Gloria Estefan. To Latino U.S.A., she's the golden cross-over cover girl. On a global scale, she's the voice that sold American salsa to the Euro-pop music market and made it stick.
"At first everyone said it was watered-down salsa," she said. "But it's more, not less. We have other options that other people don't try, and I happen to be proud we've been able to bring it to them in this form."
"Oye Mi Canto" ("Hear My Voice"), a long cut in her latest album, "Cuts Both Ways," is anything but diluted. It is a relentless conga that reprises in Spanish at the end.
The chorus of the song keeps repeating. "Sin razones, sin explicaciones, sin contradicciones, oye mi canto" ("without reasons, without explanations, without contradictions, hear my song")--almost a mantra-like expression of Estefan's feelings about her music.
Estefan was honored as 1989 Songwriter of the Year by BMI Records for having composed seven of the songs in the "Cuts Both Ways" album. She will be a co-host of the American Music Awards on Jan. 22 in Los Angeles, to be telecast by ABC.
A recent interview with Estefan took place inside the two-story building that her husband, Emilio Estefan, built for the band on a busy Miami thoroughfare. Nobody knows they're there.
If the fans found out, "they'd be hanging around to take a look at Glorita," Emilio Estefan laughed.
"Here they love us, you know," Emilio Estefan continued. "We also get a lot of support from other Hispanics, especially Mexican-Americans, who make a point of letting us know we're making it possible for everybody too."
The Estefan clan fills the building. Gloria's sister and cousin work for the band, as do Emilio's brother and his wife.
"You have to, otherwise you don't see them," Gloria Estefan explained.
She takes one sweeping glance at the trophies, the platinum records and the posters as she talks about what's on her mind.
"Success, because everyone always talks about it," she said. "It's all great, of course it is. There are things that happened to me that I thought were great.
"But, since they weren't things I craved, I've never been disappointed. I take it one day at a time. I enjoy people, and I enjoy the autographs, I really do."
Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine had been well-known in Miami for a decade when they burst onto the national pop charts in the mid-80s with such hits as "Dr. Beat" and "Conga." The contagious salsa-disco "Conga" was the featured cut in the "Primitive Love" album, which has sold 6 million copies.
It was an extended, 12-minute version of "Conga" that Miami Sound Machine created for the "Let it Loose" tour last year that put the band across in Asia, she said.
"We played at . . . Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia," she said, "and we were warned, 'These people are very quiet.' Well, after 'Conga,' I said, 'Quiet, my foot.' "
"Cuts Both Ways" was written like post cards from the road, she recalled.
"The songs were written during the tour, when lots of things were happening and I had time to write. I've always written, always, ever since I was a kid I wrote poetry. Now I even write parodies of our own songs."
After some prodding about a parody of "Conga," which starts, "Come on, shake your body, baby, do that conga," she finally giggled, blushed, "Aw, come on," and laughed softly through, "Open up your wallet, baby, buy that condo."
In Miami, everyone knows that the Cuban-born singer had it rough growing up. Her father came back from Vietnam an invalid, and, she recalled, "my mom worked and studied while I took care of my dad and my sister."
"The thing is that as a kid you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I was always thinking and writing, I didn't want to become bitter. I'm a Virgo, I analyze everything to death," she said.
Estefan, a psychology graduate from the University of Miami, said she got over her painful schoolgirl shyness by watching herself on tapes.
"Being hypercritical," she said, "asking myself, 'Well, how do I want to be?' because I love performing, see. That, and Emilio's guidance, his confidence in me."
That and 14 years of performing at any gig they could get since Emilio asked her to be the female soloist with his Latin Boys, a predecessor of the Miami Sound Machine.
Gloria Estefan's family ties are one of her strongest Latino traits. She took her 9-year-old son, Nayib, on their 1989 European tour, she said, "because he's ready for it, and I don't want him away from me for that long. I need a tie to 'every-dayness,' to the human kind of stuff."
She's been performing for 14 years now, and that part of the business has become easy, Estefan said.
Now, at 32, "I have everything I want. I just want to be able to keep it," she laughed fully. "I want to be able to plan things out, to have another baby one day. What I don't like is surprises."