It’s difficult to overstate the ubiquity of Juan Gabriel’s voice in the everyday lives of Mexicans, both here in the US and in Mexico, where the megastar’s dozens of hits, some of them decades old, still blare from roadside fondas, urban nightclubs, and the blown out stereo speakers in my uncle’s home in Zamora, Michoacan. From disco, to rancheras, to ballads, and everything in between, Juan Gabriel’s signature melancholic exuberance was at once relatable and alien: relatable in the heartbreak and poverty to which it often spoke; and alien in the unabashedly flamboyant style that came to define him. Perhaps especially because of his flamboyance and the often unspoken subtext of his desires, he functioned as an embodiment of belonging at the same time that you feel you do not, of feeling homesick in places that should feel like home, and of baring your soul while leaving so much unspoken.
Juan Gabriel combined stage persona with a beautiful voice and clever, searing lyrics, into an intoxicating lifelong performance that has provided the soundtrack for the often tragic experience of Mexican immigrants and the family we leave behind. His was a ballad of disenfranchisement, an anthem to solitude, alienation, and abandonment, delivered with gracious dignity and humility. His death is one more loss we can add to that terrible list familiar to anyone who has emigrated in search of opportunity, of the loved ones who departed while we still hadn’t made our way back home. The fact of his death in Southern California only underscores the cognitive dissonance that so many of us carry within, year after year, as we build lives in this country and yearn for our motherland at the same time that we grow apart from her.
Juan Gabriel, born Alberto Aguilar Valadez in my home state of Michoacan, rarely spoke about his personal life and his sexuality remained an open secret in the style of “don’t ask don’t tell.” It wasn’t until a particularly tasteless interview conducted by Fernando del Rincon for Univision in December 2002 that El Divo de Juarez, as he was also known, was grilled on his relationship with the mother of his four children and ultimately asked point blank if he was gay.
“A famous Mexican historian wrote, commenting on your sexuality, he said that ‘[Juan Gabriel] broke through the sexual barriers of the musical stage because he explores the feminine side,’” del Rincon begins to an audible sigh of frustration (or tedium) from Juan Gabriel. “What opinion do you have about this commentary?” asks del Rincon.
After Juan Gabriel declares that art has always felt feminine to him, del Rincon presses, “Is there no masculine art? Or at least art that can be one or the other?”
Juan Gabriel tries to deflect once more with, “I don’t know, like I said, to me art has always been feminine; and look, if you are handsome, young, and divine, people will always say things like that. ‘You are gay.’” And as he stammers in an attempt to elaborate, del Rincon interrupts: “Juan Gabriel…Juan Gabriel; people say Juan Gabriel is gay. Is Juan Gabriel gay?”
Juan Gabriel chuckles and shoots back, “Is that something that interests you a lot?”
“I only ask,” says del Rincon.
“And I respond,” and here he pauses, softens his voice, and looking directly into del Rincon’s eyes utters his immortal reply, “dicen que lo que se ve no se pregunta, mijo.” Which roughly translates to, “they say you shouldn’t ask about what is plainly visible, my son.” Although a more apt but less literal translation would be, “didn’t your mom ever teach you not to ask about the obvious?”
Lo que se ve no se pregunta became as iconic as the embroidered roses Juanga loved to don on the sleeves of his mariachi suits, and I wonder how many Latin@ queer folk have come out to their families echoing just that phrase.
I understand that “don’t ask don’t tell” and leading an all-but-closeted public life are hardly progressive political stances, but in the context of a society steeped in sometimes brutally violent machismo, misogyny and homophobia, Juan Gabriel’s artistry spoke volumes to those of us who were experiencing the turbulence of adolescence and going through the painful process of defining our own sexual identities. As an immigrant in the American South, having arrived in 1997 on the cusp of entering high school, and just before the demographic shift of the early 2000’s, the disconnect between the cultural identity I could embody freely in Southern California and the new identity of racial “passing” I felt forced into in North Carolina created a sense of distress that felt exponentially more acute because there was yet another layer to my identity that, like Juan Gabriel, I would rather not name at the time—I identify as bisexual, the perennially maligned and alternately erased sexual orientation that enjoys pariah status in both hetero and LGBT circles.
In Mexico, everyone I knew growing up loved Juan Gabriel’s music, open and narrow minded alike, and it was a comfort knowing that there was space for me to be my unabashed genuine self even as the danger of rejection or worse was acknowledged via the insidious silence of not questioning the obvious. Juanga’s songs, in all their purple kitsch and high melodrama, were belted out by the most macho of my uncles and cousins as well as all the matriarchs in my family any time we had a party or a funeral. Not a single falsetto was dropped, nor a laborious metaphor butchered, in the interest of not sounding maricon, or “faggy.”
The infectious force of his persona gave us all the courage to be vulnerable in times when we needed that catharsis. As I grew older in the US and began to understand the truth about my sexuality, I also began to see my own angst reflected in the subtext of his lyrics. One of his early hits, Yo No Naci Para Amar (“I Wasn’t Born For Love”) is a down-tempo anthem to confirmed bachelorhood. The song begins with the speaker mourning a love that never materialized, even as the speaker’s friends, one by one, found theirs:
And then I saw
How they changed their way of life
Everyone with their love, each one
Smiling broadly, very happy, except I.
that grows sadder, becomes darker, lived I
And at that age,
Everyone asked me what’s the matter,
And I used to always say
I wasn’t born for love
No one was born for me
I was only a crazy dreamer, nothing more
I wasn’t born for love
No one was born for me
My dreams never became reality
There is a fair amount of gendered pronoun double entendre embedded in the song that is difficult to convey in English, but suffice it to say that it hinges on the noun amor (love) being gendered in the masculine, which results in also referring to this “love-that-never-came” in the masculine: Siempre lo busque, could be interpreted as “I always looked for it (love),” or “I always looked for him.” I get chills to this day when I remember the first time I noticed these veiled references to a love that had always been unspoken and forbidden. I thought back to all the times my family and I sang along to his music, and realized that each one of us must’ve been serenading our own secret pain.
Maybe not all of us were serenading secret LGBT pain, but as it turns out, there were more of us doing just that than I could’ve guessed as a child. I left Mexico for good when I was 12, and for various immigration-related issues I wasn’t able to visit until I was 28, in 2011. Once during that visit, I was catching up with several of my cousins on the rooftop of our childhood home, getting to know each other as adults and navigating the awkward silences that come about when you’ve been gone too long.
It didn’t take more than a couple of beers before a cousin came out to me as bi, and she gleefully outed several other childhood friends and relatives that she frequently ran into at the local gay nightclub—the existence of which is, in itself, a small miracle. I began to replay my childhood in my mind, looking for clues that could’ve helped me realize I wasn’t so alone back then, but it was impossible to dwell on sadness as we were all feeling the post-coming-out euphoria of telling someone new.
That evening, the conversation darkened as the sun set behind the horizon and splashed the sky blood orange, then violet, blue, and black. In whispers masked by music, we spoke about the cartels, the insecurity and violence. Once we became too paranoid over who might be listening, we moved along to the safer though no less bleak topic of our family’s list of the dead, which seems to grow year by year at an alarming and accelerating rate. By the time we got to my cousin’s mother, the aunt who raised me half of my childhood and succumbed to cancer during my long absence, we were all too choked up to say anything. And up on that rooftop, playing out of my uncle’s blown out speakers, an uncle I had just learned was gay and still closeted to most, Juan Gabriel sang softly, “como quisiera, ay, que tu vivieras.” We couldn’t bear to speak, but we could sing along, tears streaming, connected by the thin wire of grief on the mariachi’s violin.
Antonio del Toro is a writer based in Asheville, North Carolina.