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KNOWN far and wide as the "Queen of Latin Pop," Gloria Estefan has sold 45 million records to become the single most successful crossover performer in Latin music history. Born Gloria Fajardo in Havana, Cuba, her father, Jose Manuel Fajardo, was a Cuban soldier assigned to the security detail protecting the family of Cuban president General Fulgencio Batista. In 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power of the country, the Fajardos, along with thousands of other opponents of the Communist dictator, fled to the United States, and settled in a Cuban ghetto behind the Orange Bowl in Miami. (Gloria was one year old at the time.)

Gloria's father was recruited into a C.I.A.- backed brigade of 1300 Cuban refugees that took part in the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. He was incarcerated in a Cuban prison for a year and a half, and following his release, he joined the U.S. Army. Fajardo later completed a two- year tour of duty in Vietnam, and not long after returning home, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which may have developed from his exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange. Gloria was charged with tending to her father as his health progressively deteriorated, as well as with minding her younger sister, while their mother worked and took classes at night school. She understandably had little time for a social life and found solace and emotional strength in singing and playing guitar.

With a dream of becoming a psychologist, Gloria gained admittance on partial scholarship to the University of Miami in 1975. A retiring and serious young woman, she felt absolutely no desire to step into the spotlight, despite her love of music, but was nevertheless convinced to join a small- time local Cuban- American quartet called the Miami Latin Boys as an accompanist and occasional lead singer during her freshman year. Overweight, physically unremarkable, and painfully shy, the talented soprano blossomed into a sleek, polished, and self- assured performer under the guidance of the group's leader and keyboardist, Emilio Estefan. As her confidence and stage charisma grew, Gloria gradually assumed more prominence in the band, singing more often, incorporating dance routines into the act, and contributing her own pop songs and ballads. A year and a half after she joined the Latin Boys, the group was rebaptized Miami Sound Machine and began cutting albums — two on a local label and two on their own label. The band became something of a family affair when Gloria married Estefan in 1978.

Between 1981 and 1983, Miami Sound Machine recorded four Spanish- language albums (Renacer, Otra Vez, Rio, and A Toda Máquina) of ballads, sambas, and disco and pop songs for Discos CBS International, the Hispanic division of CBS Records. The albums generated dozens of chart- climbers in Central and South America, but MSM's music remained largely foreign to North American listeners outside of Hispanic markets and the occasional bar- mitzvah crowd.

In 1984, the band achieved its first glimmering of international notoriety with the English- language B- side dance track, "Dr. Beat"; the single charted as high as No. 10 on the U.S. dance chart, which prompted CBS to switch the band to its international rock division, Epic Records. MSM's first album with Epic, Eyes of Innocence (1984), fared modestly well, but the band broke through in a major way with the release of its follow- up all- English album, Primitive Love (1985), and the single, "Conga" (other top- 10 hits from the album were "Bad Boy" and "Words Get in the Way"). The punchy, percussion- heavy danceable was an instant success, becoming the first single to camp out on Billboard's pop, dance, black, and Latin charts concurrently. The album garnered Miami Sound Machine two American Music Awards in 1986, one for Best New Pop Artist and one for Top Pop Singles Artist. In 1988, an estimated 119,000 people congaed their way into the Guinness Book of World Records to the pulsing beat of "Conga."

Miami Sound Machine toured extensively for the album and became in short order a leading American band. But Estefan was most definitely the star apparent, and as original members peeled off, the band started being billed as Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, and eventually, simply as Gloria Estefan. Estefan released her first solo album, Cuts Both Ways, in 1989. She sustained her vast popularity both north and south of the border by virtue of her talent for writing and performing forlorn, emotional ballads such as "Can't Stay Away From You," "Anything for You," and "Don't Wanna Lose You" — the latter two reached No. 1 on the U.S. charts. The fact that she has remained true to all facets of her bi- cultural heritage has brought her much glory over the years, especially in Miami's Cuban community, where she is known fondly as "nuestra Glorita" ("our little Gloria").

While on tour in 1990, Estefan was almost killed when a semitrailer collided with her tour bus. She sustained a broken and dislocated vertebra in her back, and underwent a four- hour- long surgery during which two 8- inch titanium rods were permanently implanted to stabilize and align her spinal column. Despite a discouraging prognosis for full recovery, Estefan made a miraculous comeback, thanks to a year of physical therapy, sheer strength of will, and the support of her legions of fans, who reacted with an outpouring of support, including 4,000 floral arrangements, 11,000 telegrams, and 50,000 postcards and letters.

The following year, Estefan marked her return to health by releasing the contemplative Into the Light, on behalf of which she kicked off a year- long, 29- country world tour; the single "Coming out of the Dark" off the album topped the charts. Not surprisingly, Estefan's Greatest Hits album went platinum in 1992; in 1993, she received an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Miami, a statue at London's Madame Tussaud's wax museum, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Album of 1993 for Mi Tierra. The Latina diva's 1995 all- Spanish Abriendo Puertas invited a second Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance. The fact that the superstar's appeal crosses all borders was adequately proven when a billion or so people tuned in to the closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympic games to see her perform the Grammy- nominated official Olympic anthem, "Reach," from her 1996 album Destiny.

In 1998, Estefan had to make a difficult decision. Despite her admiration for Pope John Paul II, when the pontiff held a mass in Cuba early in the year, Estefan chose to refuse requests from Roman Catholic officials to perform, saying, "As much as I love the Pope, I won't sing in Cuba while Fidel is there." One concert the singer did manage to appear at, however, was the April 14 VH1 Divas Live extravaganza, which found her somehow sharing the stage with four other powerhouse talents: Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, and Aretha Franklin. In fact, all five performed a seemingly relaxed version of Carole King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman," with King on piano and helping out with vocals. All proceeds from the event, as well as those from the ensuing CD, Divas Live, benefited VH1's Save the Music program, which works to bring music education to children.

That summer, Estefan released gloria!, a hedonistic return to her all- out disco roots, which featured an appearance by the Fugees' Wyclef Jean. The record contained some of her strongest material, including "Oye," "Real Woman," and "Heaven's What I Feel," and was certified gold in July 1998. The year ended on a down note, however, when a thief broke into Estefan's Miami Beach mansion in November and stole approximately $250,000 worth of antique watches.

During the following year, Estefan kept a decidedly lower profile, until the fall release of the film Music of the Heart, which found the erstwhile diva making her big- screen acting debut opposite Meryl Streep. She also recorded a duet with 'N Sync ("Music of My Heart") for the film's soundtrack. In October, she played VH1's Concert of the Century at the White House, hosted by the president and the first lady, to raise awareness of the Save the Music program.

In early 2000, Estefan was honored with an Award of Merit at the American Music Awards, and she was nominated for a Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals Grammy for her 'N Sync-ized "Music" (though Santana's "Smooth" ended up victorious in that category). On May 23, Estefan released a new Spanish-language album, Alma Caribeña.

Taken from Wall of Sound

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