LA CHILANGA BANDA
“The Mexican people loved him dearly. He was a great, but humble man,” said Guadalupe Santana, of Hidalgo state. She arrived at 9 a.m. to pay tribute to Juan Gabriel, who died August 28 of a heart attack. She was waiting at 4 p.m. along with thousands of others for the artist’s ashes to arrive at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where his fans would have a chance to say goodbye.
After hours of anticipation, the caravan transporting the ashes arrived from the Mexico City airport. During the long wait, the solemn occasion had transformed into a festive homage to the singer, with fans belting out his classic songs and showing off their creative posters and outfits honoring the singer.
Alberto Aguilera Valadez was born in the small town of Parácuaro, Michoacán in 1950 and took the name Juan Gabriel after moving to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. His stage presence was unparalleled and his sequined jackets represented a femininity and grace previously unseen in Mexican ranchera and banda genres. Juan Gabriel overcame all odds to become a world-wide sensation. His death at the end of August shocked fans. The out-pouring of admiration on Monday was only the culmination of a week of impromptu tributes in front of the theater and in nearby Plaza Garibaldi, home of Mexico City’s mariachi bands.
A light rain started to fall shortly before the ashes arrived on Monday afternoon, but the crowd was not discouraged. Squeezed on the sidewalk of Eje Central ten rows deep, people started to sing “Amor Eterno” (Eternal Love), a Juan Gabriel classic that had become the unofficial ballad of the farewell ceremony.
Once the ashes were placed inside the Palacio de Bellas Artes, iconic Mexican singers, including several who performed with Juan Gabriel during his long career, serenaded the crowd. Fernando de la Mora, Lucía Méndez and Aída Cuevas were just a few of the performers to take the stage. The festive and colorful Mi Tierra mariachi group lifted people’s spirits as they waited in the long line to see the ashes.
The official speeches were drowned out by the energy of the crowd. Culture Secretary Rafael Tovar y de Teresa presided over the event, along with the director of the National Fine Arts Institute (INBA), María Cristina García Cepeda.
There was a heavy police presence to control the crowds. The city government reported that 2,100 officers were on duty. The crowd was calm and the police seemed mostly concerned with detaining street vendors, who had commemorative magazines, photographs and rain ponchos available for sale.
The Palacio remained open overnight on Monday to accommodate the thousands of fans waiting to go inside. It was estimated Monday evening that 200,000 people had already paid their respects and Tover y de Teresa predicted that between 500,000 and 700,000 people would pass through over the two day event. The turn-out surpassed recent memorial tributes held at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is reserved for the most important Mexican and Latin American actors, artists authors and musicians. In 2014, 250,000 people paid their respects to Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, who lived in Mexico City for many years before his death. The service for Mexican actor Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” received 300,000 visitors in 2012.
Rosa María Murgía of Mexico City said that she had seen one of Juan Gabriel’s performances at Bellas Artes and that she, “came today because Juan Gabriel was a person of very humble origins. He suffered greatly and was able to overcome all the challenges in his life.”
This was a common refrain among the crowd: Juan Gabriel was a singer who spoke to their lived experience and represented Mexicans on the world stage.