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Northern New Mexico remembers beloved Mexican singer/songwriter ‘Juanga’

August 30, 2016 GMT

The recent passing of celebrated Mexican singer Juan Gabriel devastated fans, including a number of the music icon’s devotees in Northern New Mexico, where he lived part-time for a decade and where his Nambé ranch is still up for sale.

Many on both sides of the border publicly mourned his death, including President Barack Obama. Some shared favorite songs across social media sites devoted to the singer known as “El Divo de Juárez.” And some locals with Mexican roots took the opportunity to highlight Gabriel’s sexuality as a way to celebrate gay pride.

Gabriel, 66, who died Sunday of a heart attack in Santa Monica, Calif., shortly before he was scheduled to perform live in El Paso, never admitted or denied being gay during his 45-year singing career. While as a showman he performed songs filled with passion, he was private when it came to discussing his love life. In the ’90s, a reporter with the Spanish-language television network Univision asked “Juanga,” as many of his fans called him, if he was gay. Gabriel, who was never married but had four children, sharply responded in Spanish, “Lo que se ve no se pregunta, mijo,” or “You shouldn’t ask what you can plainly see, son.”

That interview was a pivotal moment for many gay and lesbian Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans who grew up in a culture that they felt wouldn’t accept their sexuality. They took it as a sign that they, too, could be Mexican and gay. Gabriel transcended gay stereotypes with his rancheras, a type of music that commonly expresses a man’s sometimes bitter love for a woman or life’s general heartbreaks — a type of Mexican song associated with machismo culture.

“My mother used to say let’s forget about that because his music surpasses all that,” said Frank Cordero, referring to Gabriel’s sexuality. Cordero, the city of Santa Fe’s social media coordinator, was supposed to photograph Gabriel’s Santa Fe concert in December. The singer fell ill, however, and canceled the show a day before the event.

Over the past two days, various people through social media shared a YouTube video of the Univision interview and Gabriel’s famous quote.

James Espinoza of Española, who was Gabriel’s local personal assistant and helped Gabriel buy his Nambé ranch in 1988, said that he talked with Gabriel about his sexuality. But he declined to share specifics of those conversations. “What should it matter? It didn’t matter to me,” Espinoza said.

“But at the concerts, I did see a lot of gay men,” Espinoza added. “They loved him.”

Emmanuelle “Neza” Leal Santillan, 33, an organizer with the local immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said on Facebook that he wished for a “Queer Juanga tribute” when he learned about Gabriel’s death on Sunday.

Santillan, born in Durango, Mexico, but raised in the U.S., said in an interview that Gabriel’s passing is a “personal loss” for him as a gay Mexican man. He said that when he was growing up the only gay men he knew of were characters in novelas, or Spanish-language soap operas, and they were ridiculed.

“He was a mirror who reflected my own experience as a queer Chicano and as a teenager who questioned why I needed to hide who I was,” Santillan said of the singer. “I found refuge in his words and his songs.”

President Obama on Monday released a statement noting the singer’s significance to Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants who brought his music across the border.

“For over forty years, Juan Gabriel brought his beloved Mexican music to millions, transcending borders and generations,” Obama said. “To so many Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and people all over the world, his music sounds like home.”

For some, the death of Gabriel brought to mind the recent deaths of Prince and David Bowie, two pop singers who also challenged mainstream sexual conventions, were flamboyant performers and dressed in brightly colored outfits during concerts.

But unlike Prince or Bowie, whose many fans, gay or not, accepted their performances as artistic expression, Gabriel came from a Mexican culture where simply being gay was a taboo. Still, his songs touched men and women alike.

Enrique Limón, a former Santa Fe Reporter arts and culture writer and current editor for the Salt Lake City Weekly who is gay, wrote a tribute column about Gabriel on Monday. He wrote that media outlets trying to explain Gabriel to non-fans may want to compare him to other performers such as Frank Sinatra, Elton John or Liberace.

“The truth, however, is Juan Gabriel should be a measuring stick for others. What he elegantly did — not just through song but just by being himself — helped shatter gender norms in one of the most gender-conventional countries in the world,” wrote Limón, who was born in Tijuana but raised in both that Mexican border town and nearby San Diego, Calif. “Women openly wept at his shows. Straight men also got misty-eyed, hollered and danced their hearts away.”

Cordero pointed to Gabriel’s song “El Noa Noa” as proof that Gabriel was a proud gay man even though the performer never crusaded for gay rights. The song is named after what some believe was a gay bar in Ciudad Juárez that was a starting point for Gabriel’s singing career.

Cordero, who grew up in Anthony, N.M., an hour north of Ciudad Juárez, said that when he heard the song he was intrigued with the idea of wanting to visit El Noa Noa.

Gabriel, whose birth name was Alberto Aguilera Valadez, was born in the Southwestern Mexico state of Michoacán. However, he grew up in Ciudad Juárez, where he spent his childhood in an orphanage.

His first studio album was released in 1972. He later recorded more than two dozen albums, wrote a couple of hundred songs and became a five-time Grammy nominee. He performed with singers from all over the world, including Canadian-American Paul Anka.

Gabriel left a mark on Northern New Mexico, Espinoza said. On Cerrillos Road, the Mexican restaurant Taqueria Adelitas has a mural featuring Gabriel on one of its walls. The singer’s Nambé ranch remains on the market for $2.9 million.

Espinoza said he met Gabriel in 1988, when Espinoza was selling tools with his father at a flea market in Santa Fe. He immediately recognized Gabriel and introduced himself. Gabriel asked him to stay in touch about a possible job, Espinoza said. The singer later contacted him, saying he needed a translator because he was looking to buy property in Nambé.

While living there, Gabriel wrote the song “Que bonito es Santa Fé” (How Beautiful is Santa Fe). In the song, Gabriel describes Santa Fe’s adobe homes as pretty and its Plaza as marvelous. He describes Abiquiú as the only place on Earth where the sky looks so blue and where the moon shines so bright.

Gabriel’s son, Ivan Aguilera, issued a statement thanking his father’s admirers, including Mexico’s president.

“My father’s untimely passing is a tragic loss for all of us, his family, colleagues, and fans alike,” he said. “We give heartfelt thanks for the outpouring of condolences we have received from around the world, including from President Enrique Peña Nieto.”

Contact Uriel Garcia at 986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.