Gloria and Emilio Estefan aren’t afraid of the word “no.” They have heard the word a lot through their 44 years of marriage and professional collaborations that began with the band The Miami Sound Machine, the first Latin band to cross over to mainstream, pop success in 1980s America.
“There is no more motivating word for us than no, Gloria Estefan tells me by phone from her home in Miami earlier this week. “That’s all we heard throughout our careers. No, your sound won’t work. No, you can’t compete on a worldwide market. No, you are too American for the Latins and too Latin for the Americans. That lit a fire in our bellies.”
That fire propelled the couple to the upper echelons of the American music industry, netting them prestigious awards and accolades as they broke down the barriers that excluded Latin musicians from mainstream success in America, paving the way for the “Latin Explosion” of the 1990s and 2000s with Emilio Estafan producing artists including Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Shakira.
In 2013, the couple began work on On Your Feet!, the Broadway musical that charts their meteoric rise from humble beginnings. Now, On Your Feet!, which enjoyed a successful two-year run on Broadway, a national tour, and productions across the globe, will premiere for the first time in a Spanish-language production at Washington, D.C.’s GALA Hispanic Theatre.
Estefan can’t wait to see the GALA production, which she and Emilio plan to attend this week. “I am super excited because Spanish was our native tongue and it has a different feeling altogether. When you sing in Spanish you can be more over the top passionate without it being saccharine.”
Estefan wrote new Spanish lyrics for four of the show’s songs and handpicked translator Esmeralda Azkarate-Gaztelu Carro to work on the script with her. Estefan describes Azkarate-Gaztelu as a “hardcore fan” who used to hang around at stage doors in the early days of Miami Sound Machine. Over the decades, the two women developed a friendship, something Estefan says she enjoys doing with many of her fans. “I knew that Esmeralda would be able to approach the material not just as a translator, but also because she has been a fan for so long, she has the feeling of our story that a regular translator wouldn’t have.”
Azkarate-Gaztelu is thrilled to be collaborating with Estefan on this project. “There is nothing more poetic than having our personal and professional worlds cross paths again,” she says. “Gloria is like another mother to me and has always believed in me. This is the most important project in my life because I get to share it with Gloria and Emilio, two people who have been so important in my life.” Azkarate-Gaztelu credits the Estefans for her decision to become a translator. “I started out as their fan but soon realized that Gloria had way more to say with her story than what I had understood as a girl.”
On Your Feet! traces the Estefans’ personal and professional journeys, from their beginnings in Cuba, (Gloria immigrated to Miami in 1959 at age 2, Emilio a decade later at age 15), through the early days of the Miami Sound Machine, when they had to fight both for their music, which was considered by music producers to be too Latin for commercial success, and their relationship (Gloria’s mother did not want her to marry a musician).
“Everything in the musical is pretty true to our lives,” Estefan says. “It took Emilio 12 years to win my mother over!” Then in 1990, Gloria was involved in a devastating bus crash that left her temporarily paralyzed. “She thought he was going to bail but he proved to her that we had real love for each other. After that, she was ok with him.”
This story plays out in the song “If I Never Got To Tell You,” a song that was written specifically for the musical, with lyrics by Gloria, and music by the Estefans’ daughter Emily, who is also a musician. “For Latinos, family is above everything else. The family dynamic in the show is very real. It’s true that my grandmother was my biggest supporter and my mom had a harder time with my music. And that Emilio had to leave the bulk of his family behind in Cuba. He never did see his grandfather again after he left and his struggle to bring his brother and mother out of Cuba engulfed our family for a long time.”
Even the show’s title resounds with significance to the Estefan family. “People assume the title refers to the song ‘Get On Your Feet,’ but it’s more than that. We have literally and figuratively been getting back on our feet our entire lives. First when we left Cuba and came to the United States, then when we had to convince people that our sound would appeal to audiences around the world, and then literally when I was paralyzed in that accident and I had to relearn how to walk and get back on my feet. So that is what it means. In life, you are going to be thrown but you have to constantly get back on your feet.”
Estefan is excited to see what director Luis Salgado does with the show at GALA. Salgado, who appeared in the original Broadway cast of On Your Feet!, has directed two other Spanish-language productions for GALA to great acclaim. “I know that Luis is incredibly creative and I can’t wait to see what he does with the smaller space,” Estafan says, noting that GALA performs in a small, 200-seat theater.
While she hasn’t seen the production yet, she credits her fans – who have sent her rehearsal clips – for keeping her in the loop. “Fans, you know, they are better than the CIA! I don’t know where they get this stuff!” She notes that the production is bound to be different from the Broadway version. “But I love different,” she says. “I love when things grow and evolve and change. Art should always be in flux. You can’t cram a Broadway-sized show into a smaller theater but you can certainly do a production that speaks to people.”
The Estefans were initially hesitant about putting their music on Broadway. “Now it’s more common but back in the day, pop and Broadway just did not mix. It’s always a risk when you step out.” But the couple saw the musical as another opportunity to share their story with the American people. “We were seeing the way immigrants were being attacked in the media and we wanted to remind people of our immigrant story and our positive contributions to this country and how it did really afford us the much talked about American Dream.”
Estefan is honored by her and her husband’s status as trailblazers on the American music scene. “It’s a privilege and an honor that we don’t take lightly. It is the reason we find it so important to then turn around and give a hand to other artists who are being told no. It’s wonderful after being told no so much to turn around and tell people yes. Yes, we are going to help you.”
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