Juan Gabriel, our Mexican Prince

Juan Gabriel, the legendary Mexican singer-songwriter, who sold over 100 million albums, died Sunday of a fatal heart attack in Santa Monica, California at the age of 66.

The whole of Mexico is in mourning, with Mexican television dedicating hours of coverage to the passing of this most Mexican of stars.

“Juanga,” as he is affectionately known, was a monster of talent, an ambassador of Mexicaness –not just to Mexico but to the world.

The superstar was born to peasants in rural Mexico. The six-time Grammy Award winner had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — yet never forgot his humble beginning. In Mexico he’s remembered not only as a “national treasure” but as a sensitive soul who loved animals and gave money to the orphanage where he spent most of his childhood.

Juan Gabriel’s real name was Alberto Aguilera Valadez, the youngest of 10 children born to Gabriel Aguilera and Victoria Valadez from Parácuaro, Michoacán. There are conflicting versions of Juan Gabriel’s early life –one that has his father dying in an accident shortly after his birth, another version sending his father to a psychiatric ward in Mexico City.

But Juan Gabriel’s biggest blow came shortly after his mother moved to the border town of Ciudad Juárez and started working as a maid, where she was unable to maintain her children as a single mother - so sent Juan Gabriel, then only four years old, to a children’s home.

Juan Gabriel’s schooling took place on the rough border streets, where he is said to have sold burritos for a living. Through a series of haphazard coincidences and his amazing voice, he started singing in local nightclubs, then on local radio.

His rise to stardom was derailed briefly when he was accused of stealing a guitar and was imprisoned in Mexico City’s infamous Lecumberri prison.

Prison seems to be a mere blip in his lifestory. Fast forward to superstardom thanks to a lucky encounter with Enriqueta Jiménez, a ranchera singer who made vital introductions in the Mexico City music industry.

For over 40 years his songs have played at parties all over Mexico and especially at weddings, including mine. His songs bring an instant recognition, no matter your age, gender or social background. It’s that instant recognition that made Juan Gabriel’s music so popular, so easy to sing along to.

Juan Gabriel was an instant export success and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world lapped up his every frenzied word. He leaves a legacy of over 1500 songs.

But Juan Gabriel was much more than just an icon of Mexican music — he was also a gay man whose flamboyant, overly effeminate and kitschy performances shot him to stardom in an overly macho country. An irony not lost on anyone here.

How to explain his popularity? Growing up in Mexico, his songs were our soundtrack. Whenever any of his songs aired on the radio, I’d grab the nearest broomstick as a pretend microphone and mimic his 1984 hit “Querida” (My Dear). My father would inevitably roll his eyes and sigh “que cursi,” or “how cheesy,” as Juan Gabriel sang: “Look at my loneliness, I want to see light in my house again.”

“Querida” is super cheesy but oh so beautiful, so romantic, so heartbreaking, so Mexican.

But it was exactly this cheesiness, his ultra-soulful way of his expressing utter and devastating heartbreak that struck a chord with the most skeptical of listeners — and it was the way he gave every cell in his body, a la Freddie Mercury — to every performance that made fans go crazy.

Another favorite of mine is Juan Gabriel’s duet with the late Spanish singer Rocío Durcal, “Déjame Vivir” (Let Me Live) an upbeat song about splitting up — a woman telling her man to let her go while Juan Gabriel literally begs her to stay.

Consider his earliest hit, (1971) “No tengo dinero” (I’ve got no money) especially in Mexico, a country with a considerable poverty rate. He sings of of being poor but having a lot of love to give.

Rest in peace, Juan Gabriel, you’re in good company with Prince and Bowie.

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Links to songs:

Querida: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btsfNW4zlwI

Déjame Vivir: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8mH-ytnCTo

No Tengo Dinero: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekvCTMMMwBU