Gloria Estefan in 1995
Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images
How Gloria Estefan Crossed Latin Music Boundaries On Her Second Spanish-Language Album, 'Abriendo Puertas'
Once considered a left field move, predominantly English-language hitmakers recording material in Spanish is now very much a norm. Jennifer Lopez, Nelly Furtado and Pitbull have all released full-length albums paying tribute to their Latin American heritage, while more recently Justin Bieber’s collaboration with Luis Fonsi inspired almost every one of his peers to dig deep into their phrasebooks.
Back in the mid-1990s, however, the idea of a three-time US Hot 100 chart-topper singing an entire album in a different tongue was considered a momentum-killing career choice. Yet Gloria Estefan’s Mi Tierra ended up spending a still-record-breaking 58 weeks at the Billboard Top Latin Albums number one spot, won the Best Tropical Latin Album GRAMMY and shifted more than 1.2 million domestic copies to become the U.S.’s sixth biggest-selling Latin record of all time.
Little surprise, therefore, that Estefan didn’t waste much time returning to such triumphant territory. Only the English-language Christmas Through Your Eyes and covers album Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me stood in between Mi Tierra and 1995’s Abriendo Puertas (translated as Opening Doors), an even more curious Latin affair which explored far beyond the boleros and danzóns of her Cuban beginnings.
The seeds for Estefan's sixth solo effort were sown a year earlier when her other half, Emilio, discovered the talents of Kike Santander, a former jingle writer who’d just worked with Venezuelan icon José Luis Rodríguez, a.k.a. "El Puma." Santander was subsequently tasked with penning all 10 tracks on Abriendo Puertas, an entirely different approach from the highly collaborative nature of its Latin predecessor which roped in the likes of mambo pioneer Cachao and regular Estefan cohort Jon Secada.
A proud Colombian, Santander used this opportunity to showcase the sounds of his homeland in front of an audience bigger than ever before: at this stage, Shakira, another Emilio protégé, was still very much a local concern.
One of several ventures into the traditional Colombian folk music known as vallenato, the opening title track immediately set the tone ahead. Like much of the album, Emilio’s jaunty accordion riffs blend effortlessly with Edwin Bonilla's primitive yet potent percussion on a carnival-friendly alternative to "Auld Lang Syne."
Yes, although Abriendo Puertas sounds tailor-made for a backyard barbecue in the height of July, it's essentially Estefan's second dedication to the Christmas holidays, albeit one more focused on the end than the beginning. "I tell you from my heart/That the New Year will be better," she promises on the eponymous number.
A similar sense of optimism runs throughout. On "Tres Deseos," Estefan delivers platitudes such as "May dreams come true/A future of prosperity/May a better world flourish/May there be peace in the heart." And on the joyous party anthem of "La Parranda," she toasts to both the "New Year and the New Year that left."
Of course, as with Mi Tierra, the majority of Abriendo Puertas’ buyers are unlikely to have understood a word of Estefan's well wishes. Only the distant sound of church bells on "Más Allá"—the flamenco-tinged ballad she performed during her historic audience with Pope John Paul II—offers any kind of musical nod to the yuletide season.
But no matter what the occasion, the album’s continually sunny disposition and authentic instrumentation instantly conjures up visions of Latin America’s lush green landscapes, and not just those in Santander’s homeland, either.
Although its danceable beats are steeped in the traditional Colombian style of currulao, album highlight "Farolito" also makes use of the Paraguayan harp. The irresistible "Nuevo Dia," meanwhile, throws in a little of the Cuban salsa flavor that permeated Miami Sound Machine's pre-crossover work. And Estefan’s producer husband cleverly interweaves elements of the Dominican merengue, Peruvian cumbia and rhythms originating from Panama, Mexico and Puerto Rico throughout.
Of course, Estefan’s mainstream output had often took inspiration from various parts of Latin America. See the bilingual samba of "Oye Mi Canto (Hear My Voice)" or the tribal Afro-Cuban percussion of "Conga" and "Rhythm’s Gonna Get You," for example. But Abriendo Puertas was the first time that she’d committed to the idea of a Latino hybrid entirely free from any Americanized influences whatsoever. Sure, its roots may lie in Colombia, but the album has no qualms about crossing geographical barriers to celebrate the rich history of Latin music as a whole.
This sense of adventure impressed the majority of critics, too, with the Chicago Tribune declaring, "It is wholly unlike anything she—or anyone else—has done before" and The New York Times describing the record as "a set of well-made, drivingly danceable music that for all its synthesis never seems like exoticism." A second Best Tropical Latin Album GRAMMY would also follow a year later.
Abriendo Puertas is undoubtedly the most ambitious of Estefan’s Latin fare—as its title suggests 2000's Alma Caribeña focused on Caribbean soul, while 2007’s 90 Millas was another love letter to her native Cuba. And yet it’s possibly the most forgotten, too. It could only peak at No.67 in the fall of 1995 and was the first Estefan album not to reach platinum status.
Furthermore, the Estefans’ relationship with the man responsible for the album’s boundary-breaking style soured significantly at the turn of the century. Santander, who also contributed to 1996 follow-up Destiny and 1998’s club-focused Gloria!, sued Emilio over a dispute about his contract and payment terms, and even accused him of taking unearned production credits before later dropping the case.
Nevertheless, Estefan appears to remain proud of their first collaborative effort. 2020’s Brazil305, in which she gives 18 of her own songs a samba makeover, features two Abriendo Puertas numbers (“Más Allá” and the title track). The latter also became a staple of her live shows, while “Tres Deseos” was given a new lease of life on stage thanks to a mash-up with Destiny cut “Higher.”
And with contemporary acts such as Paloma Mami, Anitta and Rosalía – the latter cited by Estefan as one of her modern-day favorites – now further bridging Latin American divides, Abriendo Puertas’ door-opening intentions appear to have paid off.