The Power and the Gloria

The story of how Emilio Estefan guided his wife, Gloria, to pop stardom goes beyond the clichés of showbiz. It's a saga worthy of a soap opera, complete with tragedy and romance, success and betrayal

Gloria Estefan, circa 1980 Credit: Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty

"Come on, you guys, sound happy! She's coming home!" The 20 or so girls from the Gloria Estefan Fan Club wave "get well Glorita" placards and muster up a "Yaaaay!" for a local DJ's remote broadcast. Then they slip back into anxious silence and press up against the runway fence. On the other side is a podium. Next to that, ominous and empty, is a wheelchair.

About 200 people have been waiting over an hour here at Miami International Airport for the arrival of the private jet that will bring Estefan home from the New York hospital where she spent 10 days recovering from surgery to repair her broken back. It's a perfect day, cool and spectacularly sunny. TV crews jockey for position, while fans, friends and members of Estefan's extended family gather in groups and make small talk in English and Spanish.

On March 20th, a tractor-trailer rammed Estefan's tour bus on a snowy interstate near Scranton, Pennsylvania, while she was on her way to a concert date in Syracuse, New York. Estefan's husband and manager, Emilio, cut his hand, and their nine-year-old son, Nayib, fractured a shoulder. But Estefan was more seriously hurt; the impact threw her off her bunk, and she fractured and dislocated vertebrae in her spine.

After treatment at a local hospital, Estefan was flown in a helicopter to New York's Hospital for Joint Diseases. In a four-hour operation, Dr. Michael Neuwirth and a team of surgeons performed a spinal fusion and implanted two eight-inch metal rods to buttress the fracture. The surgery required 400 stitches and left a 14-inch scar.

Will Estefan be able to walk, much less jump around and dance the conga onstage, after an injury like this? Dr. Neuwirth is guardedly optimistic. "I don't know if she will be able to do 100 percent of what she's done before," he says, "but I think that she'll be able to do substantially the same after six months of recuperation and therapy.... Yes, I've seen her videos."

Estefan's accident and surgery turned her hometown into a city-size hospital waiting room; she is more than a local girl made good, she's a role model and a heroine. "Nuestra Glorita" – "our Gloria" – is how the Cuban-American singer is referred to in Miami's large Latin community. The accident was front-page news for days in the Miami Herald, and some local TV stations devoted half their newscasts to Estefan coverage. Fans in Fort Lauderdale constructed the world's largest get-well card; the Herald ran full-page ads for well-wishers to clip and mail to Estefan; and Miami's Channel 4 set up a 900 number so that callers could leave her messages.

"We've all been going crazy," says Lily Estefan, Emilio's niece. "Emilio is soooo tired." She hurries across the tarmac to look after Nayib, who is quietly playing with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle dolls on the roof of his dad's black and silver Rolls. The rest of the Estefan family – aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, Emilio's father – congregates in a semicircle on the runway, squinting at the sky.

When the white twin-engined jet – a loan from Julio Iglesias – touches down, all conversation halts. The pilot taxis over to the podium area, the hatch opens, the stairs come down, and for a long two minutes, nobody comes out. Nayib runs up into the plane, followed by Lily and Emilio's aunt Hortencia. Then, gingerly, but on her own two feet, lightly holding her husband's arm, Gloria Estefan descends the stairway.

"You're unbelievable, Gloria!" somebody yells. Everybody cheers.

Estefan stands at the podium. She looks pale, but her speech is so relaxed you can hardly believe she's just up from a hospital bed. "I want you to know I've felt every one of your prayers, from the very first moment," she tells the crowd. Then she thanks Emilio "for waiting to faint until I got to the hospital," her son, her family, her hairdresser Samy and Iglesias. Finally, she even jokes about the metal rods permanently implanted in her back: "I hope I don't ring all the time now when I go through those things at airports."

It's only when Estefan sinks down, at last, into the wheelchair that you see her face wince in agony. Quickly, she masks it in a smile for the photographers, who snap picture after picture of her with Emilio and Nayib. Finally they slide into the back seat of the Rolls. Escorted by a phalanx of brown-jacketed Miami motorcycle cops, Gloria Estefan rides home.

She faces a difficult and painful six months of therapy. "We will work every day," says her personal trainer, Ana Dalmastro. "At first she can only do swimming, stationary bicycle – no weights. Then we move to specific exercises." Dalmastro is convinced that Estefan will be able to come back. "Before, when we would work out, she was very determined. And her goal then was only to lose weight, inches. Now she has a much more important goal: to go back to the stage."

"She was in pain from the time we left New York," says Samy, the Vidal Sassoon of Latin Miami and one of Estefan's closest friends. "In the jet, they had to give her painkillers, but when she arrived in Miami, you'd never know she was hurting. She's a trooper. She's amazing."

Samy flew from Miami to be with Estefan as soon as he got word of the accident. "On the way to her operation, I cried with her," he says. "We talked about many things, about how funny it was that this tour just really didn't seem meant to be. First, the tour had to be canceled in December because of the problems with her voice. And now this. Gloria said to me, 'Samy, how life changes from one minute to the next!'"

***

"Uno, dos, tres, cuatro...."

"Ayyyyyy!" "Otra vez, Gloria. Again! Ready, go!"

Gloria Estefan groans, closes her eyes and wills her body through yet another set of killer abdominals. Stray brown curls, wet with perspiration, cling to her face. It's a few days before Christmas, and Estefan has been working out for nearly two hours in the gym of her new house on Miami's Star Island with trainer Dalmastro (nicknamed Che Hitler), a big, no-nonsense former member of the Argentine women's pentathlon team. Their regimen is worthy of gymnasts, dancers and women pop stars of the MTV age: a two-mile run around the private island (past estates where Don Johnson and Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza lived) and 20 minutes of aerobics, followed by push-ups, pull-ups, squats, weights, Nautilus and tricky maneuvers with a hula hoop.

"Ohhhhhhhh!" Estefan stops and grabs her stomach. Did she hurt something? Immediately she shrugs it off, telling Dalmastro in Spanish that she's okay.

Without missing a beat, her trainer barks, "¡Cinco más! Five more sets, let's go!"

Three weeks earlier, Estefan experienced what was up to then the biggest crisis of her career. Sick with the flu and a sore throat, she'd gone out on tour in support of her latest album, Cuts Both Ways. After she had to cancel two Midwestern dates, Estefan went to a specialist. Bad news: A blood vessel in her throat had ruptured from constant coughing. There was no permanent damage, but if she didn't stop talking for two weeks, and singing for at least two months, there could be. "I was really scared," says Estefan. "This is my life." Emilio halted the tour, and she went home to Miami for some rest.

If that's what you call these mornings with Che Hitler. "I figured since I couldn't sing, I'd use this time to really get in shape," Estefan, 32, says between routines. In shape? Compact and taut in her leotard, she seems invincible, almost bulletproof. "Naw, I still need to lose some in here." Rubbing near-perfect, muscled thighs, she studies her reflection critically.

Estefan's self-transformation through exercise amazes even the people closest to her. "She was ugly!" exclaims her no-holds-barred younger sister, Becky Fajardo. Estefan, a shy, pudgy teen, went on a strict diet after she started singing with Miami Sound Machine in 1975. She lost 20 pounds, 10, then another 10. She was still fleshy and curvy when "Conga," the Sound Machine's breakthrough single, exploded in 1986, but that year, at her all-girl Catholic school's 10-year class reunion, hardly anybody recognized the newly svelte Gloria.

Miami Sound Machine's 1987 album Let It Loose sold 4 million copies; with those platinum bucks came makeup specialists, wardrobe designers, image consultants from L.A. The "Cuban princess" look – eyeliner, dark lipstick, cleavage and Aqua Net – was out. "We got into earth tones," says Samy. "Softer. An international look. She's a diamond. Emilio and I wanted to polish her up."

Then, on her long '87-'88 tour, Estefan got into serious training. It was partly out of loneliness; she was away from Emilio, who had stayed behind in Miami with Nayib. The tour was supposed to last 10 months, but then Estefan's ballad "Anything for You" hit Number One. "We went from playing 5,000-seat halls to playing 30,000 in like two weeks," says Fajardo, her sister's on-tour assistant. Dates were added; 10 months became 16. Estefan had to abandon plans to take time off to have another baby. "When Gloria gets depressed, she exercises for hours," says her sister. By the end of 1988, Estefan was athlete trim. Compared with her 1986 press photos, she's almost another person. Her cheekbones have emerged; her waist is tiny. Even her nose seems to have shrunk.

Estefan's transformation is more than physical. When she joined Miami Sound Machine, she was just a featured band singer; today she's the main attraction. Cuts Both Ways showcases her ballads (she wrote or co-wrote seven of the 10 songs), and there's only one of the band's trademark "Conga"-style Latin-pop tracks, the single "Oye Mi Canto." Indeed, the front cover simply says, "Gloria Estefan" – you have to read the credits to find the words "Miami Sound Machine."

"There is no Miami Sound Machine," declares former band drummer Enrique "Kiki" Garcia. "There is Gloria and Emilio telling a bunch of hired musicians what to do." Garcia, a big teddy bear of a guy, the coauthor of the band's hit singles "Conga" and "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You," tries to hold back his emotions as he reminisces about his 15 years with the Sound Machine. But bitterness and sadness seep into his voice. "We started together from ground zero. But not everybody reaped the rewards." Garcia goes on to describe the band that he remembers with love: a tightknit clan of young Cubans who worked three and four weddings and quinces (sweet fifteen parties) a night. Later, they graduated to bullrings in banana-republic capitals. At last, against the odds, they achieved what few other Latin groups in America have: the crossover dream.

That Sound Machine is no more. When Garcia left the band in 1988, he was the last veteran of that era besides Gloria Estefan. The group that exists today is a familiar music-industry package: a beautiful, talented female singer-songwriter backed by skilled pros.

This is, of course, a timeworn story: A star is born, and others get left behind. But what happened to this group goes beyond the clichés of showbiz: it's a saga worthy of a telenovela, complete with tragedy and romance, success and betrayal.

"How many rock bands do you know of who get awards from the local chamber of commerce?" asks Miami Herald critic Doug Adrianson. Miami Sound Machine was always more than just another pop band; it became a symbol of the new bilingual, multicultural Miami, and of the aspirations of its huge Cuban community. This is a story of immigrants who reached for the American dream – and of what happened when it came true.

The new headquarters of Estefan Enterprises takes up a two-story building on Bird Road, in southwest Miami – quite a change from the old office, which was in Emilio's mother's garage. The Estefan empire may have expanded, but it's still family: Emilio's brother José is the business manager, and several cousins work as assistants. "We're still building, as you can see," says Emilio, a handsome, bearded 37-year-old with premature wrinkles around his eyes.

Estefan excuses himself for another appointment – a short interview with a reporter from a Latin business magazine called Hombre de Mundo (Man of the World). "They want to do a story called 'The Man Behind the Successful Woman,'" he says. "I guess that's me."

Nobody worked harder for his piece of the dream than Emilio Estefan. The son of Lebanese immigrants who owned an underwear factory in Santiago de Cuba, Estefan left his country in 1966, when he was 13. "The communists took everything," he says. "We fled to freedom." He was also nearing draft age. Along with his father, he went to Madrid to wait for U.S. visas.

Emilio made it to Miami on a student visa two years later. Broke and speaking little English, he lived in a tiny apartment with 15 aunts and cousins. He immediately began to hustle to earn money to bring the rest of his family over. "He started as a mail boy at Bacardi [the rum company] and ended up as director of Hispanic marketing 12 years later," Gloria says proudly. "Wherever there was a business opportunity, Emilio was there." A good-looking charmer, he was a natural capitalist: He chauffeured Cuban grandmas to market in a rickety third-hand Volkswagen for small change, started a T-shirt business, made ribbon sashes out of funeral wreaths for beauty-queen contestants.

One day, he walked into a music store and bartered with the owner for a beat-up accordion. He took it to an Italian restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard. "I say to the owner, 'You let me play here, I'll play for free, just for tips,'" Estefan says. A deal. Estefan wasn't a virtuoso, but he knew all the favorite melodies by ear – Cuban rumbas, "Volare," "The Beer Barrel Polka." Word of his gig got back to his boss at Bacardi, who hired him for a private party. Estefan brought a conga player and a drummer, and they kept the party happy with Cuban boleros and congas for nine hours. More gigs materialized. Estefan added a guitar, bass, keyboards and horns. The Miami Latin Boys were born.

"They were a soft, mellow group to begin with – and not very exciting to watch," says Miami bandleader Carlos Oliva, who managed the group in the mid-Seventies. The "Miami Sound," that explosive "Conga" fusion of Latin rhythm and American pop, was years away. This band, soon renamed Miami Sound Machine, played standards of all nations. "Our sound evolved from trying to please all the people," says former bass player Marcos Avila. "Here in Miami, we have Cubans, Anglos, blacks, South Americans. You have to be very versatile."

It was a profitable little weekend business, nothing to quit your day job for. But that changed. One evening in October 1975, Carlos Oliva got a call from Estefan. "He told me I better come over to rehearsal at his aunt's house," says Oliva. "He said there was this girl he met at a wedding, and she was coming by to audition with her cousin. The girls just wanted to sing, and they didn't want any money! I got there late, and there in the middle of all these neighbors was Gloria and her cousin Merci, harmonizing. It was beautiful!"

Emilio was impressed too: "I thought, 'She has such a warm voice, and she's so sincere when she sings.'" As always, he also saw the market angle. The cousins would make Miami Sound Machine the only Latin group in town with female singers. He hired them. Within months, the Sound Machine controlled the party scene.

Gloria Fajardo also knew the hardships of Cuban life in Miami. Her story is a chapter in the tragedy of el exilio, of Cuban exile politics. In 1959, Gloria's father, José Manuel Fajardo, a Cuban soldier and bodyguard to President Fulgencio Batista, fled to Miami with his wife and baby daughter. He was soon recruited for the 2506 Brigade, the CIA-funded band of Cuban refugees sent on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Captured by his own cousin, Fajardo spent 18 months in a Cuban prison before his release in a deal negotiated by President Kennedy.

Back in Miami, Fajardo – along with many of his 2506 comrades – joined the U.S. Army, then volunteered for Vietnam. "He felt that if he did this, later on he could ask the U.S. for help to try Cuba again," says Gloria Estefan. But when Fajardo came back from Vietnam, he had changed. "He'd fall for no reason," says Estefan. "Or he'd stop for a red light, but the light would be green. My mother made him go to the hospital for tests. When he came out, he was already walking with a cane." The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. Later, the family discovered that Fajardo had been exposed to Agent Orange. His deterioration was gradual, inexorable. His wife got a job, and Gloria would come home from school every afternoon to care for her father and sister.

As Estefan reflects on that time, her voice is calm, but she's squeezing her hands. "My father knew I was there with him. But he was ashamed, embarrassed. Because sometimes I would have to clean him up.... I felt really alone in my life. It was a situation that I could see no way of getting out of."

She'd sing when it all got to be too much – everything from "Sabor a Mí" to the Carpenters. "It was my release from everything, my escape," she says. "I'd lock myself up in my room with my guitar. I wouldn't cry. I was afraid if I let go just a little bit, it would all go. I would sing for hours by myself.... It was my way of crying."

Estefan's father went into a VA hospital when she was 16, but it took a few years for her to venture out of her shell. Although she had butterflies about singing with a band, after Emilio offered her and Merci the job (and after her dubious mother and grandmother checked this young man out), she decided, well, why not? "It was a chance to go to parties and make a little money at the same time. I was really excited. I started thinking, 'Hey! Maybe this could be fun.'"

As it turned out, it was a little more than that, although Emilio admits it wasn't exactly love at first sight. "The moment when I first met her, I thought she had beautiful skin, beautiful eyes," he says. "But love is something that grows. And I remember I told my mother, 'I am not going to make a move on this girl unless I am serious. She's been through too much.'"

"I didn't think he'd be interested in me at all," Gloria says when her husband is out of the room. "He had a reputation as a womanizer, which turned out not to be true at all. And he went out with older women. He would always flirt with me, but he flirts with everybody – old men, old ladies. That's just his personality." But in 1976, eight months after she had joined the band, Emilio took her off alone between sets at a Bicentennial gig. "He told me it was his birthday, the Fourth of July, and wouldn't I give him a little kiss?" She did. It turned out it wasn't his birthday. They started dating. "Emilio was the catch of the town," says Becky Fajardo, rolling her eyes. "Handsome, driving around town in his Corvette.... He'd rub so much leather cleaner into those seats that you'd slide forward every time he hit the brakes!"

Estefan soon turned his energies toward his shy new girlfriend. As Fajardo recalls, "He'd always be saying to Gloria, 'I think you can improve yourself 95 percent.' All the time – 'noventa y cinco por ciento.' God, it drove me crazy. I don't know how she married him." The wedding, on September 1st, 1978, was small – family, band and close friends. Miami's favorite wedding-band couple didn't have a band at their wedding. "We'd saved some money," Gloria says, "but we decided to spend it on a trip to Japan instead of a reception. Emilio said we should take the time now to go on vacation together, be-cause we may never have the chance to get away again. And you know what? He was right."

Back then, Miami's most famous musicians were KC and the Sunshine Band and the Bee Gees – that was the "Miami Sound." "I was heavy into disco," Kiki Garcia says, chuckling. "I had to buy a bunch of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz records so I could learn the stuff we played at parties." Garcia, bass player Avila and Gloria were four or five years younger than Emilio, and they had faint memories of Cuba. They were Miami kids, the "bridge generation" of the immigrant community; Cuban music was something that their parents listened to. So when the three younger members came on board in late 1975, the Sound Machine's repertoire took a turn toward all-American pop. Gloria's first big solo was "What a Difference a Day Makes."

A year and a half after she joined the group, Miami Sound Machine recorded its first album, Renacer, for a local label. A rough collection of original Spanish-language ballads and disco pop, it was produced on a budget of $2,000, but Estefan's warm, distinctive purr comes through.

Two years after the Estefan wedding, shortly after Nayib was born, Emilio quit his $100,000-a-year marketing job at Bacardi. The Sound Machine went full time, with core members Gloria, Emilio, Garcia and Avila. Emilio had parlayed their local success into a contract with Discos CBS International, the Miami-based Hispanic division of CBS Records, for which the group recorded four Spanish-language albums between 1981 and 1983 – a mixed bag of lukewarm ballads (many written by Gloria), disco, pop and even the occasional samba.

The band's sound was derivative, but for Latin American fans, Miami Sound Machine was unique – the first band that played state-of-the-art American pop rock and spoke the right language. In Venezuela and Peru, Panama and Honduras, their records shot to Number One. Then, in 1984, Emilio Estefan talked CBS into releasing a Miami Sound Machine album in English.

Emilio wasn't much of a musician, but when it came to business, from merchandising to booking, he never missed a beat. "Emilio was the magic man," Avila says."We all looked up to him. He had that special something." But when his leadership was challenged, the "magic man" could bite. According to Raul Murciano, the band's arranger, saxman and keyboardist, "If you asked Emilio questions about what was going on with the money, he got offended." One night in 1982, an argument broke out in the studio between Estefan and Murciano. Estefan told Murciano that if he didn't like things as they were, he could take a walk. Murciano immediately quit. His new bride, Gloria's cousin Merci, made it clear she wanted to stay, but a week later the band took off for Mexico without her, and she quit too. Murciano says he holds no grudges: "Emilio is the kind of guy who will manipulate you, and you'll end up thanking him."

If Estefan was the band's head and Gloria its heart, Kiki Garcia was its engine; early on, press and fans dubbed him the "spirit of Miami Sound Machine." Onstage, he was an hombre loco; he'd do a wild drum solo, then get up and dance. He was always coming up with song ideas. He wrote half the tunes on the band's first English album, Eyes of Innocence, including the cut that – to everyone's surprise but the band's – broke the group out of the Latin market. "Dr. Beat," a disco song, made the European dance charts in 1984.

Suddenly, Discos CBS's parent label, Epic, agreed to distribute the group's next album, which would be aimed at the American market. Kiki Garcia already had a demo of his latest song idea, something he thought would be the perfect crossover – a disco version of the traditional Cuban dance that is played in the streets at carnival and that ends every Miami party: the conga.

***

"I have a lot of bitterness," says producer-drummer Joe Galdo, a 38-year-old Cuban American. "This was our baby." Galdo and his partners Rafael Vigil and Lawrence Dermer – "the Three Jerks" – wrote, arranged and performed the lion's share of the music on Primitive Love, Miami Sound Machine's platinum 1986 album, and the follow-up, Let It Loose. "You need a magnifying glass to see our credits on Primitive Love" says Galdo wryly. "The sound you hear on that album – what people started calling the 'Miami Sound.' That's not the band – that's us. All you have to do is check out their old albums to hear the difference."

Emilio Estefan met the Jerks when they were making a commercial jingle. He listened to tracks they were making for a salsa-aerobics project, Salsa-cize, and hired them straight away. Four of the Salsa-cize tracks became songs on Primitive Love, including the hit "Bad Boy."

According to Galdo, with the release of Primitive Love, Miami Sound Machine became two distinct groups: the road band, which included Garcia and Avila, and the studio team, which was the Jerks, plus session players. (The road band used the Jerks' rhythm and synth programs.) The one member both bands had in common was Gloria Estefan. "She was naturally musical, and a real hard worker," Galdo says. "No prima donna groove. If there was something wrong with a track at four in the morning, she'd say, 'Okay, let's work on it.' "

Emilio Estefan, according to Galdo and other Miami musicians, had little to do with the actual recording, composing and arranging of the music on either album, though he took a producer's credit. "While we were working on Let It Loose," says Galdo, "he'd come to the studio maybe two, three times a week. Always the same: He'd go over to the engineer and say, 'Sounds great! More percussion, please.' Then he'd ask us what we wanted for dinner, order Cuban food, hang for an hour or so and disappear." Another studio musician puts it more flatly: "As a producer, Emilio Estefan orders a great sandwich in the studio."

"My 12-year track record as a producer speaks for itself," responds Estefan. "Twice in the last three years my peers have honored me and my different collaborators with Grammy nominations for Producer of the Year."

"Everybody in the industry thinks that Emilio is the genius behind the whole nine yards," Galdo says. "People were coming to him to get our sound." For Galdo and his partners, things came to a head right before the 1988 Grammys. The production team of "Emilio and the Jerks" had been nominated for the Producer of the Year Award for Let It Loose. "Right before the Grammys," says Galdo, "Emilio tried to talk us into a five-year exclusive contract to him." They turned it down. The Jerks had been paid a flat fee for their work on Primitive Love; on Let It Loose, the Jerks' cut for performing and producing was about one-half of one point (about 5 cents per album). Estefan Enterprises owns their publishing rights. "I made a couple hundred thousand," Galdo says, "but Emilio's made millions."

Why did the Jerks agree to accept such a deal in the first place? "We were jerks," Galdo says, laughing, but then explains that Estefan led them to expect they would be well compensated for what they were doing. "He stroked our egos to the max in the studio. He'd come up to me and ask what kind of Rolex I thought that Larry would like." But when Let It Loose was finished, there was no more talk of Rolexes. Galdo hasn't spoken to Estefan since the Grammys. "Emilio's Latin, and I'm Latin, and we both have a lot of pride," Galdo muses, then adds, wistfully, "If he'd treated us fairly, we would've died for him." (Bandera, the Jerks' latest project, released its debut album on Island Records last summer.)

Estefan, according to Galdo's story, dismissed Kiki Garcia from the touring band; Garcia will not confirm that. In any event, Garcia says he was very unhappy at the end of the Let It Loose tour. One by one, Garcia's "family" – Avila and guitarist Wesley Wright – had left the band to be replaced by younger musicians whom Estefan hired fresh out of the University of Miami music department According to Garcia, Estefan and the new band members "gave me the vibe that I was just a back-up musician. I didn't go eight years to school, and I guess they didn't dig working with me."

Garcia departed at the close of the Let It Loose tour in 1988; he tried not to leave under a cloud. "On my last night, I asked everybody to sign a band T-shirt, you know, as a souvenir, because I really felt good about having worked with all the guys; they're such great musicians. But when I brought the shirt to Gloria, she got real upset 'Kiki,' she said, 'you make it sound like we're never gonna see each other again.'

"But," he says sadly, "we never did."

Gloria Estefan's favorite Cuban restaurant, Casa Lario, is in a West Miami shopping mall, tucked away next to a Burger King. When we walk in for lunch, nobody in the place turns a head – she's a regular. Here, the tables are your standard diner Formica, the waitresses are sweet old Cuban ladies in pastel uniforms who address everybody as "mi amor" and the arroz bianco, plá-tanos y frijoles negros, when they arrive, are absolutely perfecto. Estefan seems totally out of place – dressed in a designer black leather jacket, black boots, dark shades and skintight black jeans, she's the image of the American rock star. The teased bob and tropical-print sun dresses of the old days have gone. This self-assured, sleek woman, signing autographs and chatting easily with strangers, has changed at least . . . 90 percent?

Estefan, between mouthfuls, laughs at the old joke and remembers that she used to tell Emilio, "If you think I could improve myself 95 percent, then why are you with me? You only like 5 percent of me?" She rolls her eyes in disbelief. "But Emilio just meant I could come out of myself more. I used to kid him after that: 'Okay, what am I down to? 75 percent? 60?'

"Emilio saw a side of me that I didn't let people see," Estefan says, "and he wanted that to come out to people. He was trying to make me confident, but I could've smacked him. At the beginning, everybody would always accuse me of being stuck up, 'cause I was shy. But a performer can't afford to be shy."

Estefan curls her thin upper lip with determination. When she speaks about herself, there's not a hint of vulnerability. "She's iron, iron on the outside," says Becky Fajardo. "When something is bothering her, it doesn't show. I've seen her cry maybe once." Only when Estefan sings her ballads can you hear the pain and insecurity of Glorita Fajardo.

As Gloria is speaking at the podium on the airport runway, Aunt Hortencia, holding a bouquet of yellow roses, beams with joy. "Descansar, that is the most important thing," Hortencia says. "Now that she is home with us, she can rest."

That's not something that Estefan has had much of in the last five years. While her husband was masterminding Miami Sound Machine's pop assimilation, Estefan diligently transformed herself into star material. She has worked long and hard at the two things she loves best: performing and exercise. An accident is now forcing her to take a breather from both.

"In a way, Gloria's looking forward to this time," says Samy, her hairdresser. "She's always wanted to take off six months to write songs, but she's never been able to."

"I will work as hard as I can to come back," Estefan promises the hushed crowd at the airport. But can she?

"Gloria's incredibly disciplined," says Samy. "If they tell her, 'Gloria, do this,' she'll figure out a way to do it three times faster. Her pain just makes her stronger."