Juan Gabriel’s Ashes, Purple Rains and the Rebirth of the Pachuco

Tencha was the Guardian of the Shrine.  Almost immediately after news of Juan Gabriel’s death broke on Sunday, August 28, 2016, Tencha and other neighborhood women erected a shrine in honor of the Mexican singer at the street plaque on Avenida Juarez where the Noa Noa nightclub once stood.

“It was bad. Pain is pain,” Tencha summed up her reaction to the death of a musical idol who launched a legendary career in the Noa Noa and other downtown nightclubs of Ciudad Juarez, first using the artistic name Adan Luna, back in the 1960s.  “We want to do something for him. I live close to here. I want to do something.”

Now a commercial parking lot, the Noa Noa was immortalized in a Gabriel song by the same name. A spirited older woman with a long cape of reddish blonde hair bundled by a red ribbon and outfitted in a well-worn red blouse and a short black skirt, Tencha described the Noa Noa as “very cool” joint where the doormen would give women free reign but eject men if they didn’t spend enough money consuming.  Above all, Tencha remembered the feet moving on the floor. “We would dance,” she gushed, eyes lighting up.

After Juanga’s death, crowds formed, dispersed and reformed at the Noa Noa plaque turned shrine. Fans piled roses, a teddy bear, old albums, and a picture of Christ on the small plaque that bears Gabriel’s hand prints. The Juarez Turibus pulled up, allowing tourists to snap photos.

Though El Noa Noa’s building is long gone, damaged in a fire and then demolished, Gabriel’s spirit was more than evident here, in old and new generations alike. Tapping a few steps for the crowd, a tall adolescent girl, smiling mightily, said Juanga’s song “El Noa Noa” helped her learn how to dance.

Locals and out-of-towners shared their memories and opinions with FNS as they stood gazing at the shrine. Born in 1955, Jose Quezada held that Gabriel was “a good man, very simple, without favoritisms.” The Juarez native added: “He always made a name for Juarez. He always helped the poor people…we’re going to miss him a lot.” Up from Palenque, Chiapas, Manuel Acosta Lopez said he saw Gabriel perform in his hometown back in the 1980s. “Everyone there is a fan of his,” Acosta said.

Like a proud but stern mother, Tencha periodically sprang up from her resting spot, tidied up the shrine resisting the wind and brushed off the street plaque with her hand. At one point, she expressed dissatisfaction with the news that Gabriel’s ashes would be moved from Juarez to Mexico City for a star-studded memorial.

“Poor man, see how they treat you!” Tencha huffed, stroking the shrine. “Chilangos!” she exclaimed, in reference to the denizens of Mexico City. Other people tossed fresh flower wreaths on the shrine while the candles flickered.

Like Gabriel, 67-year-old Carlos Ordaz is a bonafide fronterizo, or borderlander, part of a huge population of people sharing similar histories of migration from the interior of Mexico or farther south to the Mexico-U.S. border and then possibly a cross-over to the United States. Ordaz, who arrived to Juarez at about four years of age from Torreon, Coahuila, said he knew Juan Gabriel, whose real name is Alberto Aguilera Valadez, when the budding singer-composer worked at a fast food outlet in downtown Juarez.

In a reversal of roles, Ordaz said he found himself cooking for Juan Gabriel the superstar when Ordaz later worked in the early 1980s at the Hotel Plaza Juarez, where Gabriel once stayed for an extended period and liked to eat chicken and T-bone steaks. “The coincidences of life,” Ordaz chuckled.

Ironically, Ordaz said it wasn’t until he was actually in the United States, where he worked for seven years, that he saw Gabriel perform for the first time, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.

Gabriel’s storybook life resonates with fronterizos.  He was one of them, born into an impoverished family that moved to the border in search of a better life, in the proverbial quest “to get ahead.” Gabriel achieved international stardom, his songs translated into different languages and his voice soaring beyond borders, but his qualities of simplicity, an aversion to celebrity fuss and a commitment to the old burg were what endeared him to locals, according to many Juarenses.

The talk at the Noa Noa shrine stirred nostalgia in Ordaz and others about downtown Juarez, the smoke of American cigars, live music in movie theaters and the  trolley that shuttled people back and forth across the border to El Paso. Famous night spots including Los Mangos, El Malibu, La Cucaracha and of course, the Noa Noa, enlivened the street.

The final curtain on that era was drawn in 1998 during the new administration of Governor Patricio Martinez, when all night life was ordered to stop at 2:00 am, as in El Paso and New Mexico. Assuming power during the first waves of drug cartel violence and femicides that unhinged Juarez, the Martinez administration justified the policy change in the name of public safety.  As subsequent developments soon showed, public safety not only worsened but imploded. Only a few years ago, night life in Juarez ground to a virtual halt as men with guns, both in an out of uniform, ruled the streets.

Two events have so far defined the Juarez of 2016: February’s visit of the Pope and August’s death of Juan Gabriel. The award winning singer’s sudden death in California instantly became The Big Story of border media and the brisk topic of conversation in restaurants and bars in El Paso and Juarez. It even overshadowed the uproar over the meeting between Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Donald Trump.

Jukeboxes, border radio stations and pirate disc sellers on the Santa Fe Bridge between Juarez and El Paso all blared Gabriel’s songs, especially the locally-themed “El Noa Noa,” “Arriba Juarez” and “La Frontera,” or “The Border,” a celebratory song of border people and life delivered country-style.

The Divo of Juarez’s September 3 memorial service will surely go down in the books as one of the major events in the 357-year history of Ciudad Juarez.  For several blocks, the masses jammed the streets in front of and below Gabriel’s spread on Avenida 16 de Septiembre, a stately home built in a section of the Avenida where old villa-like houses with red-tiled roofs and palm trees contrast sharply with the deteriorating, adjacent neighborhoods laden with peeling paint, long-abandoned properties and “For Sale” signs.

Farther down Avenida 16 de Septiembre, the once-elegant Victoria Theater, opened in 1945, sits as a monument to urban decay despite a much-heralded plan to restore it. Unguarded and open to any trespasser, the historic venue recently suffered another fire and stunk to high heaven on a recent day.

A stage rose from 16 de Septiembre in front of Gabriel’s home, which had been transformed into a sanctuary decorated by flowers and other offerings of love left on its tall fence. Local press reports that spoke of as many as 300,000 people at the memorial seemed highly exaggerated but thousands upon thousands bid farewell to their beloved Juanga. Many came from El Paso and other parts of the United States. There they patiently stood, the old and the young, the gay and the straight, entire families. Erstwhile rain clouds drifted above, topping off a humid early evening.

“You weren’t from Juarez, Alberto,” proclaimed a placard thrust into a humid sky. “Juarez is of Juan Gabriel.” As a news drone buzzed overhead, purple “Amor Eterno” banners in celebration of Gabriel’s classic song fluttered in the breeze, men and women grasped Mexican flags and shouts of “Juan Gabriel Lives!” cried out from the river of humanity, as the Juarez press dubbed it. A woman fainted and was carted off by the Red Cross.  Police encircled the perimeter, forcing this reporter and a photographer to negotiate with the cops so as to get closer to the stage.  Suddenly, an impromptu people’s chorus arose from the multitude, singing Gabriel’s classic 1971 hit “No Tengo Dinero:”

“….No tengo dinero ni nada que dar

Lo unico que tengo es amor para amar..”

“…I don’t have money or anything to give

I only have love for loving…”

On this evening, the prevailing mood was one of joy.

Julio Guereca, longtime broadcaster for the Juarez public rock and cultural radio station 106.7 FM, later termed the memorial a popular “catharsis.” Here, as across Mexico where other emotional tributes were in motion, memories poured from the collective well.

“It makes me think about my sister and mother,” said Juanita Martinez of the song “Amor Eterno,” or Eternal Love, a tune Gabriel reportedly composed while in Acapulco in remembrance of his mother who had died.  Whether delivered like an angel or a frog, “Amor Eterno” is standard singing in any Mexican karaoke club.

Originally from Veracruz, Maria Luisa Morales arrived in Juarez in the 1990s, a time when public security was evaporating but jobs were plentiful in the maquiladora industry and money flowed in the clubs. Like Tencha, the now middle-aged woman recalled the bygone era of the old Noa Noa, when the dancing went on “all night long.”

For Morales, Gabriel’s music captured the real Juarez: “One lives and enjoys Juarez. The people struggle very hard, and they live better here. It’s an industrial city that the people made with their work.”

Laura Conde saw Gabriel perform live. “He was beautiful. He’s an example for all Mexicans, because of his humanity.” Telling FNS her favorite song is “No Tengo Dinero, Conde’s young daughter Estephanie is following in the musical footsteps of her mom. “He sings it good,” she judged.

In his decades-long career, Juan Gabriel’s songs and performances tantalized, teased and delighted audiences. He made them laugh, cry and reminisce about good times and bad. Love lost and gained, rejection and redemption were his core themes.

Gabriel’s friend, Mexican singer/actress Daniela Romo likened the author of an estimated 1,800 songs to a “music box” who was always composing a tune. “Mexico is losing a valuable person because he spoke our language…,” Romo was separately quoted in the Mexican press. “If (people) continue singing his songs it’s because he formed part of the emotional history of Mexicans. In this sense, he wrote a great book.”

Stretching for blocks at the tail of the Juarez memorial and almost nudging the club off 16 de Septiembre that billed a Juan Gabriel and transvestite show, a Juan Gabriel bazaar was  open for business. Besides the typical churros, sodas and burritos, street vendors sold Juanga posters, photos, flags, cups and t-shirts. The words on a particularly popular black t-shirt read:

“The feeling of the people

The passion for his land

And love for his roots

Juan Gabriel is proudly Mexican

Thank you for so much love”

A man who preferred to be identified simply as Jose mulled over a question about Juan Gabriel’s place in the bigger scheme of things. “He was a natural, not made up or manipulated like some, and he made himself; very important, even more so than Benito Juarez since he was genuine.”

“More important than Benito Juarez?” the surprised reporter asked, considering the revered president’s role in staving off the French imperialists rescuing the Mexican nation and lending his posthumous name to the very city where Juan Gabriel was created. Yes, Jose insisted, calling the late singer “authentic.”

After a lengthy delay, the Catholic mass for Juan Gabriel slowly got underway on the stage in front of his home, where a museum dedicated to the singer’s life will open, according to outgoing municipal officials.

Officiated by Bishop Jose Guadalupe Torres of Juarez, with the assistance of his counterpart from El Paso, the mass was preceded by the placing of a red urn containing Gabriel’s ashes on the stage. Befitting a statesman, the ashes had been earlier transported the same day in a solemn procession across the Stanton Street Bridge from El Paso, where admirers gathered to say farewell and guide Gabriel’s spirit back to Mexico.

The urn’s image was projected on the multiple video screens posted along 16 de Septiembre, eliciting enthusiastic applause. Thousands of cell phone cameras snapped away in a ritual of the digital age. Finally, the mass began and the faithful crossed themselves.

Bishop Torres led the service, the people sang “Hallelujah, Hallelujah,” friends and strangers shook hands, and the church leader splashed holy water on Juanga’s ashes. During communion a camera panned the dignitaries seated behind the Bishop on the stage, revealing Juarez Mayor Javier Gonzalez Mocken and Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte, both of whom leave office next month.

Seemingly unconcerned by the religious ceremony, and hemmed in by the bulging crowds, one of Juarez’s notorious brothels, located just down the street from the stage and Gabriel’s home, kept its lights flashing all through the mass.

Saturday, September 3, was a delicate day for Bishop Torres. He was fresh from another mass honoring migrants but which was also attended by conservative Catholics who had just paraded in the thousands through the streets of Ciudad Juarez in the local edition of the March for the Family, a national movement opposed to gay marriage and in favor of national legislation which would essentially outlaw legal unions by persons of the same sex.

Juan Gabriel’s assumed homosexuality has long been an inseparable part of his aura and personae, though unlike say, Ricky Martin, the singer-songwriter never publicly admitted his preference for men. Proceso magazine’s Jenaro Villamil defined Gabriel as “the great open closet” of Mexico. In a video produced after the 66-year-old legend’s death in Santa Monica last month, Villamil explored Gabriel’s impact on Mexican society, the unprecedented post-mortem outpouring for Juanga on social media, and the recognition a onetime poor boy’s contribution to the transnational cultural tapestry from figures like U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Without intending it, Juan Gabriel was the best example and testimony of success based on his identity, as well as a subtle rebellion against Mexican machismo,” Villamil said. “At the end of the day, Juan Gabriel was a modern phenomenon who broke conventions without announcing or presuming it. He was a gentle rupture with Mexican norms, transformed into a celebrity in all Latin America and, of course, in the United States.”

Gabriel’s battles with tax authorities in the U.S. and Latin America, and his associations with Institutional Revolutionary Party politicians such as Cesar Duarte, attracted controversies that  cut into questions far deeper than the individual born as Alberto Aguilera Valadez. And his death unleashed a new one.

In an August 30 piece in the Mexican daily Milenio, the soon to be ex-director the national university’s television station, Nicolas Alvarado, named Gabriel as a national icon along with the Virgin of Guadalupe and renowned poet Octavio Paz. But Alvarado took a dig at Gabriel’s music, placing it in the sphere of “joto” (“faggot’) culture, and apt for “nacos”, roughly the fused Mexican equivalent of “trailer trash” or “niggers.”

Alvarado later pleaded misunderstanding of his sarcasm, but a storm of criticism and debate over homophobia, racism, classism and free speech in Mexican society ensued, with the university official leaving his position. Like just-departed Mexican Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, who was fairly or unfairly blamed for the Trump-Pena Nieto fiasco, Alvarado tendered his resignation.

On the ground, the tributes to Gabriel are only growing. In Juarez, a handsome new plaza that was recently constructed over the ghostly remains of the legendary and seedy Mariscal red light district now bears Juan Gabriel’s name.

According to the Juarez news site Arrobajuarez.com, the Juarez city council this week unanimously approved spending approximately $25,000 for a bronze Juanga statute, crafted by a Mexico City by an artist known for works of Mexican presidents and governors, which will be set in the plaza.

Originally scheduled for an official inauguration the weekend of September 2-3, the municipal government had been running a contest to see who would come up with the winning name. In the interceding days, the public work was among sections of the city that suffered flooding from summer monsoons, stirring memories of 2006’s Little Katrina flood.

In the last days of summer 2016 three issues have Juarenses on edge: resurgent violence, government change-over, and intense rain storms that wreak havoc on aging stormwater infrastructure and low-lying, flood-prone neighborhoods built for the factory workers who crank out innumerable gadgets for the U.S. and international consumer markets.

Unsurprisingly, Gabriel’s death on the eve of the plaza’s planned inauguration finally decided the name. The municipal government then postponed the official inauguration of the plaza because of the commotion around the singer’s passing and the focus on the September 3 memorial in front of his old house.

As it turned, the Grand Plaza Juan Gabriel was inaugurated last weekend anyway- ahead of the official ceremony.  In a historical twist of fate perhaps, it was a group of pachucos that warmed up the new public space.

On Sunday, September 4, stylishly dressed pachucos gathered on the plaza to celebrate the upcoming birthday of their hero and another one of Ciudad Juarez’s legends:  German “Tin Tan” Valdes (1915-1973 ), an actor and comedian credited for popularizing the pachuco culture said to have originated in the Juarez-El Paso borderland before sweeping Los Angeles and the U.S. Southwest with the Zoot suit style and a distinctive slang in the 1940s.

A pachuco revival has been gathering steam in Juarez during the last couple of years, with the suited men and women increasingly seen dancing away to the live bands that play the Avenida 16 de Septiembre pedestrian mall on weekends in downtown Juarez.

On a Sunday evening, the new Juan Gabriel Grand Plaza rocked out with the songs “Rockin’ Robin and “Wooly Bully” thundering from a sound system as pachucos merrily danced. Exhibiting slick rides from another era, the Oldies Car Club was on hand. A Route 5-B city bus cruised by, pumping its body up and down like a low rider super machine, to the glee of onlookers.

“We are fans of Tin Tan. We are celebrating 100 years of his birthday. He was the first pachuco,” Sergio Carrillo, member of the Ciudad Juarez Pachuco Assocation, told FNS. “We celebrate him the whole year…24 hours a day.” Carrillo said the pachuco movement is planning a parade and other events between September 14-16  (Valdes’ birthday falls on September 15, the day before Mexican Independence), including a dance competition of pachucos from the Paso del Norte, Mexico City and Durango at Juarez’s Salon Mexico nightclub on Paseo del Triunfo de la Republica.

Part of the state/municipal urban revitalization of downtown Juarez, a new museum for Tin Tan looks almost finished directly across from the Juan Gabriel Grand Plaza and next to a building colored with a mural of the actor. Handsome and trim, the museum nevertheless is empty only days before its planned opening, prompting Carrillo to speculate with the “r” word about the budget for it during a government transition, a time when money is known to disappear.  The pachuco spokesman differed with the city government’s naming of Juan Gabriel Grand Plaza. “The real name should be Tin Tan,” he asserted. “We can still protest.”

A block away on Avenida Juarez, the Sunday crowds were thinning, with some pedestrians headed back over to El Paso via the Santa Fe Bridge that spans the Rio Grande dividing Mexico and the United States. On both sides of the river, changes are coming. A new president and a new congress will be elected soon on the U.S. side, while a new governor and a new mayor will take office next month in Chihuahua state and Ciudad Juarez.  A new trolley is under construction in El Paso, maybe even destined to cross over to Juarez again one day.

In a global perspective, Juan Gabriel was part of a line of 20th century musicians of different genres and nationalities who wrote the collective and individual soundtracks of our times: David Bowie, B.B. King, Paul Kantner, Glenn Frey, and Prince among them. All of them have recently passed, and so has an era.

In Mexico, Juan Gabriel was among the chief cultural personalities who interpreted, expressed and molded national sentiment and identity. Though perhaps not as big as the Divo of Juarez, many of the minds who helped convey 20th century Mexico to its own citizens and the world are now gone in the early 21st  century: novelist Carlos Fuentes, journalists Julio Scherer and Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, Juan Gabriel chronicler and cultural analyst Carlos Monsivais, writer Carlos Montemayor, etc.  A new, uncertain era is unfolding.

Yet as the mural painted last year of Juan Gabriel on Avenida Juarez so vividly illustrates, the legend, the myth and the voice of the Divo is imprinted onto the Mexican landscape and in the hearts of its people. At the Noa Noa shrine, Margarita Guareca, her friend Tencha and others conducted a rosary for Juan Gabriel.

An older woman with a steady voice, Guareca slid her fingers slowly down the rosary beads as she led the group in prayer and song for a poor neighborhood boy named Alberto Aguilera Valadez who became the pride of a city. Positioned at the top of the shrine was a big poster of Juan Gabriel, his arms outstretched against a heavenly blue background. The poster read:

“Juan Gabriel on Tour for Eternity

The Divo of Juarez



Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.