Editor’s Note: When Mexican singer and composer Juan Gabriel died from a heart attack on Sunday, Aug. 28, while on tour in Santa Monica, Calif. the Latin music world lost one of its most prolific and iconic stylists. Gabriel, 66, sold more than 100 million copies of his works during a 40-year career that began at the age of 21 with the release of his first LP and hit, “No Tengo Dinero.” His last album “Los Dúo 2,” released this year, had already gone multi-platinum. His Spanish language version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” was released in June with new lyrics and has already been seen by more than 10 million YouTube fans.
Both Mexican and U.S. presidents eulogized the passing of Juan Gabriel. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto described him as one of Mexico’s “greatest musical icons.” U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Gabriel’s music as “transcending borders and generations. His spirt will live on in his enduring songs and in the fans who love him.”
The Rivard Report asked San Antonio writer and journalist Gregg Barrios, who interviewed Gabriel throughout his career and wrote a moving poem for Gabriel, to speak to the man behind the music and what motivated him to write his poetic tribute to el Divo de México. His report and poem, which will appear in Barrios’ forthcoming anthology “New and Selected Poetry,” (Hansen Publishing, 2017) follows.
I met Juan Gabriel in the mid-1990s. I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, but was on assignment for Univision’s MAS magazine and the Mexico City daily El Heraldo de México. At the time, I was the first Mexican or U.S. American journalist Gabriel had granted an interview in 10 years.
At the time, he was beset by two dilemmas: He had sued his record label BMG-Ariola to regain the rights to his songs that, as a 20-year-old, he had signed away in a fraudulent contract. Plus, a kiss-and-tell book, Juan Gabriel y Yo, written by a disgruntled ex-employee had appeared. Its author claimed to have been Juan Gabriel’s lover and included photographic evidence of Gabriel embracing and kissing young male admirers in his bed. For many in machista Mexico, it was ample proof that he was homosexual.
The singer-composer I met proved to be a disarming and charming host. I spent an entire week with Gabriel at his El Paso ranch with visits to his homes in Ciudad Juárez. All the questions I had about how he composed his music, about his childhood, his philosophy of life, and even his sexuality were open for discussion.
He was playful. In one instance, he took my video camera and started taping me, playing the role of reporter. “Now you know how I feel when they point their cameras at me and ask all kinds of questions,” he laughed.
We’d take long rides in an old Mercedes with his dog Negro in the back seat. We’d listen to border radio stations that played his music non-stop even then. And he’d wax poetic and sing new songs into the night air around the Franklin Mountains.
I wrote this poem below and dedicated it to Alberto, his birth name. I wrote it as he might have written the lyrics to a song. It’s sad and melancholy, and yet the wounded word “feliz” appears in several stanzas – just as he uses the phrase “Yo era muy feliz – in his classic lament, “Hasta Que Te Conocí.” Then it becomes impossible to live with or without an unrequited love.
Additionally, I wrote the poem in español in keeping with Gabriel’s refusal to cross over if it meant losing his native tongue. Spanish was the essence, the very life blood of his art as an artist and as a proud Méxicano. The writer Carlos Fuentes would often veer from English and read the original Spanish, since oftentimes the rhythms and dialects were lost in translation. He’d chide his audience by adding: “Monolingualism is a curable disease.” Ditto Juan Gabriel y su música.
POEMA [a un amor que nunca llego hacer amiga]
By Gregg Barrios
Para Alberto Aguilera / Juan Gabriel Q.E.P.D.
nunca estaré feliz
pero hubo un momento
cuando yo te quería
entonces todo lo sentía
cuando eras toda mi vida
que ahora termino
en algo triste y gris.
nuestro amor iba comenzar
nuestra vida, ahora perdida
para que te voy a engañar
fui el cobarde en no decírtelo
siempre me hacías muy feliz
pero en vez de gritártelo
tome el papel de un infeliz.
nunca quise ser el solitario
¿por qué no me sacudiste con cariño
para matar el ladrón melancolía
que dejo estas cenizas de amor?
fui el único que te quiso
soy el único sin tu amor
viviré mi vida triste y gris
la paloma a mi corazón no aviso
solo fue la palabra que me condeno
ya ni besos pueden despertarme
ya no pido ningún perdón
ya no tengo nada de que olvidarme
porque solo estoy, solo estoy
sin ti, mi corazón.
Below, you can watch Juan Gabriel singing “Hasta Que Te Conocí” at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where a celebration of his life and music will take place this Saturday.