It was late October 1995 when renowned Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan performed at the Vatican wearing an elegant and sober black dress in a recital celebrating the 50th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s ordination as a priest.
Before her performance the singer saluted the Pope in English on her own behalf and that of her family. Then speaking in Spanish she said:
“Saintly Father, I ask for your prayers for opening the doors of freedom in my native land and everywhere in the world.”
Almost two decades later, amid criticism inside and outside of Cuba of increasing political repression, the singer and her husband, music produce Emilio Estefan, visited a different pope, but her call for Cuba’s freedom was the same.
The Estefans have met personally with the three most recent pontiffs who have led the Catholic Church, including Benedict XVI in a ceremony held at the White House, and now with Pope Francis in the Vatican.
“Thanks to our music we have become known and have been able to deliver a message for freedom,” Emilio Estefan said. He added that the opportunity to speak five or ten minutes with a pope or a president “makes a big difference.”
“I think they listen more because they know there is no political agenda. We go as human beings, as people known for our music,” Estefan said. “We say something as a wish from good citizens, not for obtaining personal benefit.”
The Estefans met Pope Francis, who is Argentine, when they were invited to take part in a private mass at the Vatican in April.
“Vatican employees, people who work cleaning the floors, attend the morning Mass. There we saw a humble pope, an authentic human man who kisses the children,” Estefan said in an interview with El Nuevo Herald.
“Gloria told him, ‘We now have the pleasure of having a pope who speaks Spanish and understand our needs and the pain of Hispanic people,” Estefan said.
He added that his wife also told the pope that his mission as the new pontiff “will bring peace and freedom to the world.” Another moving moment came when the singer asked the pope to “keep Cuba and its current situation in his thoughts,” Estefan said.
“Gloria told him: ‘All I ask is to not forget that Cuba has many problems with human rights,’” Estefan said. Meanwhile, the pope asked them to pray for him so that he would receive “strength” as a spiritual guide.
The couple traveled to Rome in response to an invitation to attend TEDx ViaDella Conciliazione, an event organized by TED, a non-profit organization devoted to spreading ideas. She was one of 20 world personalities invited to the event.
Gloria Estefan’s papal request coincides with a new wave of government harassment and persecution in Cuba. In April, there were short-term detentions of at least 366 activists.
Estefan said that his wife’s request was the culmination of a petition that was not finalized in 1995. Estefan recalled that on that occasion the organizers of the Vatican recital asked the singer not to mention Cuba “so as not to politicize the event.
“And when she did it, the Cuban Embassy [staff] left their seats,” Estefan added.
Gloria was the first pop singer to sing for a pope, Estefan said.
In the beginning of May, Pope Francis also exchanged a few words with Berta Soler, leader of the Cuban opposition group Ladies in White, at the end of a general audience at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.
Soler introduced herself as a representative of family members of political prisoners in Cuba and asked for “moral and spiritual” support while denouncing the situation in the Communist country.
The dissident leader, who displayed a Cuban flag, also handed the pope two letters from wives of political prisoners. The Pope blessed her and invited her to continue her fight for human rights.
The Estefans share Soler’s sentiments.
“As in the case of Cuba, we would like all countries to enjoy freedom. There is a need for a lot of faith in the world at this time,” Emilio Estefan said. “The respect has to come from the highest authority, and we see a pope with a different spirit for whom we feel respect and admiration.”