Juan Gabriel: The Death of an Icon
With Juan gabriel’s passing late August of 2016, the mystique around his persona and the successful career he had built reached a pinnacle that only few others can claim. Juan Gabriel was many things to many people and regardless of how you felt about him, artist or person, if you knew him, you knew and perhaps loved his music. It was precisely through music that I formed a connection to who he was and what he represented for Mexico. I was in the midst of my bandmates when the news broke out that Juan Gabriel had passed away at the age of 66. We felt our hearts heavy. Accross the summerfest grounds where Mexican fiesta was taking place, the mood was joyful in celebration of his life but somber as well, at the thought of losing another person that will undoubtedly be immortalized by his music.
In approaching this project, I knew I wanted to delve deeper into the feelings and notions that people have of Juan Gabriel. The interviews I carried out with my bandmates were absolutely interesting. I have known them all for several years and have built up a strong relationship revolving our love for music. In addressing the interviews, I was very interested in how their comments connected to the readings and topics discussed throughout the fall 2016 semester in my sociology of sex and gender course. In talking about Juan Gabriel, the three main topics that stood out were those of Masculinity and Machismo, what it meant to be a man, and the taboo and sociocultural approach towards homosexuality in Mexican culture.
I specifically looked at the interviews through the work of West & Zimmerman, Doing Gender, in the context of an all male music group where often the teasing and group dynamics work to reinforce ideas of masculinity that clash with the fact that in performance arts, there is often fluidity in expressing gender. While the context of the group is in Wisconsin, far away from Mexico where most of us call home, the culture and the patriarchal systems transcend borders and carry over to a hybrid and much more americanized culture. The multigenerational aspect of the group was also important as some of the 1st generation, sons of immigrant parents, have had a significantly different upbringing than the older men of the band. Yet, the kinds of gender checking that occurs within the group is interesting. In the responses of the interviews, there were the positing of ideals and ways of thinking that are often hard to uphold in the regular social contacts of the group. An example is the way in which, the demeanor changed a bit when the interviewed men talked about Juan Gabriel’s assumed homosexuality and the mannerisms used to describe being gay are learned and repeated in social settings where homophobic slurs are exchanged carelessly.
Kimberle Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality was also important in studying the responses and in understanding the complexity of Juan Gabriel’s identity. There was an understanding, although not as explicit perhaps, of the intersections of Juan Gabriel and his being. As a gay, poor, Mexican man living within a patriarchal and Machismo-ridden society, it is odd for someone like him to have succeeded in the way he did. Many understood his success as a result of his hard work and dedication to achieving his dreams. They acknowledge that he had a plethora of obstacles but that his talent helped him overcome criticism time and time again. The most interesting portion though was their interpretation of what made a man, a man. They recognized that the question of his sexuality was important in defining who he was, but his identity as a father tied with that of being a man because he provided for his children, was seemingly much more important.
Through John D’Emilio’s Capitalism and Gay Identity, I was able to understand more how the connections between changing economies has allowed for gay and lesbian communities to be out and have thriving independent communities. In looking at Juan Gabriel’s formative years in the bordertown of Juarez, it made sense that he was able to find the success he needed within communities that were a lot more open-minded and progressive for the time. Another point that was brought up in the interviews, however, was the exploitation of Juan Gabriel and his image by the same capitalist system that provided him fame and success. Playing into homophobic rhetoric and sensationalization, Juan Gabriel’s reputation was often in question simply because of the taboo and stigma that still exists around homosexuality.
The conscious recognition of Machismo as an ill is important as it is a foundation for all those who talk in the video of how they have benefitted from the privilege of identifying as straight men and freely being able to take the music of Juan Gabriel and make it theirs. While that may have been the intention of Juan Gabriel, as an image of two very Mexican things, pride in Mexican music and the receiving end of toxic masculinity rooted in patriarchy and Machismo, we must remind ourselves of how far we have come in rights issues but how much more work we still have to do.
Unfortunately 2016 has taken a significant toll in taking many pioneers that battled against normative ideas of gender and sexuality. The purpose of this project was to pay tribute and to reflect on how Juan Gabriel and other figures such as Prince and David Bowie, have left legacies of resistance and revolutionary love through their art. Further, we must fight to uphold the strides and leaps that these important human beings took to pave a way for change in our world. Let’s sing and celebrate their lives through their music and pass on their examples to the generations to come.