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Larger than life: Juan Gabriel transcended rigid ideas of gender, sexuality

 Juan Gabriel was known for his lively concert performances, which sometimes lasted as long as 5 hours.
Juan Gabriel was known for his lively concert performances, which sometimes lasted as long as 5 hours.

On Aug. 28 thousands of people across Mexico and Latin America, who grew up listening to the music of Alberto Aguilera Valadez—iconically known as Juan Gabriel and more tenderly, “Juanga”—mourned and wept upon learning of his unexpected death. He was 66.

As a 23-year-old queer Xican@, Juan Gabriel’s music speaks to me on a political and deeply personal level. An openly gender queer Mexican man who dedicated his life to (and was creatively unmatched at) singing about love and heartache is radical. He wrote about 1,800 songs in his lifetime, having begun writing songs as a teenager after being raised in an orphanage in Ciudad Juarez.

His legacy is to me one of fearlessly presenting one’s authentic self against the opinions of all. This man dared to embrace femininity on stage to a highly conservative country that places patriarchal masculinity on a pedestal. Heterosexual couples dedicated songs to one another written and performed by a man who never explicitly said he was gay, but who never denied it either.

Hundreds attend Juan Gabriel’s memorial outside of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes on Tuesday, Sept. 6. Photo: Rodrigo Jardon
Hundreds attend Juan Gabriel’s memorial outside of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes on Tuesday, Sept. 6. Photo: Rodrigo Jardon

Author Laura Gutierrez, in “Performing Mexicanidad,” describes Juan Gabriel’s sexuality as the best-kept secret in Mexico. This precarious dialogue about his sexuality reminds us who are queer of the “coming out” experience. “Are you gay?” a reporter once asked Juan Gabriel during a televised interview, to which he replied: “They say, if you could clearly see something, you shouldn’t ask about it, honey.” (“Dicen, que lo que se ve no se pregunta, mijo.”)

Mexican relatives will disown you, while Mexican society at large revokes your cultural Mexican identity if you do not abide by traditional gender roles or heterosexual values.

But not Juanga.

I see Juan Gabriel as a link between my Mexican roots and my queer identity, one in which the two do not clash but instead coexist. He never explicitly expressed a homosexual identity, but his stage persona and presentation trampled the rigid binaries of femininity and masculinity. His femininity revealed his gender queer performance style and for this he was ridiculed behind closed doors by some. His legacy to me illuminates a success story about how being unapologetically queer and determined to do what you love won’t get you rejected, but rather adored by millions of people worldwide.

His humanity shines through his beautifully composed ballads about heartbreak, loss and struggle. “No Tengo Dinero” is a song that reminds those of us who struggle with money that love is free. He taught me to handle my heartbreak with dignity because the song “Insensible” would have me believe I was too strong to suffer any heart wounds. And so what if five minutes later I was dramatically singing at the top of my lungs, “Se me olvido otra vez que solo yo te quise”? (“I forgot once again that I’m the only one who loved you!”)

Another thing he taught me was to honor the passionate love someone has made us feel. From Juanga, I inherit an undying will to be my true self: queer, poor, brown and with a lot of feelings.

Story by: Alma Villegas