Juan Gabriel, famous singer and a former homeless person, broke cultural and political barriers.


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The Mexican singer who had already been recognized as a cultural icon when he died on Sunday August 28th, is still being mourned and  celebrated in the Latino community.  A summary of his background is presented here:

“ Juan Gabriel blended Mexican folkloric music with a pop sensibility, combining romantic lyrics with spectacular showmanship in his live performances. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential Latin American artists ever…

Juan Gabriel became known as “El Divo de Juárez” for his flamboyant sequin-and-silk-heavy style of dress, but all that flash and flair was eclipsed by his prolific songwriting: He wrote over 1,800 songs in a variety of genres, including bolero, mariachi, and Latin pop…he was wrongfully convicted of robbery and spent a year in a local prison. Juan Gabriel was exonerated with the help of a fellow Mexican artist, but the young singer-songwriter’s setbacks—he was also homeless for years while performing in bars—inspired some of his biggest hits… Here’s one of his earliest mega-hits, 1986’s “Te Lo Pido Por Favor,” as well as an acclaimed cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” from earlier this year.”

A conversation aimed to an audience not familiar with his music and impact is conducted in this NPR program:

“It takes time to explain an artist like Juan Gabriel to those unfamiliar with who he was. The singer, who died Sunday, was practically a household name throughout the Spanish-speaking world, but his death caused hardly a blip of recognition among most of those who’d tuned in to MTV’s Video Music Awards the night of his death…Once you get an idea of why he was such a big deal, I think you may agree that in an age when music fans often listen only to what they already like, we may never see another performer have this kind of personal impact on so many people.”

The impact of Juan Gabriel, also called JuanGa by his fans, from the perspective and experience of a Mexican American is presented by Gustavo Arellano here:

“Flash forward to Sunday, when I learned that Juan Gabriel passed away of a heart attack at age 66 in Santa Monica. I immediately searched YouTube for the opening song to “…Con Amor Eterno”: “Con tu Amor” (“With Your Love”). It’s my go-to JuanGa song, because it makes me cry, a combination of shame at my ignorant past and wonder for the song. As I heard its timpani-like bass, tinny keyboards and tinkling chimes — hey, it was recorded in the 1990s — the tears flowed freely.”

One of his performances in Los Angeles had a tremendous impact for Latinos living in California. The Mexican Salvadorean writer Ruben Martinez describes that moment here  (the concert can be viewed in the linked article) :

“It was the summer of 1993 and immigrants from Mexico and Central America were vulnerable — even more than usual. Pete Wilson and California Republicans were just ramping up a nativist campaign that almost pales in comparison to Donald Trump’s Gestapo message, but at the time it was the worst immigrant scapegoating in a generation. The rhetorical season culminated with the passage of the blatantly racist Proposition 187.

That’s when Juan Gabriel played the Rose Bowl”

Martinez explains how the sentiments of the immigrants and the violence they encounter are reflected in Juan Gabriel’s life and artistic expression, and the significance of his performance in a place like Pasadena.

“A friend asked me today, how did he do it, how did he not just survive but become the biggest pop star of his generation, in macho México?

It wasn’t in spite of his difference but because of it. Certainly, the rags to riches storyline was essential to his reception. But to be accepted as gay — he was as “out” as you could be in his context (he famously told an interviewer, “Lo que se ve, no se pregunta,” you shouldn’t ask about what is obvious) — was a step further. He allowed a more fluid Mexican identity to filter up through the layers of social repression (church, state, gringos), one that is open, vulnerable, generous. It is the Mexico that is just beneath the macho bluster, the hacendado posturing of its politicos, the murderous tendencies of rich and poor alike, the ghosts of conquest and colonialism. Mexicans recognized their deeper selves in his reflection.”

Listening to his songs, watching his performances, dancing to his music, one easily feel the power and beauty of his emotional interpretations. His mainstream appeal was such that his concert at the Rose Bowl was sponsored by major corporations. His artistic talents made his sexual orientation acceptable, his early modest and troubled life a motivation, his gratitude of the help he received from others a way to give back . Let’s honor his legacy by accepting the diversity of the sexual orientation, by pursuing a society in which homelessness and youth imprisonment are not the end of peoples lives. His legacy may appeal to the mainstream to avoid shameful and tragic situations like the unresolved disappearance of 43 students.


About Ricardo Toro

Anaheim resident for several decades. In addition to political blogging, another area of interest is providing habitats for the Monarch butterfly. http://www.orangejuiceblog.com/2013/12/caterpillars-crossing-in-a-city-at-a-crossroads/