I heard about Juán Gabriel’s death Sunday and had no idea how hard it would hit me, until some guy posted on Facebook that he didn’t much care for El Divo’s music, completely missing the point of how beloved Juan Gabriel is in Mexico, and what he has meant to generations of popular Mexican culture through thick and thin.
I listened to his music for hours Sunday night, something I had never done before. As I went through the pages and pages of You Tube videos, I realized how his songs and musical lineage gave me an immediate and comforting oasis for things of the heart and human love, a cultural respite from the current wave of public hatred against Mexicans. He is ours and we are his.
Even his last tour, MÉXICO ES TODO, is a proud and arguably defiant act of cultural solidarity with the Mexican People, at a time when we are experiencing frontal racist attacks from abroad, and despite the internal corruption of a Mexican government so cold-blooded, it is using military force to kill indigenous school teachers on strike.
But in the end, there is still culture. In the end there is still Juan Gabriel and his ability to humanize us, to move hearts through song with messages about love so familiar you cannot ignore them. AMOR ETERNO.
A prolific songwriter and producer, he wrote over 1000 songs, many of them for the likes of las grandes damas del canto mexicano: Lola Beltrán, Amalia Mendoza (La Tariácuri) and Lucha Villa. Lola Beltrán was one of the first to recognize his talent, and she mentored him right into the highest echelons of Mexican music production. She was his madrina. She held him by the hand and used her own fame to bring the gifted brown beautiful unknown young gay mexicano onto the world stage.
He even wrote a song about the great Diva of Mexican cinema herself, María Felix, María Bonita, La Doña, beloved muse of Mexican composer Agustín Lara.
Years later in his own tribute song to La Doña, Juán Gabriel compares her to the Virgin Mary, the Dark Virgin, La Virgen Morena, who is also Tonantzín the Aztec Mother Goddess. He calls her The Face of God, causing a stir among the gatekeepers.
Perhaps his well-known close relationships with so many acclaimed women artists had much to do with his love and longing for his own mother. Forced by her condition as a poor woman whose husband had gone mad, she put the sensitive 3 year-old in an orphanage.
Despite his suffering, he was a man who liked women, capable of sincere admiration and respect for them and their talents. He devoted many years of his career writing songs for theirs.
On stage he never missed a chance to call out to mothers and to the masses of poor workers and ordinary citizens, the heart-broken, the lovesick, those who (like himself) have struggled to survive, the invisible backbone of civilization. Under his gaze they were not invisible. He saw them: the poorest and most disdained of all. And they saw him as well, and in this seeing they accepted him and were inspired and loved him, naming him El Divo and calling him by a nickname they might have used for their own child, JuanGa.
A great icon AND a flamboyant gay man who also fathered four children, El Divo was brought into the fold by the most acclaimed of Mexican women singers and artists with genuine love, affection and respect for him, at a time when being a gay man in Mexico was completely lethal.
But his love songs trumped prejudice and his life became a gift so powerful it made hatred and homophobia turn on its head in a world where machismo is rife.
Many hundreds of songs and millions of records later, he practically died on the stage. He gave us his all.
Generations sang his songs and always will.
María Elena Gaitán (aka Chola Con Cello) is a musician, writer and performance artist. She has created new works under the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and has been featured with conductor Essa Pekka Salonen and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Last November she received the Sor Juana Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. She is completing her first memoire and solo CD.