September 26, 2008 / 10:49 PM / 10 years ago

Q&A: Gloria Estefan reflects on bilingual career

MIAMI (Billboard) - For the first time in its young, nine-year history, the Latin Recording Academy and its board of trustees is honoring a woman as its Person of the Year, Gloria Estefan.

Singer Gloria Estefan sings the U.S. national anthem before the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys play their NFL football game at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois September 23, 2007. REUTERS/Frank Polich

With a career that spans more than three decades and 70 million-plus albums sold, Estefan is the original Latin crossover international star. First as lead singer of Miami Sound Machine and later as a soloist, Estefan has achieved success in two languages.

During a break from her European tour, Estefan spoke with Billboard about what it means to be Latin today.

Q: You are touring arenas, in front of tens of thousands of people. Of course, you’ve done this most of your life. Is there a routine you follow right before taking the stage?

Gloria Estefan: I try to open all my chakras and I think of all my points of communication. I do a prayer that everything comes out the best it can, and we exchange energy. I imagine a point in the top of my head, in my hands, in my solar plexus.

Q: Do you have any superstitions or talismans?

Estefan: No, no, no. I can’t stand it. It would be very constrictive. If one day you can’t do it (or don’t have them with you), then you’re freaking out. And pretty much, before a show, I try to do things as normally as possible and not make a big deal of what’s going to happen. If I start to think that there will be a thousand people staring at me, it’s pretty daunting.

Q: Almost from the onset, you had a bilingual recording career, which is still rare. How did this work?

Estefan: We grew up in a city that allowed us both identities, so we believed very early on that this could work. We were signed with Discos CBS (later Sony Discos) and we did four albums for them, with the bulk of the songs in Spanish. (The single) “Dr. Beat” was on an album called “A Toda Maquina.” But we took the original English track and cut a 12-inch single that we took to the record pools and exported to Europe. At the beginning they thought (in Europe) we were an Italian group, when all of a sudden, we get Epic calling and saying they want to sign us.

And we said, “We are signed to you, on your international label!” And they took us over. So, we rushed to the studio and recorded the rest of the songs in English and called the album “Eyes of Innocence,” and then we talked them into letting us do the next album in English. And then, we went backwards. When they released albums in English, I would cut the single in Spanish and Sony Discos would promote it.

Q: You were already a star in English when you decided to go back to Spanish with “Mi Tierra.” Why?

Estefan: It’s part of who I am. It would have been a travesty to ignore one side of me. I learned English when I started school in the first grade. Spanish is my first language. And it’s important for me that my kids be bilingual at the very least, and to know who they are. Imagine ignoring half of my culture. And I think it’s just smart to be as broad as you can. It would be a real shame for us to not speak to so many people in the world who speak Spanish. Especially in music. If we hadn’t had that Latin edge, I don’t think we would ever have had a chance.

Q: You are known for your uptempo fare and your ballads. Any preference?

Estefan: I initially played mostly ballads because that’s what I could play on the guitar. My first song was called “Su Amor Comigo.” It was on the B side of “Renacer.” That was 1975, and (husband) Emilio (Estefan Jr.) said, “I’d like to do an album where we can do some original stuff for the group.” And I said, “Well, I’ve written some poetry, but I’ve never written just a song. But I’ll try.” And I did.

But I tend to be very economical as a singer, because as a songwriter, the melody is incredibly important to me. When writing a song, I try to decide which note will really move me. You won’t hear me doing many acrobatics. So, even though I feel equally comfortable in both, my music are the ballads. Those are the songs that have had the most lingering impact in my fans’ lives. The ones where I can actually communicate an intimate thought.

Even when I write a song, I think very much of what a person will be feeling when they hear it. Will they feel empowered? Will they get ideas? I do think very much about the listener and what impact it’s going to make.

Q: In the United States, do you see more and more Latinos turning to English instead of Spanish?

Estefan: As the Latin population grows in the U.S., the economic and political power we’re getting as Latins has really given us the possibility of being proud of being Latin. Teens will focus more on being American, but if you stress as a family the importance of keeping your culture, it will come back to you later in life. It’s not for everyone. Had I grown up in Omaha, maybe, that would have been impossible. My mother was an exile, I was born in Cuba, and she raised me very much a Cuban because she thought we were going back. It was never to be. But that circumstance in my life is what made me possible in this way.

But that’s what’s great about the U.S.: If you’re in a stew, (it) doesn’t mean you have to dilute the stew.


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