After the Rodney King riots.
The Zapatistas were plotting rebellion in Chiapas, but no one knew who they were yet; peace had arrived in El Salvador, but heartbreakingly, it wouldn’t last very long.
ACT UP and Queer Nation were still fighting for our lives -- there was no AIDS retroviral “cocktail” yet.
It was the summer of 1993 and immigrants from Mexico and Central America were vulnerable -- even more than usual. Pete Wilson and California Republicans were just ramping up a nativist campaign that almost pales in comparison to Donald Trump’s Gestapo message, but at the time it was the worst immigrant scapegoating in a generation. The rhetorical season culminated with the passage of the blatantly racist Proposition 187.
That’s when Juan Gabriel played the Rose Bowl.
It was billed as a benefit for his orphanage in Juárez, but the concert, which drew an estimated 75,000 fans, felt like it had an even wider significance. It was a taking back of space -- cultural, political, social -- that we’d been denied. In Pasadena! The Rose Bowl! The WASP-iest of WASP spaces.
It was, to invoke historian Douglas Monroy’s phrase, a pop-up “México de afuera,” recreating the homeland beyond its borders, where existential need becomes unbearable in the face of constant violence (political, cultural, physical). Politicians grinding your history and desire into crass stereotype for a quickened pulse in the “base.” The gatekeepers of media and cultural institutions, liberal and conservative alike, reflexively distorting or just plain erasing you. The violence of the state in the form of police and Border Patrol pulling you over, pulling the gun on you, cuffing you, sending you away for the broken taillight-expired-registration-jaywalking-don’t have your papers.
If you are Latino in this country, you know some aspect of this violence, whether it’s touched your body or your soul.
And Juanga had known violence in his life. He suffered poverty, and, surely he suffered for being perceived as “different.” Can you imagine the young Juanga in Juárez, with those feminine features, hitting those high notes? Of course you can. You can hear what he heard. Imagine it en inglés and in Spanish.
He was able to take the bruises and salve them in song, which became our collective healing.
He wore his difference defiantly.
A friend asked me today, how did he do it, how did he not just survive but become the biggest pop star of his generation, in macho México?
It wasn’t in spite of his difference but because of it. Certainly, the rags to riches storyline was essential to his reception. But to be accepted as gay -- he was as “out” as you could be in his context (he famously told an interviewer, “Lo que se ve, no se pregunta,” you shouldn’t ask about what is obvious) -- was a step further. He allowed a more fluid Mexican identity to filter up through the layers of social repression (church, state, gringos), one that is open, vulnerable, generous. It is the Mexico that is just beneath the macho bluster, the hacendado posturing of its politicos, the murderous tendencies of rich and poor alike, the ghosts of conquest and colonialism. Mexicans recognized their deeper selves in his reflection.
He came out in his lyrics, as well. “Noa Noa,” one of his early anthems, is an ode to the Juárez club where he debuted as an adolescent. “Este es un lugar de ambiente,” he shout-sings in a curiously placed break in the song, “donde todo es diferente.” Loosely: “This is a place with a great vibe, where everything is different.” But ambiente is also a keyword in Mexico’s LGBTQ lexicon, denoting a gay-friendly space. What’s different at the mythical Noa Noa is that gender and sexual identity leap beyond rigid binaries. A later hit, the R&B inflected “Pero qué necesidad,” which on the surface plays as a love-never-lasts number, becomes an iamb-insistent declaration in the chorus:
Pero qué necesidad
Para qué tanto problema
No hay como la libertad de ser, de estar, de ir
De amar, de hacer, de hablar
De andar así sin penas
Pero qué necesidad,
Para qué tanto problema
Mientras yo le quiero ver feliz, cantar, bailar
Reír, soñar, sentir, volar
Ellos le frenan
(But who cares?/ Why so many problems?/ There’s nothing like the freedom to be, to stay, to go/ to love, to make, to talk/ to live without sorrows/ But who cares? Why so many problems? I just want to see you happy, singing, dancing, laughing, dreaming, feeling, flying/ But they stop you)
So it was a liberated México, in Juanga’s body, that took the stage on the Rose Bowl, in front of the Mexicanos de afuera -- the ones cast out from the homeland, orphaned in a sense, like Juanga had been in his own youth. And what a stage it was! Massive, simply decorated with the design of radiant sun, and no one on it for two and a half hours but him. (The orchestra and mariachis were in a pit, like at the opera.) There are video clips of this performance on YouTube. Look at the audience reaction shots: the swaying, tearful mothers, the erstwhile machos letting their guard down, the young and the old, the people that give their bodies to this city day in and day out.
I interviewed Juan Gabriel shortly before his Rose Bowl performance, in Spanish with English subtitles, for the KCET public affairs program “Life & Times.” It was the first and only time that such an extensive interview has been broadcast on local public television in Spanish, with a queen of Mexican border pop.
He talked of the orphanage. If I recall correctly, he asked me where I was from because of my accent and I told him I was “Salvadoran-Mexican,” which sounded a lot more exotic back then than it does today. We conversed in the formal address, usted, which he always used in public, a vestige of colonial elegance and hierarchy used more often in provincial Mexico.
He was open, vulnerable, generous. I did not ask him if he was gay. Lo que se ve no se pregunta.
“Life & Times” was a low-rent production, but we hung some special lights for him, and set up a microphone. He sang “Luna,” a sweet and simple ballad (his specialty), a capella.
I got a lot of hate mail.
I couldn’t have been prouder.
He died in Santa Monica, México de afuera, a place that doesn’t need to be named anymore, because in spite of Trump’s ravings, with the likes of Juanga, we brought down the wall long ago.