Miami Spice

updated 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HIS BAND HAD ALREADY LAUNCHED INTO THE first notes of his hit single "If You Go" as Jon Secada ran out to face the crowd at Chicago's Soldier Field for the opening ceremonies of the World Cup soccer tournament last month. But as the singer sprinted to center stage, he stepped through a hole in the makeshift platform and crashed to the ground five feet below, dislocating his right shoulder. In ex-cruciating pain, with only his head above stage level, Secada thought of the hundreds of millions of people watching on TV and did the only thing he could think of: he burst into song. "It's funny how your adrenaline takes over," says Secada, who had to be pulled out of the hole by security guards. "I just didn't want to be embarrassed in front of the world."

The world would no doubt forgive him. Since his solo debut in 1992, the 32-year-old Cuban exile has built an astonishing following in the U.S. and throughout Latin America and Asia and a reputation as one of pop music's most unpretentious performers. Propelled by his soulful, intimate singing style, his first album, Jon Secada, sold 6 million copies in English—plus a half million more in Spanish—and rang up four Top 10 hits, including the smash "Just Another Day." His second album, Heart, Soul & a Voice (released May 24), has already produced a major hit, "If You Go." "When he sings," says Secada's manager, Emilio Estcfan (Gloria's husband), "you feel it."

Although both albums have Spanish cuts to reflect his Latin background, Secada points out that the R&B-flavored Heart, Soul & a Voice also reflects his race. "I'm proud to be Afro-Cuban American," says the singer. "I wanted to make an album that says, 'I am a black man.' "

Secada's emphasis on heritage is understandable. The only child of José and Victoria Secada, owners of a Havana coffee shop, he spent his early childhood watching his parents struggle to flee Cuba after Fidel Castro's revolution. "Castro is a devil in disguise," he says with uncharacteristic anger. "There is no liberty in Cuba, no human rights. My parents didn't want to raise me under that kind of government."

An early attempt to smuggle his father out on a fishing boat to Florida landed José in prison for three years. When the family applied to leave legally in 1969, José was sent to a work camp for a year and a half (Castro's penalty for applicants) while their papers were processed. The Secadas finally were allowed to leave in 1971, when Jon (who unofficially changed his name from Juan in 1990) was 9. "I have almost no memories of Cuba," he says. "I think it may be a block. We had to leave behind almost everything."

The Secadas started a coffee shop in Hialeah, Fla., while Jon, a sweet-tempered straight-arrow even then, threw himself into his studies. Though his parents speak only Spanish, Jon picked up English quickly, with the help, he says, "of a lot of TV." It wasn't until 11th grade that he discovered his talent for music. Jon sang the part of young Scrooge in a musical version of A Christmas Carol, and his schoolmates were dazzled. "It was the first time the whole class had heard his voice, and everyone was just, 'What!?' " recalls longtime pal and songwriting partner Miguel Morejon.

Encouraged by teachers, Secada eventually earned a master's degree in jazz vocal performance from the University of Miami before taking a job teaching voice at Miami-Dade Community College. One of his students was Jo Pat Cafaro, a freelance makeup artist who became his wife in 1988. "She got pregnant, so we got married," explains Secada. But even before the wedding, Secada's career began taking a toll on the relationship. Discovered by Emilio Estefan after he heard a demo tape of Jon's music, Secada began working as a songwriter and backup vocalist for Gloria and other acts and found himself on the road for weeks at a time. In 1993 he and Cafaro, who had suffered a miscarriage three days before the wedding, were divorced. "We were in love, but we got married for the wrong reasons," says Secada.

Although he would like to have a family someday, Secada says that at the moment he is "single on purpose." At any rate, he has little lime for romance; his current tour will lake him across the U.S. and throughout Latin America. When not on the road, he is busy planning renovations of a new home on Biscayne Bay (he plans to offer his now-retired parents their choice of the bay-front home or his Miami Beach condo when the work is done). And Steven Spielberg recently invited him to audition for the lead in his upcoming film Zorro. Whether he wins the part or not, Secada is sure more good things will come—and that no more stages will give way beneath him. "My biggest achievement?" he says. "It hasn't happened yet."

MEG GRANT in Miami

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