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Life and times of pop’s Latin diva

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First there was the big bridge. Then the big tunnel. Then the canyon of gigantic buildings. She has no idea, Gloria Estefan says, what could have knocked out her cell phone this time.

Everything looks relatively normal, she says, peering out the window of a car that is winding its way through New York City while she talks rapidly from the back seat to a reporter in Los Angeles. She is trying to make every second count.

As she speaks, she's racing across Manhattan for a taping of David Letterman's show and then one with Rosie O'Donnell.

"This must be hard on you," the now-familiar voice, filled with embarrassment, had said moments before, when the conversation was re-established for the fifth time. "Because I know," she giggled sheepishly, "it's killing me."

It's an occupational hazard, it seems, for someone who must be in too many places at one time.

And she has been everywhere in recent months.

Since late May, she has been at the top of the Latin music charts with her new Spanish-language album "Caribbean Soul" (Epic), her 20th album and her third in Spanish.

Earlier in the year, she was frequently seen on the network news, and not always to positive reaction. That was when she appeared outside the Miami home of the relatives of Elian Gonzalez in support of an asylum hearing for the 6-year-old boy.

Estefan's father spent time in prison for taking part in Cuba's Bay of Pigs invasion, and she has never been shy about expressing her dislike for Fidel Castro.

But Estefan said she went to the home where Elian was staying only because Attorney General Janet Reno told her an appearance there might make Elian's father feel more comfortable that Cuban-Americans had his son's best interests at heart.

She's happy, she said, that Elian was reunited with his father, but she's not happy that the boy was taken from his Miami relatives at gunpoint.

"That was a shame, that should not have happened," she said.

Estefan, who was a baby when her family fled Cuba, would like to return to do a concert, but not until Castro is out of the picture.

"I think that would be my dream," she said. "We've done so many things, and I've been so fortunate to perform for so many years at such a vast array of big events. But to perform in a free Cuba, that would be the celebration of it all for me."

In the midst of all this, Estefan had a European concert tour to complete and a PBS special. Now there is a U.S. concert tour to do, and soon HBO will show the movie she produced about Arturo Sandoval, the great Cuban jazz trumpeter.

"It's a cool story," she said excitedly. "Because it's got great music, of course. And a real love story, between him and his wife. And very diverse political views, with him getting out of Cuba and all.

"It was a killer on my schedule, but it was wonderful to be a part of it all."

Estefan, 42, is an electrifying performer whose work encompasses a range of styles from salsa to dance, American pop to Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Estefan says just about every day has been wonderful since that awful one in March 1990 when a truck rear-ended her tour bus on a snow-covered highway in Pennsylvania.

The accident nearly took her life, nearly left her paralyzed, nearly ended her career. Even now, there is not a day she isn't reminded of it.

"If I sit in a hardback chair, it's a big reminder," she said, noting ruefully that there is no ignoring the metal rods and screws that hold her back together.

"But it's a wonderful reminder," she quickly added, regaining her trademark enthusiasm, "because it allows me, it reminds me, to live my life to the fullest. And I've always been very thankful for that."


The official Gloria Estefan Web site is: www.gloriafan.com.