Prior to being awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (along with his wife, international superstar Gloria Estefan), Emilio Estefan sat down with the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden to discuss his immigrant experience, ignoring the defeatists and the secrets to his success.
Born in Cuba, Estefan, along with his father, fled to Spain at the age of 14 to escape the Castro regime. Such a journey was life-changing for Estefan. "I cried on the plane from Havana to Spain. I went to Spain because my mom was from Spain and when I got there in 8 hours, I became a man."
Fleeing was necessary according to Estefan. "Without freedom, you can not dream, you can not have anything."
Emilio immigrated to Miami a year later where his inauspicious start to his music career - playing the accordion for tips in a local restaurant - was a necessary means of survival.
Forming a new band, the Miami Latin Boys, Estefan met his future wife and musical partner Gloria in 1975. Once she joined the group as their lead singer - something completely unheard of at the time - the band morphed into the Miami Sound Machine.
Signed to Epic/CBS Records, the group initially received little support from the label, forcing them to take matters into their own hands, reaching out to DJ's to make their first song 'Dr. Beat" a hit internationally. "'Dr. Beat" even when we took it to a label [they] said 'This kind of sound will never work. It has a lot of percussion and Gloria said 'Well, let's try ourselves.' We went to all the DJ's and the song became number one in England, Holland and in the States."
But even as Miami Sound Machine's popularity grew, their record label was hesitant to support them. "I tried to go to Sony [with "Conga"]. They said 'They're really busy' and finally, after seven times they let me come into the record label and the guy there said 'Listen, this sound will never work. I mean, you have to take the trumpets out, the percussion out.' One of the things they said was 'You have to change your last name" and I said 'I will never do that sir.' And he said, 'Well, you know something, this kind of thing you have to play this in your home. Go back to your country.' And I told the guy 'Listen, I'm proud of what we've done. I'm proud of my family. And I will tell you something. We will do it on our own.' And you know something? We convinced the label, just to put it out and the song, in 2 weeks, became number one in every format."
As it turns out, Estefan had the last laugh with the label naysayer. "Seven years later, I became president of Sony so I used to go (mimes sticking his head in an office and waving), "Hello! How are you?"
"Conga" kicked off what would turn out to be a 30+ year career, earning Estefan 19 Grammys in addition to other awards including BMI's Songwriter of the Year and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Estefan knows however that every time they win an award, there's a larger meaning to it. "Every time we receive an award like the Medal of Freedom or the Gershwin Award...it's not about another award for me and Gloria, It's about getting that award for many people," he explained. "Many people that we would be able to inspire that we did it, they can do it. Life was good to us. We always want to be good to life."
"Emilio & Gloria Estefan: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song" will air May 3 on PBS.