07/09/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2012

How Gloria Estefan Helped Me Love My Curls

Until we met at the Latina August cover shoot recently, Gloria Estefan had no idea that she and I go way
back. I was a little cubanita growing up in a working-class Miami suburb when Conga came out and
its tumbadora beats and Cuban piano riffs heralded a new day in American pop. But it wasn't just that a
song with such a resoundingly Latin vibe had made its way onto mainstream radio that made me proud. I
loved that Gloria had curly hair.

Sound shallow? Not to any brown girl with curls who has always gotten the same reaction from
hairstylist after hairstylist: "Niña, why don't you just straighten your hair and be done with it?" When
Gloria came around, all I had to do was show up with a picture and say, "If she can keep her curls, so can I.
Bring on the mousse."

Of course, what I didn't realize as a kid was that my love of her hair was shorthand for something
infinitely more important: Deep inside, I felt that there was now someone on the national mainstream
stage whom I could look at and see my own experience and culture reflected. It mattered immensely that
I could watch her career develop and know that it was possible for a Latina like me to succeed.

Beyond hair, there's always been a lot more about Gloria to love, of course. There is her talent and
warmth, and the audacity to, at the height of her English-language career, put out a Spanish-language
album so drop-dead gorgeous (Mi Tierra) that it became a huge hit--both my sisters used one of its songs
(Con los Años que me Quedan) for the father-daughter dance at their weddings. There is the fact that
she and Emilio turned talent and hard work into an empire while keeping their marriage, family and
culture at the center of their world. And there is the resilience Gloria showed in putting herself back
together--literally--when an accident left her body, but not her spirit, broken.

When I look at her today and when I read our cover story Gloria, I think, like many other Latinas, that
hers is the kind of life I strive to have: Authentic. I've even forgiven her for blow-drying her hair. At the
cover shoot, I had a chance to tell her all this. Holding my hands in hers, she told me that being the center
of attention has never been something that she's comfortable with. "But inspiring Latinas like you," she
said, "That's the true reward of my career." I'm not easily star struck, but this was one of the highlights of
my career.

Check out our shoot for the August cover here and a few outtakes here.

This editorial will appear in the August issue of Latina Magazine.