News of the Sunday death of Juan Gabriel at 66 spurred an outpouring of grief across Mexico, with back-to-back television tributes to Gabriel replacing regularly scheduled programming and the Mexican government offering to host an event honoring the singer at the national opera house in Mexico City.
“A voice and talent that represented Mexico,” Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto wrote of Gabriel on Twitter. “His music is a legacy for the world.”
News of Gabriel’s death also rippled across Los Angeles on Sunday as Spanish-language radio stations played his songs and fans mourned over text messages and social media.
“If you live in a Mexican family, you know about Juan Gabriel,” said Joanna Franco, 25, of the South Bay area, who said her mother used to play Gabriel’s albums as she cleaned the house. “He’s a staple. One of the legends.”
Sent to live at an orphanage at age 4, Gabriel’s rags-to-riches story was as well-known as his glittery outfits and his unrelentingly romantic lyrics.
It was not uncommon for fans to cry at his shows, which stretched as long as five hours.
Sporting a perfectly coiffed pompadour – and sometimes a flowing cape – Gabriel was known for his epic stage performances, where he was often accompanied by an orchestra, dancers and dozens of mariachis dressed in tight jackets and sombreros.
Gabriel was in the middle of a tour and performed for the last time on Friday night, in front of thousands of fans at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., a testament to his popularity among Spanish-speakers outside of Mexico.
Adriana Pena, a Burbank, Calif., homemaker, said Gabriel was the first musician she ever saw in concert, alongside her mother about age 7. She remembers being in awe of the flamboyant singer.
“He was very humble – but he put on a great show,” she said. “He was like the Michael Jackson of Mexico.”
Born Alberto Aguilera Valdez in Paracuaro, Michoacan, but better known by his stage name, Gabriel spent most of his final decades living in the United States. But unlike other Latin music stars, such as Enrique Iglesias or Marc Anthony, he shied away from recording music in English and fiercely guarded his Mexican identity.
“American music has infiltrated the entire world enough as it is,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1999. “Mexican music must be defended with vigilance … My thoughts, my feelings, my spirit, they are all in Spanish.”
Gabriel was born in 1950, the youngest of 10 children.
He said his first memory in life was of his mother leaving him at an orphanage in the border city of Juarez.
“You don’t know the word for ‘abandon' at that age,” he told the Times. “But you know what is happening. You know you want to be with your mother, and she is not there.”
As a teenager, Gabriel wrote songs in his head and sang them as he sold tortillas in the street. His voice turned heads, and soon he moved to Mexico City, where he scored his first recording contract.
In 1971 he released his first gold record, “No Tengo Dinero” (“I’ve Got No Money”).
Gabriel went on to become the best-selling artist in Mexican history, writing more than 1,000 songs for himself and other performers in a variety of styles that stretched from rock to disco to ranchera.
Gabriel also dabbled in acting. But he is best remembered for his ballads, such as “Querida” (“My Dear”), a 1984 love letter to a former lover considered by many fans to be his greatest hit.
“Look at my loneliness,” he sings in Spanish, his voice quivering. “I want to see light in my house again.”
Gabriel credited his simple, soulful lyrics with his upbringing.
“I compose songs with a lot of simplicity because my school has been the streets and people have been my books,” he said after his induction into the Billboard Latin Music Hall of Fame.
His songs were soundtracks for the lives of generations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
“I think all of us, Mexican or not, have scenes in our lives linked to Juan Gabriel’s songs,” Mexican journalist Peniley Ramirez wrote on Twitter. She said she remembered singing his songs in her house while she was pregnant.
Frank Marez, an Arroyo Grande, Calif., resident who was in Los Angeles on Sunday for a Dodgers game, said Gabriel made him proud to be Mexican-American.
“You knew a Juan Gabriel song when you heard it,” he said. “It’s hard when one of yours is gone.”
Although he continued to perform, Gabriel suffered from health problems in recent years. In 2014, he was hospitalized with pneumonia after a Las Vegas show.
Gabriel, who had four children, never married. His colorful outfits and flamboyant dance moves drew speculation about his sexual orientation, but Gabriel preferred to remain coy on the issue.
He was never coy when talking about music. At lunch with a Times reporter in Malibu, Calif., in 1999, he said he wouldn’t care if he lost all his money.
Making music is all he needed to be happy, he said.
“To make it, you have to be fully alive,” he said. “I do my best to do that. I enjoy every moment, because I believe that once we die, that’s it. We’re not coming back. Lovers come back. Styles come back. But time? It never comes back.”