Gloria Estefan on leaving Cuba -- The singer discusses her first experiences in America as a refugee living in south Florida

”When I first came to Miami, you’d see signs like ‘No Children, No Pets, No Cubans.’ We were a major threat.” That was in 1960, after Gloria Estefan and her mother, also named Gloria, fled their native Cuba. ”We lived in a very small apartment behind the Orange Bowl, where all the Cubans lived. All the men (including her father, José Manuel Fajardo) were political prisoners in Cuba, and it was purely women and their kids. There was one car the whole community bought for $50, and the one lady that could drive would take everybody to the supermarket and the Laundromat.”

Her father eventually joined the family, and the 3-year-old metamorphosed into the 35-year-old, No. 1-single-writing pop diva we know today. But Estefan never forgot her beginnings, and last month released what she calls her lifelong dream: a Spanish album and Valentine to the traditional sounds and flavors of Cuba called Mi Tierra (My Land). A risky move for a Top 40 artist, but a move that is paying off: The album is No. 1 on the Latin charts and an astonishing 27 on the pop charts. ”My parents really kept the myth and tradition of Cuba alive,” says Estefan. ”That and places like Little Havana in Miami, where it is just like stepping into old Cuba.”

After tireless fund-raising for Hurricane Andrew victims, Estefan’s appreciation of Miami is reciprocated by the city. ”I love the mix of the people, the sunsets, the heat — in many other ways than just weather,” deadpans Estefan, who, with husband Emilio recently opened the restaurant Larios on the Beach, in the muy trendy South Beach section of Miami. Most definitely on the menu: Cuban coffee, of which Estefan must have one fix per day. ”It’s very powerful, very sweet, and a little dangerous — just like the people who drink it.”