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The song earned $1.3 million and topped the charts worldwide; today it remains one of the most popular tunes in Spain. The album Mi Tierra sold more than 5.1 million copies and won a Grammy. It was a springboard for the 26-year-old Estefano; his popularity soared in the years that followed. In 1997, he met a new mentor. Jose Luis Gil was 12 years older than Estefano and a producer/business manager for several Spanish-language artists. He was born in Brazil and split his time between South America, Miami, and Madrid. "Gil was a wonderful person with me as far as business is concerned," Estefano would later recall in court documents. "He always gives me the best advice, he has always taken care of me.... He's been with me longer in my career than my father. My father is not a businessman, and he doesn't know about this career. And in this career, you need people to help you out."
Gil had written a Spanish-language book about the music business titled Requiem por la Música, los Artistas y la Industria (Requiem for the Music, the Artists, and the Industry). Under the pseudonym J.L. Greensnake, he described working with big names such as Shakira, Ricky Martin, and Alejandro Sanz. And he detailed his disillusionment with the industry, which he felt was "selling out." He continued to work only with Estefano, whose "creativity was superlative."
In the late Nineties — the exact time is unclear — Estefano agreed to allow Gil to handle all of his business affairs, court records show. In return, the older man would receive a 10 percent cut. They never formalized this in writing.
The songwriter's reputation boomed. He wrote two hit songs on La Carretera, Julio Iglesias's first Top 10 album in a decade. He also penned tunes for Paulina Rubio and pop singer Chayanne — in addition to releasing two albums with Cuban musician Donato. Said Chayanne in 2005: "Estefano has known how to interpret my mind, my soul, and put it to song, and I consider that has been the key to the success of his work on my records."
Another key was his use of rich, romantic Spanish. From the Chayanne hit "Volver a Nacer" ("Born Again"): "Va creciendo el amor y en la ilusión se nos queda la piel amándonos. Es volver a nacer cuando tú y yo estamos juntos. [Love is growing, and in the illusion our carnal love remains. It's like being born again when you and I are together.]"
"He was all about speaking good Spanish," recalls Jose Pagan, who co-wrote songs with Estefano between 2002 and 2005. "It was very unique. Before I met him, I could write songs in Spanish, but after working with him, I had another way of seeing the words. He treated the songs like poetry."
Estefano's talent won him a cabinetful of prizes. He took home the BMI Latin Music Award for Songwriter of the Year in 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004; in 2005, he tied for the honor with his old mentor, Emilio Estefan.
But there was a mysterious side to Estefano that the pop music world and tabloids knew little about: his association with Santería. Glimpses of his interest in the ancient Afro-Caribbean religion popped up in a few places. Spanish magazine Loft pictured him wearing all white and draped with red rosarylike beads — like a babalao. In 2000, a music video for one of his songs included images of Santería altars intertwined with that of a sexy woman on a bed.
The genesis of his interest in Santería is unclear, though there are indications it had something to do with Gil; the business manager and mentor was an expert on the Afro-Caribbean religion. (Both Estefano and Gil declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, referring comment to their lawyers.)
In 2007, again under the name J.L. Greensnake, Gil penned a popular book called Brujo, Espiritu y Santo (Witches, Spirits and Saints). The 238-page tome described the inner workings of the Ochosi Yoruba Church in Kendall, which Estefano began attending around 2000. It profiled the church's leader, or padrino, Andres Suarez, who is called Andres Ochosi, and traced the history of Santería and a similar faith called Palo from Africa to the New World. In ethereal, sometimes incomprehensible language, it talks about judging a "balance" between "the dreams and the living, good and bad — magical reality."
Estefano's office manager, Odisa Beltran, would later testify that her boss once brought her to the Kendall church named in the book and that its leaders visited the studio often. Estefano would "disappear" occasionally and return with his normally long, black locks shaved off. "Very short hair, and he was wearing white," Beltran explained. "I knew that that's a way in Cuba of being a santo, or saint."
In 2005, Estefano seemed to reach the pinnacle of his career. He moved from a small studio in North Miami-Dade to a 16,000-square-foot facility at 5020 Biscayne Blvd. on the edge of Little Haiti. The sleek white building looked a bit like the San Marco Island home he bought two years before: white, modern, and sterile.