It was the most abrupt awakening from a nap I’ve ever had. My mom and my best friend came into my room. “Juan Gabriel died,” they said. My first thought was, according to whom? My second thought was that maybe it was another hoax. The last thing I wanted to do was to really believe it. How could it be? I was going to his concert in October.
My love of Juan Gabriel goes way back.
As a child, my Sunday morning ritual included waking up to the sounds of greats like Vicente Fernandez, Rafael, Los Trío and Juan Gabriel. The blaring of his voice and the scent of our floor cleaners Mistolín and Fabuloso was a regular thing at our house. My mom would sing along to his sweet melodies and the only interruption would be if she had to reprimand us for walking across her wet floor as she mopped.
I remember watching specials about Juan Gabriel on TV and the joy with which he danced the El Noa, Noa and the passion with which he sang "Abrázame Muy Fuerte." I loved the confidence with which he rocked those impeccable floral and sequin outfits; that's forever ingrained in my mind. He was a part of my home, my childhood, and my adulthood.
My mom loves telling the story of the times my favorite uncle would come home after having one too many drinks and would sing "Querida." There’s not a time I hear "Querida" and I don’t think of my beloved Tío Guayo. My cousins in Honduras and I know that when that jam comes on someone has to go find my uncle to dance with him. He was the first person my mom called when she heard the news.
Juan Gabriel’s songs hit all the right spots even during the worst times. Every time my late uncle José Luis would hear "Amor Eterno" he would grab his wife and dance with her, an ode to his love for her. He died 16 years ago and there isn’t a time the sound of Juan Gabriel’s voice singing this anthem of love, which he dedicated to his mother, doesn’t tug at my heart and bring a knot to my throat.
I asked my mom what comes to mind when I say Juan Gabriel. She immediately talked about his struggles and how it’s chronicled through his music. He truly had a rags-to-riches story - his mother couldn't support him and his many siblings after his father was sent to a psychiatric hospital and never located again. The singer was sent to an orphanage. As he was breaking into the business he knew what it was like to have nothing. As a young man he was accused of robbery and sent to jail. Yet he made it big. He gave back, and didn't forget where he came from.
“El era una bandera de México," (he was a flag for Mexico), she said. My mom started listening to him as a teen. Now in her 60s, she planned on hearing him at his New York City concert on October 8th. She had just bought her flight to go see him with me. I planned on buying our concert tickets this week.
When I first moved to New York City years ago I met my best friend, who is Mexican and shares my same love for Juan Gabriel. We were beginning our careers then and some of my favorite Sunday memories include blasting JuanGa on Pandora and drinking cheap sangría in his 5th-floor walkup. Honestly, no five-star brunch tops that.
On Facebook I asked my friends how they were feeling. In Minneapolis, Melissa Colorado says, “There's no humming to a Juan Gabriel song. You just got to BELT it out," she says. "He was a piece of my childhood because my parents, especially my mom, would blast him all the time in the house. What a legend.”
In Boston, my friend Alma Bocaletti says, “a piece of my childhood is gone.”
Growing up, my friends and I complained about the music our parents blasted at home. At the time we didn’t realize how that music molds our memories. It gives a setting, a feeling, a mood that eventually morphs into nostalgia as you get older.
Today that nostalgia is mixed with grief. Juan Gabriel’s songs are a piece of the bicultural bridge I walk every day. His voice will forever remain a part of my life, including the memories of my mom, my uncles, the scent of the floor cleaner and my friends. His songs helped carve all that into my heart.
Thank you, Juan Gabriel for sharing your pain and happiness with us. As you would say, Adíos Amor.