Mexicans mourn Juan Gabriel, a singer who captured his country’s soul

MEXICO CITY – The death of Mexico’s flamboyant musical icon Juan Gabriel set off waves of mourning in his home country on Monday, with residents gathering to pay tribute in the city of his youth, Ciudad Juarez, and in plazas and venues in the capital linked to the superstar singer.

For many Mexicans, the loss of the 66-year-old singer, who died at his Los Angeles home on Sunday morning, felt like a death in the family. Since the early 1970s, Mexicans have grown up to his emotional ballads: hearing them in concerts, on the radio, on the television network Televisa, or more recently on iPods or computers.

As columnist Hector de Maulóen wrote in El Universal newspaper, “We have lost the voice that was the backdrop of our lives.”

Gabriel, a prolific songwriter who sold more than 100 million records, performed his last show Friday night at the Forum in Inglewood. He was known as the “Divo of Juarez,” after the border town where he grew up. His charismatic and campy stage-presence made him an iconic figure in the gay community, even though he kept his own sexual orientation private throughout his life.

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The organization LGBT Mexico tweeted that Gabriel was a “man who challenged homophobia and rose above it.”

On Sunday evening, some 1,500 people gathered outside a home he owned in Juarez, placing flowers and candles at the door and singing one of his most famous songs, “Amor Eterno,” said Saul Barrera, an entertainment editor from El Periodico Norte, a newspaper in Juarez.

“Juan Gabriel has played a fundamental role in the love and heartbreak of Mexicans,” Barrera said. “Many, many, have fallen in love with his songs, and many have lived the bitterness and heartbreak of his songs.”

Tributes poured in from the highest levels of government, as well as from musicians and ordinary Mexicans.

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted that Gabriel was “one the greatest musical icons of our country.”

“A voice and a talent that represented Mexico. His music is a legacy for the world,” Peña Nieto tweeted.

In Mexico City, residents paid tribute to him at Plaza Garibaldi, a gathering point for mariachi musicians, placing flowers before a statue of Gabriel and posing for photographs.

Off to the side, Victor Manuel Jimenez, 61, a retired federal government employee, said he had come to pay homage to a man who represented perseverance in overcoming difficulties.

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Gabriel, born Alberto Aguilera Valadez, the youngest of 10 children, was given by his mother to an orphanage when he was an infant in Ciudad Juarez. He pursued music while scraping out a living in Mexico City and even spent time in jail for an alleged robbery.

“He signified struggle,” Jimenez said.

Gabriel’s songs felt positive, Jimenez said, with a purity and innocence, even when sad.

“Through his songs, I enjoyed life,” he said.

Onstage, in front of a Mexico that has traditionally valued machismo, Gabriel performed with an Elton John-esque flair, wearing silks and sequins, furs and suspenders, in addition to more somber suits and mariachi costumes.

“He managed to win over many people in spite of their prejudices,” said Julio Patan, a writer and host of the”Hora 21″ television program. “It was very common to see in his shows the classic ‘Mexican supermacho,’ the cliche of Mexican masculinity, with homophobic prejudices, fully enjoying his show, clapping, singing, dancing. For me, it was touching, inclusive.”

It was often assumed that Gabriel was gay, and a former assistant, among others, published what appeared to be romantic photos of him with other men. Many people were surprised to learn the singer had fathered four children. When asked about his personal life, Gabriel generally demurred. “One doesn’t judge what one sees,” he said.

“Before Mexico was more conservative, now not as much,” said Laura Gomez, 50, who owns a clothing shop in Puebla. “We understand that it’s not about the person, it’s about the music, what we want to see is the music.”

One of the milestones in Gabriel’s long career took place in 1990, when he became the first commercial singer, as opposed to a classical musician, to perform at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. The institution opened its doors for the public for people to pay tribute to Gabriel on Monday, and a small crowd had gathered outside in the morning morning.

“For me, he was part of my childhood,” said Gomez, who was sitting outside the hall. She has gone to his concerts and continues listening to Gabriel. “He was a special person.”

Ivan Galicia, 24, came to the hall carrying a tabloid newspaper with Gabriel’s face on the cover. Galicia sells cellphones nearby but wanted to take a moment to mourn the singer. He expected more people would be coming soon.

“For generations, he’s been an idol,” Galicia said. “Many more people will come, that’s certain. It’s going to be massive.”

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.