Mexico has lost one of its most beloved pop culture icons.
Juan Gabriel, or “Juanga” as many called him, died of a heart attack on Sunday at age 66 in Santa Monica, California.
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His was born Alberto Aguilera Valadez, a humble kid from the southern state of Michoacán who would grow up to become one of Latin America’s most prolific ballad singers and composers with millions of records sold. But perhaps his greatest feat was teaching Mexicans that it was okay to be both macho and effeminate.
Juanga drank on stage, puffed out his chest while sweating profusely, and recited the lyrics many men would learn by heart to woo their girlfriends and wives— or sing into their beers and tequila shots at cantinas. Yet his speaking voice was soft, his gestures flamboyant, and his stage costumes were an exuberant collection of sparkling sequin suits, á la Liberace. Similar to the great Las Vegas showman of the 1950s, Juanga’s ambiguous sexuality confused and angered some, yet seemed to fascinate many.
In a 2002 Univision interview, Juan Gabriel was pressed about his sexual orientation and replied: “They say you shouldn’t ask what you already see.”
Juanga, however, was not openly “gay.” Like Prince or David Bowie, he transcended traditional definitions of sexual orientation, assuming a status where his sexual identity became its own thing that was ultimately irrelevant and generally accepted by all fans. When he took the stage Juan Gabriel was simply Juan Gabriel. Nothing else mattered.
He wasn’t exactly androgynous. He was clearly a short and chubby dude; a man with makeup and mascara who often cried on stage while singing lyrics such as, “You are the sadness in my eyes that weep in silence for your love.”
The machos in the audience always sang along.
Juanga also transcended Mexico’s socioeconomic and even generational divides. The poor saw him as one of their own, preppy kids or fresas appropriated some of his songs for drunken pregames, and hipsters fell in love with his retro Mexicanness.
Juan Gabriel also transcended borders. His loss today is felt far beyond Mexico. “A devastating day for music,” American musician Questlove posted on his Instagram with a pic of a young and dashing Juanga. “Rest in peace idol,” tweeted Marc Anthony.
Yet, Juan Gabriel was first and foremost a patriot who defended Mexican music and immigrants abroad.
“American music has infiltrated the entire world enough as it is,” he recently told the L.A. Times. “Mexican music must be defended, with vigilance.”
He wore his country on his sleeve, channeling Mexican culture in everything he did.
Juan Gabriel’s blend of machismo and effeminacy helped break preconceived notions of manhood. His megastar status allowed him to push boundaries, and Mexicans seemed fine with it.
“Congratulations to all the people who are proud of being who they are,” he said in closing his final concert. Those would be his last words to the public, and a message he’ll always be remembered for.