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Esther J. Cepeda: Juan Gabriel’s legacy reached beyond music

First Published      Last Updated Sep 05 2016 11:21 am

CHICAGO • If you've been seeing a lot of "#QEPD" on your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds lately and aren't quite sure what it means, this is for you.

The acronym comes from the Spanish words "Que En Paz Descanse" which translates into "Rest In Peace." It has lately been in reference to Juan Gabriel, the larger-than-life Mexican entertainer who passed away from a heart attack last Sunday at his home in California. He was 66.

The New York Times described the six-time Grammy Award nominee thusly: "It is difficult to overstate the popularity in Mexico of Juan Gabriel, whose music tapped a deeply sentimental vein in Mexican culture. His appeal transcended regional, racial and class boundaries in an otherwise stratified and fractured society. His music was played at children's birthday parties and the wedding anniversaries of retirees. It provided the soundtrack for joyous occasions and, just as much, for heartbreak."



I offer this correction: JuanGa, as he was known to his legions of fans, was remarkably popular all over the world. Specifically, anywhere there are Mexicans and their offspring.

For Mexicans, and others from Latin America, of a certain age, Gabriel was an icon, a household name, and a voice whose songs were instantly recognizable.

Even though I was not a devotee, my parents' generation adored Gabriel, so I say this with authority: If you've ever stepped foot in a Latino grocery store, dined in a Mexican restaurant or sat near a group of people listening to Spanish-language radio, you, too, have likely heard his two biggest hits, "Querida" and "El Noa Noa."

As soon as I heard that the flamboyant crooner had passed away, I called my mother to see if she was really broken up about it. (Not that much, but still yes.) Later I saw that a tweeter named Sam @Halored27 had posted this late Sunday: "If you haven't checked on your mom you are a horrible son/daughter. #JuanGabriel #QEPD"

Truer words were never Tweeted.

The outpouring of personal essays about the importance of Gabriel to our culture has been deeply moving — and has illuminated just how much impact he had even on the people of my generation, i.e., the children of his biggest fans.

"In Juan Gabriel's songs, there are no heroes or villains. Juan Gabriel gave himself over to the ambiguity of life and love, outflanking those singers of the hairy-chested masculine variety. Juan Gabriel suffered. ... His feelings were our feelings: he resigned himself, he longed, he remembered, he sighed. Juan Gabriel talked like us, but better. With just a few adjustments, his songs could have been performed by women. That's why I sing them. That's why they're mine," Valerie Miranda, Label Relations Manager for US Latin and Mexico at Spotify, told the Latin culture website Remezcla. "Juan Gabriel has no last name, and we don't care whose son he is or what school he went to. He was effeminate, he dressed in sequins, he was delicate and sensitive and he transformed the morbid fascination with his sexuality with his declaration of absolute singularity."

Miranda was referring to Gabriel's response to a question about his sexual orientation to which he replied, basically, "what you see is what you get."

Another tribute I thought encapsulated the outsized influence of Gabriel on Latino lives was written by Gustavo Arellano, the author of the syndicated column, "¡Ask a Mexican!" and the book "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."

Arellano wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Mexican boys are taught to ridicule Juan Gabriel; Mexican men learn to respect the legend. ... [H]e's going down in Mexican history as one of its most influential citizens. He redefined masculinity as only a sequins-and-silk-loving man could ... But JuanGa's truest legacy is not his music, it's what he represented: Personal freedom. Although he refused to answer questions about his sexuality, he was the one celebrity Mexico allowed to live as even somewhat gay. Juan Gabriel fought back the haters with his smile and sharp tongue, never apologizing for who he was. And that pride created an opening for young gay men and women to find courage — perhaps even come out."

My lone personal brush with understanding what a big deal Gabriel was happened last summer while on a reporting trip to Juarez, Mexico. Two busloads of journalists were re-routed in order to drive by his house to pay homage to the legend. And thank goodness we took the opportunity.

estherjcepeda@washpost.com

Twitter, @estherjcepeda

 

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