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The Estefans on Cuban heritage, Hollywood representation: 'The culture came here'

Gloria Estefan, her daughter ,Emily, and her niece Lili will all appear on a new season of 'Red Table Talk: The Estefans' this week.
Collage of Gloria, Lily and Emily Estefan on orange background
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Music icon Gloria Estefan, her daughter, Emily Estefan, and her niece Lili Estefan spoke to TODAY about Hispanic Heritage Month and teased the upcoming new episodes of their Facebook Watch show, "Red Table Talk: The Estefans," where they talk about important current issues.

Estefan, 64, whose family left Cuba when she was 2 years old, said that growing up in "the most Cuban of households" in Miami was "a very Latin experience" despite being in the United States.

"The whole idea was that (my family) was going to go back," the Miami Sound Machine performer said. "That was the plan, that was the expectation, so my mother really clung to everything. We spoke only Spanish in the house ... And then as we saw the chances dwindling of us ever going back, it was even more important for us to be immersed in that culture. A lot of the culture came here."

Estefan said that as she grew up, her family moved around a lot because of her father's position in the army. At one point, they left Miami to go to San Antonio, Texas, where she was "the only Hispanic student in class."

"In my home I always felt very proud to be Cuban, and then once I came (back) to Miami, I didn't feel like an other," Estefan said. She said that as her own family grew, it was important to continue those traditions at home: Her children learned Spanish and Arabic, in homage to her husband's family, and she always prepared food that tied to both of their cultures.

Emily Estefan, 26, said that her mother is "constantly building bridges" and credited her mother's work and Miami's influence to her strong attachment to her Cuban heritage.

"Miami is a beautiful, magical place," Emily said. "It almost feels like you're not in the United States ... It's just unbelievable that we're in the position to be able to celebrate our culture. As somebody born in the United States, who has never touched Cuban soil, I speak fluent Spanish, I had an incredible relationship to my grandparents, and an incredible connection to my culture that I'm going to pass to my kids and it's going to continue to be very alive in them. That's the beauty of our Latino culture."

Gloria Estefan, whose work has always focused on the music and dance of Cuba, said that seeing the United States do more to acknowledge its Hispanic and Latino populations has touched her.

"First we had Hispanic Heritage Day, then a week, and now we have a month," Estefan said. "It's wonderful to celebrate the contributions of the immigrants who have made this country. ... We make a lot of contributions to this country and hopefully it will keep growing."

Gloria Estefan said that it has also been important to watch "Latino success stories" grow in the United States' popular culture, especially because she once advocated for new talent like Shakira.

"I personally fought hard to have Shakira release (2001 album "Laundry Service") in English, because the record company wanted her to just put a couple of songs in English on a Spanish-language record, and I thought that would have been a big mistake, and she ended up ... selling over 13 million albums," Estefan recalled. "It's good for us to continue to support our industry, but that work isn't over."

The Estefans will bring their advice and wisdom to a new season of "Red Table Talk: The Estefans."
The Estefans will bring their advice and wisdom to a new season of "Red Table Talk: The Estefans." TODAY

"We see flashes of Latino success stories, but we need to keep that in the mix, because look at the (2021) Emmys," Estefan continued. "There were very few people of color or projects of that nature nominated. It's important that we support our Latino artists, who are so talented and so important, that they be represented in art as they are in life, and that's going to be a struggle that we have to continue through the years."

Lili Estefan, a model and television star, who lived in Cuba until she was 13, said that she has seen the television industry change "tremendously" in the past 30 years.

"The industry has made tremendous headway and opened up," said Lili, 54, who has hosted the Spanish news show "El Gordo y La Flaca" since 1998. "There is more space for Latinos, there are more roles that have been written for us, but we still have a long way to go. For the first time, we have a Latina Cinderella, and we have to be proud of that."

The family said that on "Red Table Talk: The Estefans," they are excited to touch on important issues, like colorism in the Latino community, sexual abuse and more. Estefan said that the show will feature experts and guests who can talk about their own opinions and experiences.

"A lot of people come to me for advice and what I end up doing is just having a conversation with them and talking and offering questions, and that's what we're trying to do with our show," said Estefan. "We offer the questions and talk about the different ways to react and the different versions of those answers."

Estefan said that she never wants to push advice on other people, but she did share some words of wisdom for those looking to make their mark in the music industry - or any other field.

"There is the internet; you can take matters into your own hands," Estefan said. "You have to be patient ... and stick to your identity as an artist. Believe in yourself, because everybody is always going to tell you 'No,' and you can't listen to that."

Gloria Estefan
Gloria Estefan performing with Miami Sound Machine at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on July 25, 1988.Ebet Roberts / Redferns

Emily said that growing up around such a strong and ambitious attitude helped her grow her own career. While she acknowledged that she has "grown up with a lot of privilege" because of her parents' influence in the music world, she said that watching Gloria and Emilio Estefan stand by their vision made it easier to do that herself - and made it easier for other Hispanic performers in music.

"My parents are the model of people who are holding the door open," Emily said.

Lili said that learning from her aunt and uncle's "incredible" work ethic helped her break into her own field, and taught her how to persevere.

"You have to follow your dreams. It's important to not give up or get discouraged," Lili said. "You have to have role models in the industry and learn from their work ethic."

"Stay strong, stay focused on your vision," Estefan continued. "Don't change it for anyone else. All the time, they would tell me 'Get rid of the horns, get rid of the percussion, you're never going to be able to compete with such a 'Latin' sound,' and we would say 'But that's who we are.'"