There's a picture in my living room that I'm particularly fond of. It’s an instant photo that was taken in 2004, and it shows a middle-aged man sitting next to yours truly. He's wearing pink silk pajamas, I'm wearing all black. Depending on the company that comes over to my place, the image produces either perplexity or awe. Most of my American friends assume my photo buddy is important — the photo is nicely framed — but none ever recognize him. In contrast, my Spanish-speaking guests giggle on sight.
To many, Juan Gabriel is nothing short of an institution. He's one of the most — if not the most — prolific songwriters in Spanish language, and a cultural icon (fun fact: October 5th was declared "Juan Gabriel Day" in Los Angeles). Although he's mostly revered, from time to time the 64-year-old performer still agitates the masses. And not because his music is political, sexist, or offensive. In fact, "Juanga's" enormous catalogue mostly consists of universally-loved heartfelt songs. But he's a soft-spoken, effeminate man. And many — especially in macho Latin America — don't take kindly to those mannerisms.
The Spanish-speaking public have a complicated relationship with Juan Gabriel. A friend's anecdote hit the nail on the head: "A few of years ago Juanga gave a free concert in Mexico City's Zocalo plaza. Thousands of people, including myself, watched his performance, and it was amazing. But it was also bizarre; dudes would break out in fervent fandom — humming all the melodies, singing all the lyrics — while he pranced on stage. Then, in between songs, those same men would shout awful gay slurs," he said.
Gay Pride has been celebrated in Mexico City for over 30 years; Argentina has progressive gender identity laws; Ricky Martin came out of the closet before putting out a collaboration with Winsin & Yandel, two reggaetoneros of caricaturesque heterosexuality. Progress in the New World, right? Well, on paper it certainly seems that way. But if Juan Gabriel's Liberace-esque showmanship still makes some people — including his own fans — feel insecure and conflicted, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Ironically, one can find acceptance where it is least expected. Because a pen, a guitar, and an abundance of talent are always mightier than social constructs, José Alfredo Jiménez, Mexico's hard-drinking macho poster boy, considered himself a Juan Gabriel fan. (Jiménez was also fond of Chavela Vargas, an open lesbian.) Though winning over the pueblo, of which José Alfredo was a champion or sorts, proved more difficult for Juan Gabriel than for his manly colleagues.
Early in his career, Juanga's "particular style," an euphemism TV personalities would use to politely describe his flamboyance, remained a hard sell for the blue collar set. That's why "El Divo de Juarez," as he's colloquially known, devised a brilliant plan to convince his naysayers: Write hit songs for big, established pop stars.
"Lo pasado, pasado," released in 1979, is still one of José José's best-known hits; 1985's Lucha Villa interpreta a Juan Gabriel remains Villa's best-selling record; "De mi enamorate," Daniela Romo's "signature song," spent 14 weeks at number one in the 1986 Billboard Hot Latin Tracks chart. But Juan Gabriel's most successful collaboration was the one he cultivated with Rocío Dúrcal, a Spanish singer whose career was on the fritz by the end of the '70s. And what a collaboration that was: From pop to rancheras, the dynamic duo produced 10 records together. All of them sold well, but certain songs, such as "Amor Eterno," "Costumbres," and "Dejame Vivir," from 1984's Rocío Dúrcal Canta A Juan Gabriel Vol. 6, were wildly successful.
Although he was already topping the charts using other singers as vessels, Juan Gabriel never ceased recording music himself. In 1984 he released Recuerdos Vol. 2 and "Querida," an unusually-long, beautifully-arranged ballad, was the first single, becoming his best-known song and it lingered in the charts for over a year.
Juan Gabriel was born Alberto Aguilera in Michoacán on January 7, 1950. When he was 4 years old, Gabriel, his father, was sent to a psychiatric ward. At 5, Alberto was placed in an orphanage because his mother didn't have the means to take care of him. There, he met Juan Contreras, his first music teacher (Alberto goes by Juan Gabriel because of his dad and Mr. Contreras). Alberto ran away from the orphanage when he was 15 and went through all kinds of adversity. The poorly-made films El Noa Noa and Es Mi Vida — in which Juan Gabriel stars! — were released in the early '80s, and they detail his rise to fame. They're both cheesy, but compelling.
There's this unwritten rule in the landscape of Mexican music: Pop music may be sung and written by anybody, but rancheras, AKA the Mexican blues, are best left to credible artists. What lends credibility to an artist? Hardship. Because ain't nobody wanna hear about a privileged man's woes, right? Juan Gabriel's rags-to-riches story, the kind Lady Gaga would kill for, is damn remarkable — and a big part of his success.
It's because his mother really did abandon him that Juanga was able to write the powerful "Amor Eterno" ["Eternal Love"], Mexico's semi-official Mother's Day song. "No tengo dinero" ["I don't have money"], his first hit, was recorded shortly he'd been released from jail. Upon its release, "Yo no nací para amar" ["I wasn't born to love"], an ambiguous song about a lonely man, became a popular gay torch song overnight.
From the mid '80s to the mid '90s Juan Gabriel refused to record new music because of a copyright dispute with BMG. In 1994, after assuming full ownership of his catalogue, he released Gracias Por Esperar ["Thanks for waiting"]. Although he was no longer dominating the pop charts, some of Juan Gabriel's most interesting work was released in the following years. Juntos Otra Vez, for example, could easily be considered the White Album of the ranchera genre. Despite being over seven minutes long, his live re-work of "Así Fue," a song written by Juan Gabriel and released by Isabel Pantoja in 1988, became a radio favorite. 1998's Con la Banda… el Recodo, a collaboration with the legendary Banda El Recodo, marked the first time Juan Gabriel recorded a Sinaloense-style banda record.
The Divo's output decreased dramatically the following decade and, with the exception of a couple of studio records, most releases were compilations of old classics. Also, as evidenced by the awful Juan Gabriel-produced Tenampa, José José's comeback of sorts, the Divo’s King Midas' touch began to fade. (To be fair, after decades of well-documented alcoholism, José José can barely speak a single word — much less sing an entire record — so Tenampa’s failure can't be entirely blamed on Juanga.) In 2010, his self-titled Juan Gabriel brought back a glimmer of hope — a hope that was stifled by 2012's Celebrando, an LP full of badly-recorded, dated-sounding ballads.
Even if he’s no longer the songwriting powerhouse he used to be, Juan Gabriel has always been consistently good when it comes to his live shows. While on stage, he radiates charisma, charm, camp, and very effective melodrama. His arena concerts, which almost always sell out, turn both senior citizens and teenagers into shrieking groupies.
I witnessed it first hand in late 2004, after scoring second row tickets to one of his concerts in California. There, in the heat of the moment, one couldn't pry a big group of middle-aged women away from the safety rails without using a crowbar. Afterwards, during a meet and greet, I watched four teenagers fight over the right to meet him first. One of the teens, a giddy girl with red hair, broke down in tears the second she walked up to him. Unfazed, Juan Gabriel smiled before instructing his team to provide glass of water to the distraught fan.
All of it happened before before it my turn to chat up the pink pajama-wearing idol, and I was thrilled to meet him. In Spanish, Juan Gabriel asked: "The tall one — is she your girlfriend?" "Yes. But she only speaks English," I replied. In front of us a staff photographer began fiddling with his camera. "So what?! I'll have you know: I bought Ingles Sin Barreras," Juan Gabriel contested in jest. He then turned to my girlfriend and, in broken English, awkwardly enunciated "Aw-ey es-peek ing-lish." With an arched eyebrow and a coquette smirk, he turned back to me and quipped "Jui-seeh?" Both of us laughed, posed for the instant photo, and said our goodbyes.
Some people meet my interest in Juan Gabriel with skepticism. “I think you’re being ironic,” a buddie once scoffed after he noticed my cherished photograph. “Have you seen my CD box sets?” I replied before quoting Carlos Monsiváis: “It’s impossible not to take interest in an author or singer like Juan Gabriel. He managed to build an audience despite having so much prejudice and bias against him.”
In his own way, Juan Gabriel has always been subversive and punk rock. Using music, body image, and fashion, Alberto Aguilera challenged the Latin American establishment — largely conservative, homophobic, sexist — and has lived to tell the tale. Perhaps now, in 2014, his contributions don’t seem as substantial, but for a long time Juan Gabriel was one of the few high profile icons in Latin America who dared to be odd, defiant, and different.
I’m with Monsiváis: It’s impossible not to take interest in him.