business, it’s gone, it’s over.
Tavis: To your point now, I get the expression, as you phrased it; I get the excitement, as you phrased it – another “E” word, expectation. So after you’ve had the kind of wild success that you’ve had, you and Emilio in this country and around the world, when you decide to put a project out like this because you’re intrigued by it, what then becomes your benchmark for success? What’s the expectation for a project like “Miss Little Havana?”
Estefan: For me, that people enjoy it. That they like it, that you hear it played, that people eventually make it a part of the soundtrack to their lives, as Dick Clark so well put it. Now it’s easy to see that because of things like Twitter.
I had two majors in college – psychology and communications with a French minor. It’s fascinating to me, this thing with social media, because what it does as an artist for me is give me a way to communicate directly with my fans and likewise them to me.
There’s no middleman, there’s no journalists, there’s no waiting until the article comes out. It’s boom, I make a comment or someone makes a comment and it immediately gets to me. So I know immediately how my fans, which at this point is really hopefully you’ll get some more new fans, but I’ve got a hardcore following out there that I don’t want to disappoint.
But I can’t try to gear what I do around what I think they expect to hear or do, because that’s a very big trap. So I just hope that they’re going to like this, and they’ll let me know for sure. I will know immediately whether they like it. So far they love what they’ve heard, so that’s a very happy thing for me.
Tavis: I was about to ask – and I will – before I ask that, thought, make sure you tweet what a great time you had on this show.
Estefan: Yes, I will. (Laughter) Of course.
Tavis: That’s very important to me.
Estefan: Of course I will. (Laughter)
Tavis: Having said –
Estefan: Immediately. I was tweeting on the way in; I’ll be tweeting on the way out.
Tavis: Yeah, all right. (Laughter) Having said that, to your fans, this particular project, “Miss Little Havana,” is this something in terms of the sound that the fans have been waiting for, hoping for or something that the fans, the hardcore Gloria Estefan fans, are not expecting?
Estefan: I think they are going to love it. First of all, you always want to surprise them, because if they can guess what you’re going to do, then you’re in trouble. I’ll tell you what it felt like to me that I think it’s going to translate to them.
When I was doing the record with Pharrell, I kept telling him, “I feel like I felt when I was doing “Primitive Love” and “Let it Loose” way back in the day, that we were doing something that sounded fresh and new.”
What this record is is really kind of like a composite of everything in my past in little snippets, but brought through Pharrell’s incredible creative brain, and of course my hubby and those producers, but brought to today.
So I think they’re going to recognize the Miami Sound Machine element, which is big on here. We’ve still got the big horns and everything, but you’ve got this whole Pharrell in the first nine tracks, his take on it, and I think that they’re going to really love that mix.
I’m hoping – I’m excited about the record, I really love it, and I think that they’re going to hear what they loved about the original Miami Sound Machine but taken to today and through the mind of Pharrell. We really clicked, I’ve got to tell you. You can’t make that up. You can’t force that.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because I was about to ask what’s the cool part or the challenge of working with a kid who’s producing you from another generation?
Estefan: Yeah, well, the challenge is always as a writer, is this going to work, because it’s a very intimate process, and I tend to be very introverted and insular, and when I write, it’s in my head.
So it was when you step out there, it’s like going on a date. The first time we stepped into the studio you’re going, “Are we going to have another date? Is this going to be cool?”
It just clicked very naturally. I hope for him as well, but it was just a very easy process, and we had our family there, in and out, and it didn’t matter. It was just happening and it was happening quickly. Sometimes my daughter would be sitting there, because she was in love with the whole process. Imagine the opportunity to watch Pharrell at work, and with Mom there.
She would come in, there was no song, and by the time we left there was a recorded song. (Laughter) Everything was down, including my vocals. So there’s a lot of also really raw and fresh emotion on this record because of that. We were recording as we were writing, and I think that’s a very special thing to capture.
Tavis: Speaking of first dates, a whole lot of us are jealous that Emilio got the date. (Laughter)
Estefan: That’s very sweet.
Tavis: And the wife and the babies. Thirty-three years now they’ve been together, and they’re –
Estefan: Well, 35 together; 33 married.
Tavis: Thirty-three married, yeah.
Estefan: Yeah, that’s a long time. It went like this, though. (Snaps fingers)
Tavis: I hate you, Emilio.
Estefan: Get out. (Laughter)
Tavis: No. In any event, I love Gloria Estefan, as you can tell.
Estefan: You’re sweet, thank you.
Tavis: And I’m so delighted to have you on this program. Her new project is called “Miss Little Havana,” out today. How delighted are we that she chose to come see us today, the day the record is out. Gloria, good to see you.
Estefan: Good to see you, too.
Tavis: All the best to you.
Estefan: I enjoyed it very much.
Tavis: I enjoyed – come back any time.
Estefan: Oh, I sure hope so. I’m going to take you up on that.
Tavis: You’re welcome.
[Video clip of “Wepa”]
“Female One:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.