August 12, 1996 12:00 PM

Her accident a memory, she’s back on the road

HEADING BACK TO HER $15 MILLION waterfront mansion on Miami’s Star Island after a long day of rehearsing, singer Gloria Estefan begins to talk about the Spam basted in Coca-Cola she loved as a little girl 35 years ago. What gets her reminiscing—as she rides in the family Range Rover with husband Emilio at the wheel, daughter Emily on her lap and her mother, Gloria Fajardo, sitting beside her in the backseat—is a tall building poking into the night sky. “That’s la Torre de la Libertad [the Freedom Tower],” Estefan says, nodding at the landmark tower that was once a processing center for the Cuban refugees who fled Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. “We’d get Spam and welfare cheese there because as refugees we couldn’t afford anything else. My mother would cover the Spam in Coke to make it brown and sweet.” Fajardo interrupts. “Glorita,” she says in Spanish, “remember the newspaper I put under your bedsheets to keep away the cockroaches? Remember that?”

The distance between the Freedom Tower and her home is only 15 minutes, but for Estefan, 38, it represents an odyssey of Homeric dimensions. A superstar now, she has won two Grammys, sold 45 million records and become the most successful crossover performer in Latin music history. “Gloria is a fighter and deserves to be where she is,” says Cuban native Celia Cruz, the genre’s reigning diva since 1947. “She has also never forgotten her roots. For that, I’m very proud of her.”

The former refugee baby is now worth an estimated $170 million and is so famous that mail addressed to Gloria Estefan, U.S.A., routinely reaches her. Still, her ascent has been as harrowing as it has been triumphant. “When her character is put to the test, she pulls through,” says actor Andy Garcia, a friend for six years. “Her spirituality is her greatest strength, and that’s what touches everyone.” In recent years, Estefan has survived a near-fatal tour-bus collision, witnessed the grisly death of a young man who crashed his Wave Runner wet bike into her motorboat, and undergone surgery just to conceive her second child, Emily Marie, now 20 months. “You never know what life has in store for you,” she says. “But I believe there are certain things one is meant to go through.”

That philosophy might explain the title of her new album, Destiny, whose first single, “Reach,” became the official anthem of the Atlanta Olympics and the song she was invited to sing before an estimated 3 billion TV viewers at the closing ceremonies on Aug. 4. (Typically, she wasn’t scared off by the Centennial Park bomb: “People have to go forward. The world is ruled by either fear or love, and we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated by fear.”) On July 18, Estefan also kicked off her first world tour since 1991. “While I still have the energy, I better do it,” she says, as she sketches Lion King characters with Emily. “I want to stay home when Emily starts school. Not retire—but it will be much longer between this and the next tour.”

More time at home will allow her to keep a closer watch on her son Nayib, a 15-year-old with a penchant for pranks, publicity and older women. In April he escorted a stunner to a party at one of the three Star Island mansions the Estefans own. “I like older girls,” explains Nayib, who is trying to grow a mustache. “I don’t know why.” He adds, “Hey, be sure you put in PEOPLE that she was a 20-year-old knockout, okay?”

Sure, Nayib—as long as we can also mention your expulsion last March from Miami’s elite Gulliver Prep School for participating in a practical joke that involved calling a schoolmate’s home, pretending to be the school disciplinarian and telling the victim’s mother that her son was expelled. (The call was traced to Nayib’s phone.) The Estefans meted out swift punishment: Nayib, a fledgling drummer, had to quit his garage band, Psychosis, and join the construction crew adding a $6 million wing to the family’s main residence. For five weeks he labored from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. “Nayib wants more freedom than he can handle,” says his mother. “We’ll give him freedom when he shows us he’s responsible.”

While Emilio and Gloria are supportive and affectionate parents, they are, like most Cubans, quite strict. Last June, Nayib forgot to close a door, thereby loosing the family’s five dalmatians—Lucy, Ricky, Red, Tiny and Holly—onto the three-lot property. “I was looking for five dogs at 4 in the morning in my underwear,” says Emilio. “The next weekend, I grounded him [Nayib missed judging a local bikini contest]. But he learns from his mistakes and accepts the punishment. He’s a good kid.”

By all accounts, Emily is only slightly less mischievous. When Emilio asks her, “Who’s the boss?” she sometimes replies, “Mami,” just to tease him. (Emily hears English around her, but the Estefans speak only Spanish to her so she’ll be bilingual.) And, like her mother, she’s hopelessly sentimental about music. “When she was 2 months old,” says Gloria, “Dick Clark gave her a toy dog that would sing ‘Anything for You’ [Estefan’s hit ballad] when you shook its paw. She would hear that song and well up with tears. I’ve had to hide the dog ever since.”

Emily’s arrival was as dramatic as nearly everything else in Estefan’s life. When a semitrailer crashed into the rear of her tour bus on a snowy Pennsylvania highway in March 1990, the singer’s back was broken in two places, temporarily paralyzing her. Emilio was knocked out of his shoes from the impact, and Nayib, then 9, suffered a broken collarbone. After an operation, Estefan underwent an excruciating yearlong physical rehabilitation—she still has a pair of eight-inch titanium rods in her back, bracing her spine—but another ordeal was yet to come.

Following Gloria’s recovery, the Estefans tried for months to conceive a second child, without success. Desperate, Gloria once stood on her head after lovemaking, she says, hoping to help sperm and egg unite. “Emilio came into the room and freaked out,” she says with a laugh. “I said, ‘Just hold my ankles up.’ ” Tests showed that the collision had damaged one of her fallopian tubes. An operation corrected the problem, and a month later, Emily was conceived. She was born in December 1994.

After that joyous event, however, 1995 proved disastrous for the couple. On Sept. 24, as the Estefans embarked on a pleasure cruise near Miami Beach, they watched in horror as law student Maynard Howard Clarke, 29, accidentally crashed his Wave Runner into their 33-foot motorboat, suffering fatal lacerations when he hit the propellers. Emilio dove into the water and kept Clarke afloat as Gloria called 911, but Clarke died before he could be taken to a hospital. “Emilio was brave,” says Gloria, who has since lobbied successfully for state safety laws requiring formal training for kids under 16 who ride personal watercraft. Recalls Emilio: “I was worried about barracudas and sharks. There was blood all over the place, and I’m thinking my legs are going to be eaten in front of my wife.”

The 18-year Estefan marriage seems solid. “He has everything I’ve ever wanted,” Gloria says of Emilio, who she reports was her first and only lover. Still, there are moments that try her patience. “Emilio is a neat freak, okay?” she says. “He hoses everything down. I’ve pondered getting him a fire truck. When we were just married, he would vacuum walking backward toward the bed to erase his footprints.”

Before the current tour, Emilio, 43, supervised the construction and decoration of the house’s new 11,000-square-foot Moroccan-Indian-style wing. Showing his work-in-progress to visitors, he whirls around the property like a man on 20 cafe cubanos. The interior, filled with dozens of crates tagged “Made in India,” recalls the storage-room scene in Citizen Kane. There’s a $20,000 throne, an $800,000 Botero sculpture and two three-foot-tall Indian mythic figures. Whom do they represent? “I don’t know,” says Emilio. “But they each cost $8,000.”

“People in India must be thinking, ‘Why are we losing all our furniture to these Estefan people,’ ” jokes Gloria, as construction workers scurry back and forth. “I can’t wait for this to end,” she says. “It feels like a commune here.”

Estefan detests anything smacking of communism. She was born in Havana in 1957 to Gloria Fajardo, a schoolteacher, and Jose Manuel Fajardo, a 24-year-old security officer for President Fulgencio Batista. In 1959, after Castro unseated Batista, the Fajardos fled to Miami on a $21 flight. Penniless, they settled in a Cuban ghetto behind the Orange Bowl. Jose, a dashing former world-class volleyball player, returned to Cuba and served as a tank commander in the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion but was captured and jailed in Havana. Released in 1963, he returned to Miami, joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Vietnam in 1967.

By then, Glorita, a shy, studious child, was spending hours on her bed plucking out traditional Cuban songs and Beatles hits on a guitar. When her 35-year-old father returned from the war a year later, the effects of Agent Orange had already left him seriously impaired, both mentally and physically. Gloria, then 11, nursed him, feeding and cleaning him until his hospitalization in 1976. While her mother taught at a nearby elementary school, Gloria also looked after her sister, Rebecca, now 32 and a product manager for Estefan Enterprises. “My father would stand up, forget he couldn’t walk and fall down,” Gloria recalls. “I had to pick him up a lot, and he felt bad about that. But the music healed me. Singing in my room was a way of getting stuff out.”

In 1975, Estefan entered the University of Miami, majoring in psychology, and also met Emilio at a wedding where his band, the Miami Latin Boys, was performing. He coaxed her into singing two songs and offered her a job. Estefan accepted, and the band was renamed the Miami Sound Machine. “Gloria’s eyes were always pointed down back then,” says the Cuban-born Emilio, who had immigrated to Miami in 1967. “She was sad because of her father. The only moments I saw her happy was when she sang. Her eyes would come alive.”

Three years later, after Estefan had graduated summa cum laude, she married the bandleader. With her father confined to a hospital bed, Estefan walked down the aisle alone. “No other male figure in my life deserved that honor,” she says. After the ceremony, bride and groom drove to the hospital. It was four years since Jose Fajardo had recognized his daughter. Seeing her in her wedding dress, he uttered his first word in years: “Glorita.” Says Estefan: “I was so happy that he saw right through my eyes. Maybe that’s why he recognized me.”

Fajardo died in 1980, the same year Nayib was born and the Miami Sound Machine, which combined Afro-Cuban dance rhythms with American pop, landed its first record contract. With 1985’s international smash “Conga,” the band cha-cha’d into the mainstream. A hit parade—”Bad Boys,” “1-2-3,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You”—followed, and by 1989, Estefan was a woman of influence. “She’s the only Latin artist to have had major crossover success,” says John Lannert, Latin American-Caribbean bureau chief for Billboard magazine. Celia Cruz agrees: “Those of us who sing in Spanish have benefited from her great commercial reach.”

Estefan’s new, decidedly commercial “Reach” will undoubtedly keep the juggernaut going. “Careerwise, we’re secure,” says Emilio. “I don’t care if we have another hit. We’ve done it all.” Done it all and been through it all. Destiny has lately been kind to Estefan, but can she trust it? Moments after putting Emily to sleep, she ponders the events that have rocked her life. “S—t happens, I know,” she says. “But man, at times I’ve wished s—t would go somewhere else for a while.” Maybe this time it really has.

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