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Juan Gabriel’s Death, Like His Music, Brings Mexicans Together

Across Mexico, fans mourned and celebrated the singer who for years provided the soundtrack for their joyous occasions and their heartbreak.
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Fans gathered in Mexico City at a statue of Juan Gabriel, a beloved singer who died at the age of 66 on Sunday. Credit Yuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MEXICO CITY — They began arriving before dusk on Sunday – couples, families and people on their own seeking the fellowship of others who felt as deeply as they.

Their numbers grew throughout the night, and by midnight there were hundreds — young and old, wealthy and poor — thronging the statue of the Mexican singer and songwriter Juan Gabriel in Mexico City’s historic center.

A trumpeter played a few notes of a Juan Gabriel song and the crowd followed, singing in unison. Someone called out the title of another tune, and the rest picked up the cue.

Across the capital and the rest of Mexico, fans held spontaneous vigils and celebrations to pay tribute to the life of Juan Gabriel, who died on Sunday in California at 66. Restaurants and bars changed their playlists to his music. Musicians gathered on street corners to play through his voluminous songbook, drawing crowds of strangers.

It is difficult to overstate the popularity in Mexico of Juan Gabriel, whose music tapped a deeply sentimental vein in Mexican culture. His appeal transcended regional, racial and class boundaries in an otherwise stratified and fractured society. His music was played at children’s birthday parties and the wedding anniversaries of retirees. It provided the soundtrack for joyous occasions and for heartbreak.

While there may be no perfect analog in the American and European firmament of musical heroes, the national outpouring that followed his death brought to mind the instant tributes and responses to the deaths of Michael Jackson, Prince and David Bowie.

And like those artists, Juan Gabriel challenged mainstream sexual conventions. He was a flamboyant performer, favoring sequin-covered or shiny silk outfits in bright colors like yellow and hot pink. He was widely believed to be gay, though he never confirmed or denied it.

Despite the prevailing macho, homophobic culture of Mexico, he was adored by men and women alike.

“He never hid his sexual preference but was never explicit about it,” said Chuco Mendoza, 59, a bass guitarist in Mexico City. “He was authentic. I never saw a pose in him.”

Mr. Mendoza, like nearly all Mexicans, grew up listening to Juan Gabriel on the radio and watching him on television.

“He was a balladeer whose words were simple and direct,” Mr. Mendoza said. “He spoke the same language as ordinary people and they could identify with it. His harmony wasn’t complicated but it was catchy and it would take hold in people’s consciousness.”

Even Mexico’s intellectuals began to paraphrase his lyrics. On Sunday evening, as commemorations spread on social media, many people repeated some of his most well-known phrases, expressions that have entered Mexico’s popular lexicon.

In his collaborations with other well-known musicians, Juan Gabriel was famous for being very demanding with them. Because he was self-taught, he would sing the music and the arrangements to his musicians.

But when Juan Gabriel became a superstar, he never forgot his connection to ordinary people and would perform at the outdoor arenas of Mexico’s regional cities during state fairs.

His fans stretched across Latin America, and to Spain. Immigrants to the United States took his songs with them, and he played to sold-out venues north of the border, complete with a full mariachi bands, orchestra and his signature showmanship.

Still, the hardship of his childhood was never far away. He was born Alberto Aguilera Valadez to farmworkers, and was the youngest of 10 siblings. His father, Gabriel Aguilera, was committed to a mental hospital when he was a baby.

Seeking work, his mother took the family from central Mexico to the rough border city of Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso. She could not afford to care for him and placed him in a children’s home when he was 5.

That is where he met Juan Contreras, a deaf musician who first taught him music. He took the stage name Juan Gabriel in honor of his first teacher and his father.

At 14, he ran away from the children’s home and began to compose music, selling trinkets on the street and later playing in the city’s bars. Seeking fame, he went to Mexico City, where he spent more than a year in prison, falsely accused of stealing a guitar.

But the story goes that the famous ranchera singer Enriqueta Jiménez heard him and persuaded her producers to hire him. By 21, he had released his first album.

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