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Juarez, Mexico, mourns a cultural giant

The Divo of Juarez is dead. Alberto Aguilera Valadez, better known by the artistic name of Juan Gabriel, passed away unexpectedly Sunday, August 28, in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 66. According to the first news reports, the famous Mexican singer-composer died of a heart attack.

Gabriel gave his last concert this past weekend in the Los Angeles area, a city and county frequently referred to as constituting the largest concentration of Mexicans outside Mexico City. Gabriel’s trademark style consisted of spectacular performances staged with a mariachi band, dancers and orchestral backing. Sadly for residents of the Paso del Norte borderland, Gabriel died the very day he had been scheduled to give a performance in El Paso, Texas.

Known as The Divo of Juarez, or simply “Juanga,” Gabriel was an international superstar whose soulful, heart-wrenching ballads enlivened with a mysterious, feminine-like sexual energy carved a distinct identity in contemporary Mexican and Latin music. Modern Mexican music is almost inconceivable without the crooning of Juanga. Yet more than just a musical legend, Gabriel was a cultural icon.

Born into a struggling rural family in the southwestern state of Michoacan, Gabriel arrived as an infant to the border city of Ciudad Juarez, where mom sold food on the street in order to make a living. Like the majority of Juarenses, Gabriel’s family was from somewhere else but determined to build a better life on the border.

Gabriel launched his career in the rough-and-tumble nightclub circuit of Juarez, moving on by the 1970s to Mexico City, where he got a break in the recording and film industries. As a young man, Gabriel once spent more than a year in Mexico City’s notorious Lecumberri prison, falsely accused of robbery, as the story goes.

An entertainer from a poor family was transformed into a celebrity, jetting around the world and maintaining different homes in Mexico and places like Santa Fe, New Mexico, a favored refuge of the rich and famous. Though Gabriel moved away from Juarez decades ago, he maintained a presence in his old stomping grounds by founding a musical school there for poor children.

Rooted in love ballads, Gabriel’s music nevertheless easily crossed musical genres, and the singer actively collaborated with many of the greats of the Mexican and Latin music scenes-Rocio Durcal, Armando Manzanero and Banda El Recodo, just to name a few. Recently, Gabriel appeared on a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute album, singing a Spanish-language version of “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”

As word spread of Juanga’s sudden passing, Juarez and Mexico fell into a mourning that befits a fallen statesman. The star’s death was The Story as the hours passed on Sunday, August 28. Mexico’s major Internet news sites dropped their coverage of politics, sports and other regular topics, devoting articles and commentaries to the life and death of Juan Gabriel. Perhaps there has been no such national outpouring of attention and emotion at the passing of a Mexican pop star since the death of singer-actor Pedro Infante in a 1957 plane crash.

Political and cultural personalities ranging from President Pena Nieto to writer Elena Poniatowska lamented an untimely death. Fellow entertainers Ricky Martin and Marco Antonio Solis quickly sent out Twitter messages.

Poniatowska, who once interviewed Gabriel at the behest of the late cultural writer and analyst Carlos Monsivais, described Juanga as a “warm man” with an easy laugh. Mexican Cultural Secretary Rafael Tovar y de Teresa credited Gabriel for “interpreting the popular soul of Mexico.”

Many of Gabriel’s songs, including “No Tengo Dinero” and “Amor Eterno” are enduring, popular classics.

In the border city Gabriel celebrated with such old hits as “Arriba Juarez” and “El Noa Noa,” hundreds gathered outside the deceased singer’s big old home on Avenida 16 de Septiembre, not far from downtown Juarez. Juarenses brought flowers and pictures, listened to Gabriel’s songs, and shed tears as emotions flowed, stirred by the memory of a man whose words and voice are ingrained in the soundtracks of countless lives. Another spontaneous homage was also reported in Mexico City’s Garibaldi Plaza.

Gabriel had his share of controversies. He clashed with Mexican tax authorities, confronted allegations of cavorting with narcos, and was variously praised or damned for his support of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Though Gabriel eschewed political polemics, his association with PRI politicians like outgoing Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte, who leaves office amid a massive state debt and rising violence, drew criticism.

While a strong current of public opinion maintained that Gabriel was gay, the singer let the matter stew, perhaps deliberately leaving the truth up to popular imagination. He was, after all, from an older generation when homosexuality was a scandalous affair in Mexico. Or maybe his silence was simply a quiet affirmation that it was time for the world to embrace reality and move on.

In the years just before his death Gabriel returned to Juarez, giving concerts backed by the state and local governments that celebrated the city’s rebound from the Great Violence of 2008-2012. Last year, he was said to be interested in reinvesting in the revitalization of downtown Juarez and even opening up a new Noa Noa club.

Gabriel had a new song in his repertoire, one that expressed a sadness about the division that evolved in recent times between two sister cities, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, when many El Pasoans and neighboring New Mexicans stopped visiting Juarez because of violence.

Ironically, Juanga died at precisely a moment when violence and crime are once again surging. In the 24-hour period from early Saturday to early Sunday, at least seven people were reported murdered in Juarez, bringing the total of homicides in the city to 46 or so for the month of August alone. Reports are also beginning to circulate that extortion, which authorities have proudly claimed to practically exterminate, is also on the rise again.

Official tributes to Juan Gabriel are planned for Ciudad Juarez and Mexico City’s El Palacio de Bellas Artes, the country’s most prestigious cultural institution.

In El Paso, dozens of people gathered outside the Don Haskins Center, the place where The Divo of Juarez was supposed to perform on that fateful Sunday. As in the neighboring Mexican city just across the Rio Grande, the fans brought photos, candles, flowers, and memories. According to one reporter, a rainbow appeared over the gathering, forming a sign the group believed was Gabriel’s “one last hurrah, looking over the border.”

In 2015, a mural of Juanga was painted on a tall building on Avenida Juarez in downtown Juarez. The huge portrait overlooks the Avenida and is easily seen by pedestrians crossing over from El Paso via the Santa Fe Bridge. Accompanying a young Juan Gabriel’s face on the mural, words were inscribed:

“Congratulations to all the people who are proud of who you are.”

R.I.P Juan Gabriel

Readers interested in viewing the Juan Gabriel mural on Avenida Juarez can check out an earlier FNS photo essay at:  https://fnsnews.nmsu.edu/fns-photo-essay-our-border-2015-juarez-summer/

Additional sources: Proceso, August 28, 2016. La Jornada, August 28, 2016. El Universal, August 28, 2016. Lapolaka.com, August 28, 2016. El Diario de Juarez, August 28, 2016. Nortedigital.mx, August 28, 2016.Elpuntero.com.mx, August 28, 2016. Arrobajuarez.com, August 28, 2016.

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