Mexico has lost its “Divo de Juárez,” the singer-songwriter who expressed the joys and pains of Mexicans and of many other Latin American fans over the last four decades. Alberto Aguilera Valadez, who found success under the stage name Juan Gabriel, died of a heart attack on Sunday around 11.40am in Santa Monica, California. The 66-year-old singer was in the United States to give a series of concerts in Los Angeles as part of his “MeXXico es todo” tour. His last concert was at the Los Angeles Forum. Two hours of sheer energy pouring out on stage, critics say. Juan Gabriel was scheduled to take the tour to El Paso, Texas.
Juan Gabriel had four children and he was one of the first Mexican singers to openly admit he was gay
The famed composer became a Mexican pop culture icon with one of the biggest repertoires of Spanish-language songs. His humble beginnings and difficult rise to fame inspired his greatest hits. Aguilera Valadez was born in Parácuaro, Michoacan on January 7, 1950, the youngest of 10 children living in poverty. After the death of his father, he moved to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua with his mother. She placed him in a children’s home but he escaped at the age of 13. He then fended for himself by selling wooden trinkets on the streets and by singing in bars along the border with the United States.
Juan Gabriel could have perished on those streets but he managed to develop his artistic career by singing in nightclubs. At 21 years old, he got his first record deal with RCA and his career took off thanks to his song No tengo dinero. It sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Today, many Spanish and Latin American artists include Juan Gabriel songs in their repertoire.
Aguilera Valadez’s stage name, Juan Gabriel, is a homage to his music teacher, Juan Contreras, and to his father, Gabriel.
In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the first pop singer to perform at Palacio Bellas Artes, the most important music hall in all of Mexico, with the National Symphony Orchestra. His wide-ranging repertoire included melodies such as Hasta que te conocí, Así fue, Querida, El Noa Noa, and Se me olvidó otra vez.
His songs span several musical genres, from ranchera and bolero, to pop, salsa and mariachi. His greatest hit was Amor eterno, a ranchera tune he composed after the death of his mother in 1974 and recorded in 1990 as a duet with the Spanish singer Rocío Durcal. The song has become popular at funerals in Mexico.
Juan Gabriel is the most prolific Mexican composer in history, with 1,500 songs to his name. His concerts were a carnival of music and memories: a couple falls in love to his songs, a couple breaks up to his songs. Last year, he gave 16 performances in Mexico City, each one a more than two-hour event during which he sang his most famous tunes and danced.
The last show
His personal life was always a favorite of the tabloids. Juan Gabriel had four children and he was one of the first Mexican singers to admit to the press that he was gay. In a 2002 interview with journalist Fernando del Rincón, Juan Gabriel said: “Son, they say if you can tell then don’t ask.”
The singer-songwriter gave his last concert at the Los Angeles Forum on Friday. He was deeply moved and he performed a homage to Durcal. He and Durcal sang a series of duets together in the 1980s. Reviews say Juan Gabriel was “happy, excited, radiant.”
The most faithful chronicle of his life is the TV show Hasta que te conocí. Julián Román, a Colombian actor who plays Juan Gabriel on the show, told EL PAÍS in July that the singer met with producers at his Cancun home to tell them the story of his life. As fate would have it, the show aired its last episode on Sunday night.
English version by Dyane Jean François.