By: Vanessa Garcia / January 27, 2016
On January first, my best friend and I went to go see On Your Feet, the musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan on Broadway. I cried. My friend, Yanik, bawled. I was with my boyfriend, Yanik was with her husband. They were not crying. Neither of them were Cuban. How could we explain? It was a long story.
We had to trace back to when we were 13 in a drive-thru Taco Bell line, in the car with my parents. A Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine song came on the radio. Something from the 80s. 1–2–3 perhaps, or Anything for You. From the backseat, I turned on my teen noxiousness and said: “I hate Gloria Estefan.” Yanik agreed. We were just too cool.
Our coolness, however, was soon cut short by a jolt. My father had pressed the breaks, full force, and my mother had whipped her head back to stare us down. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d made a big mistake — huge. And my parents were just about to Cubansplain it to me.
“You cannot hate Gloria Estefan,” my mother said, almost jumping out of her seat. “You are not allowed to hate Gloria Estefan, do you understand me?!” My mother’s infamous vein was sticking out of her forehead, pumping a lifeline into her full-volume speech. Yanik and I shut our mouths fast, eyes wide, confused.
“You don’t know anything, little girl!” My mother shouted. My father started in too: “Do you know what it took to get to where Gloria is, to get to where we are, do you know what we’ve had to do in this country?” The cars were honking behind us, there were people fiending for burritos, but my parents didn’t care. “Nuestra sangre!” my mother said, “How dare you?!”
Our blood? That was dramatic. I eye-rolled toward Yanik. Surely, my parents were overreacting. But I knew better than to say this out loud. You learn that early: When your Cuban mother screams the way my mother was screaming in the car now, you shut up and listen, even if you disagree. It wasn’t until many years later, that I understood my parents’ feelings in that car. Watching Gloria and Emilio’s story on “The Great White Way,” I turned on a more mature voice and said to myself: Mom and dad, you were right. I have to love Gloria Estefan.
That love has deeper roots than the particular branch my 13-year-old self dangled her feet from. The same roots that vibrate underneath the soil when Puerto Ricans and Latinos watch Lin-Manuel Miranda at work (In the Heights and Hamilton).
When my parents were in their late teens and early twenties, they’d gone to weddings and parties where Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine had played for peanuts, sometimes for free. They remembered watching their homegirl make it up the charts and they rooted for her. They passed the love on, gave me records, tapes, CDs. And so when I was 10 and 11, I sang along to Gloria. I wore my hair wild and curly, just like Gloria did. I wanted to be her. I knew all the words to 1–2–3. They tell me you’re shy boy, but I want you just the same…
When I was twelve, Gloria was coming out of her accident — a tour bus accident some thought would take her. She now had titanium rods in her back, after a long and dangerous surgery. In 1991, when she healed, we went to her first concert post-accident, as a family. It felt like a holiday, like we should name a day after her. We hollered from our seats, my sister and I dancing, my parents buoyed by the wave of emotion that took the arena by storm as Gloria came back Into the Light, as the album for that tour was called.
I don’t know quite what I was thinking, just a year later, at 13, when I said suddenly, in that Taco Bell line: “I hate Gloria Estefan.” I was, perhaps, trying to become myself, trying to cut my parent’s influence. This was part of assimilation, sure, but, more than that, it was part of being a teenager. Rebellion. I wanted to listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana. Now, they were cool. Gloria, she was like my parents, she even looked like my mom. Problem was, my mom was right. I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t quite know about mixture yet — how you could love Nirvana and Gloria and even put them on the same playlist, I’d learn that later. In the musical, On Your Feet, there’s a moment when Gloria is fighting with her mother and her mother says something like, and I’m quoting from memory here: “You’re seventeen, you know 17 things. I’m 48, I know 48 things.” At thirteen, I knew only 13 things.
By the time I was 22, however, I’d gathered a little more knowledge, and one of my favorite albums was by Gloria: Alma Caribeña. I’d already decided I was a writer, and was working for another writer, a mentor, in New York City. One day, I told him I had a gift for him, and I gave him a copy of the CD. I knew he understood what I was telling him — he was, after all, a black British writer, born in St. Kitts, and working out of the United States. He knew when I gave him the Gloria album that what I was really saying was: this is who I am.
By that point, I knew that it wasn’t just about the long, long ladder my parents had climbed, right alongside Gloria and Emilio, it was also about who I, myself, was. It was about the fact that inside Oye Mi Canto, there was the call of Cuban rhythms shouting out to America in a call and response.
How could Yanik and I explain? It was our childhood, our people, on stage. And if the world is, indeed, a stage, then the world was finally admitting they’d been listening to us, to Gloria, for a very long time. That they found in her a beat they were unfamiliar with, wrapped inside a synthesizer they knew well. Here was our Cuban story, our migratory tale, our history. Here was America. Here was the inevitable assimilation of the Cuban into the United States, but here too was America’s assimilation to us. It’s no coincidence that this musical follows on the heels of Obama’s promise of aperture between the U.S. and Cuba.
Whether life is imitating art, or art life, America is finding its way to Cuba, finally, after all these years. More important still, Latinos are setting, aiming, and firing back at the once all-white-male western canon.
About Vanessa Garcia
Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist