behind the scenes

On the Set of One Day at a Time, Gloria Estefan Is Everyone’s Hero

Gloria Estefan and Rita Moreno. Photo: Sony Pictures Television

For two seasons, we’ve heard Gloria Estefan’s deep, raspy tone on One Day at a Time’s salsa theme song, a blessing of the highest Cuban-American order for Norman Lear’s reboot of his ’70s hit show. But on this summer day in Los Angeles, it’s not Estefan belting “This is it!” that has everyone’s attention. The pop star herself is on Stage 25 on the Sony Pictures Television lot playing Mirta, younger sister to Rita Moreno’s Lydia, and cracking everyone up in the process, even though the setting for the first episode of the third season — which launches on Netflix on February 8 — is a funeral. In one moment between takes, Estefan urges the day player who’s lying in the casket to hold her breath. When the woman obeys, she laughs, “No! I’m just kidding!” Later, during a rehearsal, when Moreno winces “Oww!” as Estefan’s big ring jams her finger while they hold hands, Estefan quips, “I’m sorry, but I probably did it on purpose.”

Estefan has such an easygoing manner and natural gift for sitcom rhythms — wait ’til you hear her angrily utter “worthless piece of caca” — that it feels like she’s been a part of the Alvarez family shenanigans since day one. But her presence, honestly, is freaking everyone out.

“She’s the queen of Miami!” says ODAAT co-producer Debby Wolfe, who wrote the season premiere and grew up in Estefan’s hometown. “She’s my queen. She’s one of my heroes growing up, so it’s surreal to be in a situation where your hero is saying words that you’ve written for her.”

If that seems like hyperbole, consider that Justina Machado’s mother and stepfather flew in from Chicago just for tape night, and guest star Melissa Fumero’s mother screamed into the phone when Fumero told her she’d be playing Estefan’s daughter.

“We were going crazy that week,” Machado, the star of the show, recalled later. “What this woman represents to every Latino family — she was the biggest crossover. When I was a little girl, everybody was playing Conga on their boom box. We finally recognized ourselves in the mainstream. That’s what Gloria Estefan did. That’s what Miami Sound Machine did, and continues to do. She and her husband are phenomenal human beings, and to hang out with her and see that she is for real — oh my God, we were all running around completely crazy.”

Fumero, who is Cuban-American, also grew up listening to Estefan’s music. “I told Gloria how when Mi Tierra came out, my mom sat me down and made me listen to the songs and talked to me about how it reminded her of home and she cried,” she said. “And I saw On Your Feet and I loved it. So it’s really weird and amazing to be sitting next to her and try to be chill and casual. And I’m playing her daughter! I just want to burst into tears!”

“The Funeral” is one of those One Day at a Time stand-alone episodes that has a little bit of everything. There’s insane sibling rivalry that manifests into competitive singing and dancing between Moreno and Estefan, a broken BFF relationship, a teachable moment for Elena (Isabella Gomez), and the joy of hearing Schneider (Todd Grinnell) swear “Te lo juro!” It even includes Mirta and Lydia hate-singing “Ave Maria” together, the one part of the acting gig that makes the international superstar nervous, but gives goosebumps to almost everyone else on the soundstage. “That is a song I have avoided like the plague singing my entire life,” Estefan says. “When we started out, we played at a gazillion weddings where they would hire someone to sing the ‘Ave Maria’ and they’d be out of tune or something funky would happen.”

At the center of the episode is the long-standing fight between Lydia and Mirta over a lost family mantilla, a lace veil or shawl that is traditionally handed down through generations and used in weddings. In last season’s eighth episode, “What Happened,” viewers learned that Lydia hasn’t spoken to her younger sister in 20 years because she believes Mirta stole a mantilla that belonged to their grandmother, who stole it from her grandmother’s sister.

Photo: Sony Pictures Television

Estefan’s appearance may seem like classic third-season stunt casting, but co-showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce have been trying to land the three-time Grammy winner since they began developing the show. A fan of Lear’s original, Estefan has always wanted to act on the series — “I’ve watched every single episode many times over,” she says during a break in her dressing room — but her mother’s illness and subsequent death kept her in Miami when the show was in production the last two years.

“I’m so glad it worked out for this one because this episode is hilarious. There’s nothing funnier — I mean, not literally — than a Cuban funeral. Who hasn’t been to one and things go down?” Estefan says. “Rita’s my big sister and we’ve been fighting for 20 years over a piece of lace, each one accusing the other one. Stuff like that happens in families all the time, but the absurdity is what I love because it happens for real.”

The mantilla drama in this case is so real, in fact, that Kellett hesitates before revealing its origin story for fear of offending her family members. “This is such real shit in my family,” she says and then inhales and exhales. “Okay, here we go.”

The facts are these: The mantilla that Kellett wore in her 2001 wedding was sewn by her grandmother and has since gone missing. Kellett believes it’s just been misplaced, as family members have moved. But some of her relatives believe it’s been stolen, much like Lydia and Mirta suspect of each other. After Kellett’s relatives watched the episode where the feud was introduced last season, one cousin called saying she was upset that Kellett had aired her dirty laundry. As it turned out, that cousin also had a missing mantilla and there had been a falling out on that side of the family.

“I had to reassure her that this was not her family’s mantilla story,” Kellett says. “It was my mantilla story and we had moved past it, and I told her I hope they did too. We joke about it now, but this is the beauty of writing when a community is starved of stories. All of a sudden, we get to tell our stories, and there’s obviously going to be overlap because these are issues in our community.”

Although there is no mantilla custom in Wolfe’s family, writing the episode came easily because her family holds nonsensical resentments, too.I always have to go through the list with my mother. Are we talking to him? No, we’re not talking to that bitch anymore. I’m like, what? And the thing is, most of the time she can’t even remember what started the grudge,” said Wolfe, whose mother is from El Salvador.

If the episode highlights the pitfalls of relatives taking each other for granted, that feeling is nowhere to be found on set. Though Lydia refers to her younger sister as la diabla, in real life Moreno says she and Estefan, who are friends, get along like “bread and butter.” (Still, she wants to spread the word that Estefan is no angel: “She’s hilarious when she tells stories and she loves dirty jokes. Tell everybody!”) Besides, the production has reason to celebrate being there at all: For a while last year, as Netflix stalled on renewing the show, it appeared One Day at a Time was on the verge of cancellation, until the showrunners galvanized online support, topped by a letter to Netflix from the National Hispanic Media Coalition signed by several arts and civil-rights organizations urging them to give the show another shot. The campaign worked, and the show’s writers couldn’t be more grateful to be expanding the Alvarez story for 13 more episodes.

A critical darling from the beginning, One Day at a Time ended both of its previous seasons on many prestigious top TV lists and was nominated for a Critics Choice Award for its second season. But it has not been nominated in any major category for a Golden Globe or Emmy, a touchy subject that was front and center the week that “The Funeral” was being taped, as the 2018 Emmy nominations were announced and no Latinx actors or Latinx-centered shows were recognized.

“We should have been nominated as best show, among others,” said Moreno, one of the country’s 15 EGOT winners. “It’s astonishing to me. I don’t see any other shows doing what we do, with these dramatic scenes and stuff like that. It’s so touching and it’s so legitimate. Not over the top, ’cause it would be very easy to get very melodramatic. We don’t do that. We’re very careful. It kills me.”

Estefan empathizes with her friend’s disappointment because she’s been there. Her popular autobiographical musical On Your Feet received only one Tony nomination (choreography) and Estefan won her first Grammy in 1993 for her Spanish-language album Mi Tierra, even though she had been the queen of Latin pop for over a decade with several English-language hits.

“The truth is the award is two seconds, and people don’t even remember,” says Estefan upon learning that ODAAT wasn’t recognized. “If you ask anybody else, Who won an Emmy last year?, they’re not gonna know. What this show is and how it reflects our culture does so much more for us and our image than winning an award. We never went to the studio thinking we were going to write a hit. We wrote songs that mattered to us and that we thought were cool. When they told us to change stuff, we didn’t. If we were gonna succeed, we were gonna succeed at who we are, not a formula that anybody can do. That’s what you have to focus on. It’s disappointing, of course, to the people working so hard to put the show together, and it’s such a great show, but you just have to remember why you’re doing this. What other reason is there to make art?”

Estefan’s point is well-taken later in the afternoon when she, Machado, Moreno, and Gomez are joined for the last scene in the Alvarez living room by Fumero and her Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-star Stephanie Beatriz, who is playing Pilar, the deceased woman’s niece. “It doesn’t feel real,” says Beatriz, of performing in a scene with five other Latina actors, two of whom are icons. “To be here with them is such a huge thing, but then to be here with them for this episode which does this very understated fun job of showing how there are so many colors to the community, it means a lot.”

From the beginning, One Day at a Time’s secret sauce has been deftly telling universal stories from the specific cultural point of a view of a Cuban exile. “The Funeral” tells a hilariously relatable tale about petty family squabbles, but the episode stands out most for the precedent it sets: five established Latinx performers commandeering an episode of television. Add Gomez, who shines going toe-to-toe with Beatriz, and the result is historic.

“I do love the last scene of our season premiere,” Royce says. “It’s a farcical scene with physical comedy and lots of callbacks, dare I say, a bit like something you’d see on Frasier. But instead it’s filled with Latinx characters and cultural details, played brilliantly by these six Latinx forces of nature, not to mention written by a Latinx writer. That is just a great thing to see on television and I’m proud to be a part of putting it there.”

Machado’s eyes water recalling that week of work. “There have been so many incredible moments working on this show, so many times that I look up and I see Rita Moreno or Norman Lear and I can’t believe it,” she said. “Now, Gloria Estefan. Seriously? This is the greatest part I’ve ever had.”

On the Set of ODAAT, Gloria Estefan Is Everyone’s Hero