Find Your Own Rhythm
Thank God there is no recipe for success! How boring would that be? We all have to blaze our own trails. So much of our future success depends on who we are and often also on where we come from—be it a place, a family, or a particular situation. Of course, luck can also play a huge role. And you also have to recognize a good thing when you see it.
My big break as a musician—and as a man—came when I saw this lovely girl get up and sing at a wedding. Gloria Fajardo was very poised onstage but very shy off it. In fact, it was easier to get her to join the band than it was to get her to become my girlfriend—that took a couple more years. Gloria and her cousin Merci Murciano often sang together, so when I invited Gloria to try out for our band, the Miami Latin Boys, she asked if her cousin could come along. I hired the two of them, and I re-named the group the Miami Sound Machine. This was 1976.
By that time the Miami Latin Boys were one of the city’s top local bands. The band was really hot. Miami had changed dramatically in the previous decade, in part because of an economic boom but also because of the huge influx of Cubans and other immigrants from Latin America. That Latin population provided the Miami Latin Boys with a ready-made audience. But since I had also spent part of my teenage years in the United States, listening to the great pop and rock of the era—like just about everyone else my age in Miami—I also wanted to sing in En¬glish.
There were some other acts that came to the forefront at the same time, but our fusion of Latin with Anglo was unique. We listened to the great artists of Motown, like Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and the Jacksons, and also British Invasion bands like the Beatles, the Stones. We mixed that with the music we’d grown up listening to in Cuba and the songs that the expatriates in Miami loved to listen to, until we could turn our hand to anything. Gloria has said I used to play “The Hustle” (Van McCoy’s huge 1975 disco hit) on the accordion, if you can picture that. The fusion of Cuba and America was what we called the Miami sound. And so, Miami Sound Machine.
Our success was a combination of timing, talent, and luck. And again, of recognizing a good thing when it came along.
We became very adept at tailoring our performances to our various audiences, mixing Latin standards with English-language pop, playing just Latin standards or just pop—whatever we figured the audience wanted to hear. While that mix added to our popularity, being true to ourselves and singing the music we loved was at the core of it.
We became so well-known locally that I was asked at one point to go listen to a group and to give them some pointers. A few months later, the Miami Latin Boys were playing at a wedding and a girl came up to me in the hallway during a break and told me that I’d given her and her friends some tips on improving their performance. I invited the girl to join us onstage for a number, and at first she said no. Her mother, who was standing behind her, said, “Go on, Gloria. You sing beautifully.” Gloria Fajardo sat in for one number and did so very well. She enjoyed herself so much she stayed for several more songs.
At the time when we met at the wedding, Gloria was studying psychology at the University of Miami. She was an exceptional student— she finished her degree with a double major in just three years—and while at the university she also worked full-time at Miami International Airport as an interpreter. Gloria already spoke fluent Spanish, English, and French.
Gloria seemed like a normal seventeen-year-old girl: hardworking, serious, devoted to her family. The first things I noticed about her were her beautiful eyes and lovely skin, and also her shyness—Gloria is surprisingly shy, especially for someone who is a performer who can hold a crowd of fifty thousand captive with a song. I was intrigued, but she was very young and extremely serious, so I certainly did not think about her in romantic terms. My first feelings toward her were ones of respect, and as I got to know her and her story better I felt enormous admiration. She is the hardest-working person I know, and she always has been like that.
Gloria’s life and mine had some definite similarities. We were both born in Cuba, and we loved music, family, and hard work. And both of our young lives had been marked by long periods of separation from ones we loved, in my case, from my mother; in Gloria’s, it was her father.
Gloria’s parents, Jose Manuel Fajardo and Gloria Garcia, met and married in Havana in 1956. Jose was a motorcycle policeman and later a motorcycle escort for the wife of Cuba’s then-president, Fulgencio Batista. Gloria’s mother was a kindergarten teacher, and she valued education above just about anything. Gloria was born September 1, 1957, a year after her parents married. They had a comfortable life in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, living in a house next door to Gloria’s grandparents.
It was not long, however, before their lives, like so many others, were turned upside down with the arrival of Fidel Castro to power on January 1, 1959. In their case, because of Jose Manuel’s job, change came about very quickly and abruptly.
Anyone associated with the previous government was considered suspect. Many were detained and thrown in jail, including Jose Manuel.
The new government was repressive from the word “go.” They not only arrested people and held them without charging them; they executed people. They started taking possession of houses and other privately owned properties. They closed casinos and brothels and even the national lottery, and they fired people from government jobs and the military.
After Jose Manuel was released, things went from bad to worse. At that point, Gloria and Jose Manuel decided they needed to get out of Cuba “until things blew over.” They, like many others, were confident that this repressive regime did not have staying power and would soon be replaced.
So like so many just before them, Gloria and young Gloria—who was only two years old at the time—flew into exile in Miami. It was May 1960.
Jose Manuel joined them a month later. They had very little money, spoke virtually no English, and they had not had a lot of life experience. But they did have a community, one to which they would contribute and on which they would depend. It is in these exile communities that immigrants find security.
The family had barely settled into exile when Jose Manuel went off to train for a secret mission. That was the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, which took place in April 1961. Jose Manuel survived but was taken prisoner by the Castro forces.
Many of the other families in their neighborhood near Miami’s Orange Bowl were in the same situation as the Fajardos. The women all helped one another out as much as they could. These were especially rough periods for families. The Cuban revolution had caused many kinds of separation—mine from my mother and Gloria’s from her father. We coped with them in different ways, but as Gloria herself said, the stress of these times caused kids like her and me to grow up very quickly, as Gloria’s mother found out.
Gloria had told little Glorita that her father was “away, working on a farm.” She did not want to scare Glorita, and she thought she was too young to understand what the situation really was. Until one day she overheard Glorita say to someone, “My dad is in jail, but don’t tell my mom; she thinks he’s on a farm.”
Gloria’s mother says that she herself grew up overnight. She decided to create a happy home for her Glorita (as she was called in the family), even if the circumstances were grim and uncertain. Of the few things Gloria’s mother was able to bring out of Cuba were albums—Celia Cruz and Joselito were favorites. The house didn’t have much, but it always had music. Glorita grew up with her mother’s passion for music, and her mother taught her all she could about Cuban culture. As it was for me, music was always at the center of Glorita’s life.
What’s at the center of your life?
Excerpted from The Rhythm of Success: How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream by Emilio Estefan
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