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The Story of Juan Gabriel

Silvia is an English teacher from California. She earned her B.A. in Literature/Writing from UCSD and her Teaching Credential from SDSU.

Juan Gabriel in 1990, performing in Bellas Artes for the first time.

Juan Gabriel in 1990, performing in Bellas Artes for the first time.

Juan Gabriel was one of the most important singers and songwriters of Mexico. His success has transcended borders, generations, and social classes. In Mexico, it is said that almost all citizens know at least three songs; the national anthem, "Las Mañanitas," and one of Juan Gabriel’s songs. Singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas recently confessed, "Juan Gabriel has been in every stage of my life," something that most Mexicans probably share with her. But the story of his life is just as astonishing as his artistic success.

A Tough Beginning

Alberto Aguilera Valadez was born on January 7, 1950, in Paracuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. He was the 10th child of the marriage between the peasants Gabriel Aguilera and Victoria Valadez. When Alberto was barely three months old, tragedy struck. His father accidentally started a fire on neighboring land, which made him nervous and caused him to try to drown himself in a river. Gabriel survived, however, he was taken to jail and then admitted to a mental hospital in Mexico City. It is not known if Gabriel escaped or died there, his family never heard from him again. This incident caused many problems in Alberto’s family. Soon after, Alberto's mother decided to flee to Ciudad Juarez with all of her children.

In Ciudad Juarez, Victoria began working as a maid and realized she could no longer care for her youngest child, for he was rebellious and had caused her problems with the landlady. Therefore, Victoria decided to take Alberto to a boarding school when he was only five years old. Alberto missed his mother and longed to leave the boarding school. However, his stay there was productive as he met Juan Contreras, the teacher who taught him to sing and play guitar.

Juan Gabriel's parents, Victoria Valadez and Gabriel Aguilera.

Juan Gabriel's parents, Victoria Valadez and Gabriel Aguilera.

The Path to Success

At 13, Alberto used his chore of taking out the trash as an excuse to escape from the boarding school. He looked for his mother and went to live with her. Alberto sang and wrote songs at night while he washed cars or served at restaurants during the day. As his mother had very little money and did not like her son to stay up writing songs, Alberto decided to leave his home at the tender age of 16. He began singing in church choirs, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs even though sometimes they would not let him sing for being underage. One of these nightclubs, El Noa Noa, was immortalized in one of his songs later. During this time, Alberto used the stage name of Adan Luna.

Soon after, Alberto decided to try his luck in Mexico City. He knocked on the door of several record labels, but all rejected him, arguing that they did not need any more pop singers and that his songs were too simple. Alberto returned to Juarez where he spent some time singing at night and working during the day washing prostitutes’ clothes. It was not long until he left for the capital again. This time he got a job as a backup singer for several well-known artists. All was well, until one day after attending a friend's party, Alberto was wrongly accused of theft and imprisoned in a prison called Lecumberri, where he spent a year and a half.

Juan Gabriel singing one of his classic songs during his first performance in Bellas Artes

Instant Fame

His stay in prison was not quite unfortunate since Alberto befriended the director who, moved by his story, introduced him to singer Enriqueta Jiménez, "La Prieta Linda." Impacted by the young man’s talent, the Prieta Linda spoke to the judge and asked him to free Alberto. The judge revisited the case and determined that there was insufficient evidence to hold him. After his release, the Prieta Linda accompanied Alberto to the record label, RCA Victor, where he auditioned for a second time and was accepted. The young singer then signed a contract with the record label under the stage name of Juan Gabriel (Juan in honor of his teacher and Gabriel in honor of his father). His first album, El alma joven, was released in 1971. Its first single was "No Tengo Dinero." Success was immediate. Juan Gabriel received a golden award for his album’s high sales and Prieta Linda recorded one of his songs, "Noche a Noche." Other artists followed such as Roberto Jordan, Estela Nunez, Angelica Maria, Jose Jose, and Rocio Durcal.

With all the money earned, Juan Gabriel bought his mother the house where she had worked as a maid. Unfortunately, Juan Gabriel’s mother only enjoyed three years of her son’s success because she died of a heart attack in 1974. Naturally, this caused Juan Gabriel great pain and was the inspiration for his song, "Amor Eterno," which has become a classic ranchera song and is often played at funerals throughout Mexico.

Juan Gabriel and his sister, Virginia, one of his muses.

Juan Gabriel and his sister, Virginia, one of his muses.

Juan Gabriel in the beginning of his artistic career.

Juan Gabriel in the beginning of his artistic career.

Recognition

Juan Gabriel’s success increased during the 80s and 90s, and it remained in force in the 2000s. More and more singers recorded and performed his songs. His hit “Querida” stayed more than a year on the number one spot of the Latin Charts, his concerts sold out, and he wrote and sang the entrance themes of the best Mexican telenovelas. Most notably, he was the first popular singer to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City) in 1990. In 1986, the mayor of Los Angeles instituted May 5 as the day of Juan Gabriel. Juan Gabriel was also the recipient of numerous awards such as a Grammy for his artistic achievements, 17 Billboard Awards, 11 Lo Nuestro Awards, 2 ASCAP Awards for songwriter of the year, an MTV Award, and many more. He was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002.

Juan Gabriel’s life was not far from controversy. In the mid-80s, he began a lawsuit with his record label which resulted in eight years of absence from the recording studio. The Mexican and American governments persecuted him for not paying his taxes. His unique dance style with which he captivated millions of people was the subject of speculation about his sexual orientation by the press. Juan Gabriel was always discreet about his private life, and when a reporter asked whether he was gay or not, Juan Gabriel simply replied, "What can be seen, should not be asked."

However, no scandal or speculation could overshadow his talent. Juan Gabriel performed again at El palacio de Bellas Artes in 1997 and in 2013. His music was the inspiration for the film ¿Qué le dijiste a Dios? And the most successful Latin singers of the new millennium such as Thalía, Mana, Jaguares, and Julieta Venegas continued to record his songs. The last album that Juan Gabriel recorded is Los Duo where he picked 12 of his favorite songs to sing along with the most famous Latin stars of the present such as Marc Anthony, Natalia Lafourcade, and Marco Antonio Solis. In 2016, Juan Gabriel recorded a cover of "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is included in the album Quiero Credence. During this year Juan Gabriel was also on his tour, Mexxico es todo, which he unfortunately did not finish as he died of a heart attack on August 28th.

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Juan Gabriel in the 1980s.

Juan Gabriel in the 1980s.

His Death and Legacy

Juan Gabriel's death shocked all of Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Mexico's president publicly expressed condolences and ordered that he be commemorated at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Similarly, the presidents of Venezuela and the United States expressed their condolences via social media.

Juan Gabriel has left behind 66 albums, with over 100 million copies sold. He had more than 1,800 songs, two movies, and a TV series based on his life. The songs "Se me olvido otra vez," "Amor eterno," "Inocente pobre amigo" "Costumbres" and "Mi fracaso," have become classic ranchera songs. Latin singers of the new millennium state that Juan Gabriel was one of their biggest influences. "I always wanted to be a songwriter, and I looked at Juan Gabriel as a role model," said the singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas. "Without him, I would not be who I am," confessed singer Marc Anthony. Juan Gabriel's success is even more impressive when considering his humble origins, the early loss of his parents, and his unjust imprisonment. He overcame all obstacles and hardships thanks to his optimistic attitude and great confidence. "I was always convinced that I would be very famous, very important," he once said.

A song from Juan Gabriel's most recent album, Los Duo

Questions & Answers

Question: How did Juan Gabriel become lonely?

Answer: I’m guessing that his loneliness is rooted in his childhood. As you know, he lost his father at a young age, and his mom sent him to a boarding school where he wasn’t happy...He also had a difficult adolescence because he struggled a lot financially when he was first trying his luck as a singer-songwriter. His sexuality might’ve also played a role in this. Mexican society was very conservative (and, in some ways, it still is) and not very accepting of people who did not identify as heterosexual...

Question: I would like to know if Juan Gabriel wrote Podria Volver?

Answer: It seems he did.

Question: Does anybody know Juan Gabriel's favorite food or color? What activities did Juan Gabriel like? I know it's random, but I need to know.

Answer: I don't know what his favorite color was. I do know he liked to read because the singer, Julieta Venegas, who was a friend of his mentioned it in an interview.

Comments

Mateo on December 17, 2018:

I feel bad about how was his life. but at least you remember him.also share it to other people.

Iris on January 08, 2018:

Juan Gabriel's story touch me so much. All the difficulties he went through and never gave up his dream of becoming a singer. Deeply sorry for the injustice that put him in jail but in the end he overcame and God blessed him with his music. Thank you Juan Gabriel for the wonderful music that touch us all deeply.

Cee-Jay Aurinko from Cape Town, South Africa on September 21, 2016:

Thank you for writing such a wonderful hub about this musical legend Silvia Munguia. I'm still amazed at how much albums Juan has under his belt. I'm certainly interested in finding out more about him.

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