Remembering the king of Latin pop — Mexico's Juan Gabriel

The World
Juan Gabriel

He's been dubbed Mexico's Elton John — a pop performer known for his flamboyancy on stage, prolific songwriting and bestselling tunes. Juan Gabriel died on Sunday of a heart attack in his Santa Monica, California home. He was 66.

He was born Alberto Aguilera Valadez in Michoacan, Mexico. His mother moved him and his brothers to Ciudad Juarez so she could work as a housekeeper.

Valadez, who became known as Juan Gabriel, was sent to an orphanage, where he met a blind musician who encouraged him to sing and write songs. He escaped the orphanage and moved to Mexico City, where he continued to pursue his career.

Juan Gabriel made his TV debut in 1971 with his song, "No tengo dinero" (I have no money), a hugely popular anthem that appealed to millions of poor and working-class people in Mexico. At the age of 21, he signed a recording contract with RCA.

Juan Gabriel had a different voice. He was not the typical Mexican macho singer you'd see on TV or hear on the radio. His voice was soft, sugary, even sappy, but most importantly, with a feminine quality I'd never heard before. He was different, though he never said publicly that he was gay. And he showed that difference when he appeared on TV, through his mannerisms and the way he spoke when he was interviewed.

Juan Gabriel had four children, though he never married. He called his children’s mother “the best friend of his life.” In a 2002 interview with a journalist from Univision who asked him if he was gay, Juan Gabriel simply responded: “They say you should not question that which you can see, my son.” Juan Gabriel was one of the first pop singers in Mexico to break the sexual barriers of entertainment, showcasing a direct, up-front feminine personality.

In 1986 Juan Gabriel began a legal dispute with his label, BMG, over copyright of his songs. In 1994, he finally managed to gain complete control of more than 500 of his songs.

Juan Gabriel’s prolific songwriting also helped to project the career of several pop singers, including Spain's Rocio Durcal. His songs appealed to the vast majority of the population, but especially working-class people. He wrote simple, yet poetic and powerful songs, and his large repertoire — more than 1,500 songs — was covered by all the major pop singers of the Spanish-speaking world. 

Juan Gabriel wrote songs in many different styles: pop, ballad, ranchera, bolero, tropical, even rock. He sold more than 100 million albums all over Latin America. Among his loyal interpreters are Durcal, Lola Beltran, Jose Jose, Vicente Fernandez, Marc Anthony, Juanes and more. More recently, Juan Gabriel recorded two albums of duets with dozens of younger pop stars, including Juanes, Carla Morrison, Julion Alvarez and J Balvin.

His legacy is immense. There was no one like Juan Gabriel.

Will you support The World?

There is no paywall on the story you just read because a community of dedicated listeners and readers have contributed to keep the global news you rely on free and accessible for all. Will you join the 219 donors who’ve stepped up to support The World? From now until Dec. 31, your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 match. Donate today to double your impact and keep The World free and accessible.