Gloria Estefan is pleased with her status as one of pop music's less visible yet truly committed AIDS activists. While many of her contemporaries tirelessly court the media, the woman whose radio and recording reign began in 1985 with the libidinous "Conga" prefers to quietly do her duty and let others compete for a chance to take a center-stage, spotlighted bow.
"Using your position as a public figure to focus public attention on life-and-death issues like AIDS is an obligation of anyone who cares about the world we live in," she says. "But you have to make sure that you are using your success to help a cause and not the other way around." Estefan's normally easygoing demeanor tightens as she carefully chooses her words: "It's tragic, but I have seen the latter a few times, and it disturbs me. I cannot comprehend doing anything that isn't straight from the heart."
For three years, Estefan has turned her words into action by serving as co-chair (along with her husband and producer, Emilio Estefan) of the Community Alliance Against AIDS (CAAA) in Miami. Largely devoted to raising awareness of AIDS-related issues among Latino youth, Estefan's involvement with CAAA is rooted in her desire to give something back to the people who have long supported her. "There is nothing more important than going out on the street and teaching people who simply do not have the right information on this issue," she says. Hence CAAA's frequent visits to schools and youth centers to present seminars on safer sex, along with fundraising to pay for PWAs' health care.
In addition to her work at CAAA, Estefan's heightened AIDS awareness has been triggered by a string of personal milestones, most notably her 15-year-old son Nayib's hormonal nose-dive into adolescence and the birth of her second child, Emily, almost two years ago.
"When you see how precious and fragile life is, the natural inclination is to do everything in your power to protect it, especially if you're a parent," she says. "I look at Nayib and I see endless possibilities for joy and accomplishment. But I also see danger, and I'm committed to doing everything in my power to prevent him from falling into that danger."
To that end, the Estefans' dinner-table discussions now cover topics like condoms, homosexuality and other sex-related matters. "Kids feel invincible, but you've got to keep them grounded in reality," says Estefan, herself clearly a realist. "Just because there is HIV and AIDS doesn't mean that your sex drive is going to change. I don't necessarily want to think about my son having sex at a young age, but I don't pretend that this hasn't become a very real issue in his life."
"It wasn't the easiest conversation we've ever had," Estefan says with a nervous laugh, blushing at the memory of introducing Nayib to the need to use condoms. "I don't know which of us was more jittery, but we lived through it. How could Emilio and I work with an organization that is strongly focused on educating young people on safer sex without doing it at home first?"
Not surprisingly, matters of home and hearth extend to Estefan's work. Her newest CD, Destiny, her first recording of original English-language songs in six years, is her most personal work to date. Never has Estefan so completely combined the authentic flavors of the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Antillian music she was raised on with the taut pop hooks of her earlier hits.
Estefan is especially fond of "Along Came You," which features her daughter's debut as a vocalist. "There's a section of the song that has a lullaby that I often sing to Emily, and she loves to sing along," she explains. "We were in the studio working on that song, and I was holding Emily in my arms with all of these wonderful, warm candles lighting the room. When we got to the lullaby, she started cooing and singing along. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. It just had to be on the record."
Seemingly lost in the memory, Estefan closes her eyes and takes another deep breath. After a long pause, she returns to one of the first questions at hand. "I listen to 'Along Came You' and I hear nothing but the future. And then I look around and I have mental images of people who will not be around to see Emily as a woman, and I grow sad," she says. "These are the reasons why I lend my time and energy to an organization like Community Alliance Against AIDS without first alerting the media. I'm not there as Gloria Estefan, a well-known performer-artist. I'm there as Gloria, a woman who doesn't want to lose her family or any more friends."