Gloria Estefan Reflects on How Her 1990 Near-Death Bus Crash Changed Her Life — and Iconic Career

The queen of Latin pop just released her new album Brazil305 — 30 years after the horrific bus crash that changed her life

gloria estefan
Gloria Estefan.

Thirty years ago, Gloria Estefan's life changed forever.

On March 20, 1990 — when the Cuban-American singer was at the height of her career — a semi-truck crashed into her tour bus on a snowy Pennsylvania highway, breaking her back.

"I was taking a nap on the bus, trying to be fresh for the show that night, and suddenly I was lying on the floor, not able to stand up, looking up at the ceiling, going, ‘What happened?’ The pain was excruciating,” Estefan, 62, says, recalling the accident over a Zoom video chat from her home office in Miami, where she and husband Emilio, 67, are isolating during the pandemic.

That near-death experience shifted her focus.

gloria estefan
Gloria Estefan after the 1990 bus accident. Chris O'meara/AP/Shutterstock

"There was definitely a before and after from that accident. Even though I wouldn't want to go through it again, I learned a lot about just living day-to-day," says Estefan, who is mom to son Nayib, 39, and daughter Emily, 25. "I remember thinking, 'Maybe this is the reason that I've gone through this; maybe I can be an example to people of how to take control of our lives and get past hurdles.'"

A spiritual person, Estefan says she had a personal experience with the power of prayer in her healing.

"I went to a Catholic girls' school. We prayed a lot — the Our Father, the Hail Mary — but I couldn't connect because it was just spouting, almost like a meditation," she says. "But when I was the recipient of the prayers of millions of people around the world after my accident, I felt a physical energy. It was the most powerful force, like I was plugged into the wall, juiced up. It wasn't about religion: I felt the consciousness of other human beings wishing me well and the power of that collective spirit. So I'm convinced that thoughts create reality, and that the thoughts that we've put out into the universe are going to manifest."

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Gloria Estefan in 1988. Ebet Roberts/Getty

The queen of Latin pop also came out of the crash with a new outlook on goal-setting.

"After my accident, I couldn't imagine going from being almost paralyzed to walking again. I made myself short-term goals to accomplish, such as walking an extra two feet, so each day I just went a little further," she says. "Don't think about that daunting thing that seems unattainable — think about what I can do today to be just that much closer to that goal."

After an arduous recovery, Estefan indeed regained control of her life — and made history as she took her career to new heights, from becoming the first Latin artist to headline the Super Bowl halftime show to winning Grammys and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

gloria estefan
Gloria Estefan's Grammy win in 1994. Timothy Clary/Getty

"I never got into music for fame," says Estefan. "I did it because I love music, and it's been the thing that has gotten me through the toughest times of my life."

Estefan sought solace in song once again while putting together her latest album, Brazil305, out now. The singer was working on the record when her mother, Gloria Fajardo, died in 2017.

"I was going to put it out in 2017, but then my mom got ill and passed, and I just couldn't bring myself to sing, which was the only thing left to do on the record," she says. "But I wanted joy on it, and it took me about a year to be able to get back to the studio and put all the joy on it. My mom had heard the music and was in love with the album, so I think she helped me a lot at that moment."

Brazil205 reimagines Estefan and Miami Sound Machine's biggest hits — from "Conga" and "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" to "Get on Your Feet" — with a Brazilian flair.

"When I said, 'The rhythm is gonna get you,' I meant it, because at the core of all human interaction, is drums. This was our first communication as a world and as a species, and that's how we talked through miles and miles, by the drumming. So every culture has this rhythm," she says.

Estefan studied psychology and communication in college and has seen how her work moves crowds, no matter what language they speak.

"I would always analyze the responses that people were giving me throughout the show, what it would take for each different culture to just relax and let go. And what I found was that regardless of the differences in language — whether I was in Japan or in Australia or Latin America — I got the same exact human responses at the same points in the show," she adds. "It didn't matter whether they understood what was being said or some, something about it really united us."

Emilio Estefan and Gloria Estefan
Emilio and Gloria Estefan. Walter McBride/WireImage

In these divisive times, Estefan sees music as a unifying force.

"I have a deep respect for music and what it can do to people. So whenever I put something out, I am very conscious of trying to have it be something that is going to make people either feel better — or be able to cry or speak words to a loved one that maybe they can't come up with themselves," she says. "I like to delve into things that really unite us and that are common like love, loss of love. We all want the same things. We all want acceptance. We all want happiness. And those are the things that I focus on."

For more on Gloria Estefan, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

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