Vicente Fernández, revered Mexican singer, dies at 81; San Antonians cries

Vicente Fernández, the cowboy crooner known as El Rey, the king of Mexican ranchera music, performing traditional songs across Latin America and the United States with his operatic voice and sprawling mariachi band , died Sunday in a hospital in Guadalajara, Mexico. He was 81 years old.

His death was announced in a post on his Instagram page. After falling at his home in August, he was hospitalized for several months and diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes muscle weakness.

San Antonians with fond memories of the music legend reflected on his passing and mourned his death on social media on Sunday. U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, in a Facebook post, called Fernández “an international icon who has brought the beauty of Mexican culture into homes around the world.”

“He will be missed, but his music will continue to inspire generations to come,” Castro wrote.

Anthony Medrano was one of many local musicians who gathered at contemporary artist Cruz Ortiz’s South Side studio on Sunday to remember Fernández and sing some of the songs that made him a legend.

While performing with Mariachi Campanas de America in the mid to late 1990s, Medrano performed on a ranch near Blanco, north of San Antonio, unaware that the property belonged to Fernández. He spotted a man at the back of the property working with miniature horses on the ranch. He was shocked to learn it was “the living legend”, he recalls.

Singing “Volver, Volver” in front of Fernández was “one of the most exciting and terrifying moments of my mariachi career,” Medrano said.

“We were treated like family” and invited many times, said Medrano, who for 15 years served as director of Mariachi USA, a festival of the world’s top mariachi performers, now in its 33rd year. held at the Hollywood Bowl.

“It’s a medicine”

Fernández began singing for tips on the streets of Guadalajara, birthplace of mariachi music, and became one of Mexico’s most popular musicians, recording dozens of albums that have sold an estimated $50 million. copies. Backed by fiddles, horns and guitars, he sang impassioned rancheras, rural hymns about cowboys, lovers’ quarrels, cockfights and tequila.

“For Mexicans, it’s medicine that gives you relief when you’re down,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 1994, describing the power of the genre. “It makes you happy. It’s not so much about thinking as it is about feeling.”

Performing live and appearing in nearly 40 films, Fernández cultivated an image of a charro, a traditional rider, singing in the saddle at times like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. He carried an engraved pistol and wore an embroidered sombrero and a hand-sewn suede charro suit, which he compared to “Mexico’s second flag”. By donning the uniform before each concert, he said, he felt like an ambassador for his country.

“As long as you keep clapping,” he would say at the start of each show, referring to himself with a Spanish diminutive, “your Chente won’t stop singing.” He frequently performed for over three hours, striding across the stage as women threw underwear at his feet and men passed bottles to him, offering him a sip between songs.

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles once wrote that Fernández possessed “a vibrato that could register on the Richter scale”. But his screaming tenor turned soft during the ballads, bursting into tears as he sang about grief and longing. “I will wander, I will try to find some peace”, he said in “Ya Me Voy Para Siempre” (“I’m leaving forever”), “but if this hurt continues, don’t be surprised if a canteen becomes my home.

His greatest hits include “Volver Volver” (“Go Back, Go Back”), about a heartbroken man dreaming of his former lover, and “Mujeres Divinas”, in which he sings of his love for “women, oh women so divine”. “He sang from experience,” he said, drawing on his marriage and love affairs as well as his teenage years in rural western Mexico.

“There are other ranchera music singers who sing very well,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “but you can tell by the way they sing that they never lived on a ranch. They never knew what it was like to milk a cow, to give birth to a calf, to shoe a horse.

Fernández was part of a musical tradition that stretched back to ranchera stars such as Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and Javier Solís, who dominated the Mexican music scene in the mid-20th century. But each of those musicians died young – at 42, 39 and 34, respectively – and Fernández continued to perform well into his 70s, wrapping up a farewell tour to Latin America’s biggest stadium. , the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, in 2016.

By then he had received three Grammy Awards and eight Latin Grammys and was inducted into the Billboard Latin Music Hall of Fame. He had also collaborated with pop stars from Brazil and the United States, although he refused to stray from the ranchera sound that made him famous.

“Anyone who sings with me has to sing ranchero,” he told Billboard magazine. “Roberto Carlos was to sing ranchero, Vikki Carr was to record ranchero. Celia Cruz arrived with a mariachi. I agree to record with everyone, as long as it’s with a mariachi.

“San Antonio loved him”

Although Medrano, the director of Mariachi USA, has worked with musicians of all levels, “there has never been one as humble and as real as Vicente,” he said.

“I felt we considered ourselves fans to him, but he considered us more like friends,” Medrano said, noting that there are now thousands of mariachi students in American school systems, all singing and performing. “Volver”.

“His legacy is just one for the ages,” Medrano said.

Cynthia Muñoz, a local producer of many festivals and mariachi concerts, first saw Fernández as a girl, when he performed at a packed HemisFair Arena in 1976. The concert, including a performance with her son , Alejandro, who was a young boy, is “a very memorable performance for people all over the world.”

“He had a whole fan base, all over Latin America, all over the United States. But San Antonio loved him,” Muñoz said. such a young age.”

His tenor voice “was very deep and beautiful, and he sang with great emotion,” she said. “It didn’t matter whether people understood Spanish or not. You could get an idea of ​​how he felt about the music in his style of delivery.

“He really inspired so many people – myself included,” added Muñoz. “He really helped shape the cultural landscape of San Antonio through his music.”

“Be That Messenger”

Vicente Fernández Gómez was born in Huentitán El Alto, on the outskirts of Guadalajara, on February 17, 1940. His father was a rancher, his mother a housewife. He left school in the fifth grade, won an amateur singing competition at age 14, and began performing at weddings and restaurants. Around this time, his father’s cattle business collapsed and the family moved north to Tijuana.

In his early twenties, he performed in Guadalajara and sang in a restaurant in Mexico City, repeatedly trying to land a recording contract. The executives advised him to find another career – “Go sell peanuts or something,” one said – but he called in 1966, after the death of Solís, the biggest star of the ranchero. Fernández signed later that year with CBS México, who had rejected him twice before.

He was soon hitting the studio for marathon sessions, recording up to 30 songs a night. He also became a prolific actor, appearing in at least one film a year, usually as a singing cowboy. He retired from acting in 1991, having apparently decided he was too old for the screen. Over the next decade, his sideburns and hair turned white, in stark contrast to his signature black mustache and eyebrows.

Fernández maintained a devoted following but alienated some fans with his behavior as he got older. In a 2019 interview, he said that after being diagnosed with a cancerous tumour, he refused a liver transplant for fear the donor was a “gay or a drug addict”. A video later emerged showing him groping a woman’s breast as they posed for a photo, prompting her to apologize and say he accidentally touched her.

When asked in 2010 if a routine or an exercise was the key to his longevity as an artist, Fernández told KENS-TV from San Antonio that he walked for an hour every day and rode a horse. when he was at home on his ranch. But when he was on tour, he said, “I don’t leave hotels.”

“Still, it keeps me healthy,” he said. “My voice is well rested. When I hear the applause from the audience, I don’t know where the voice is coming from, but it does it for three hours. You will have to ask God how he blesses me each time.

In 1963, he married one of his neighbors in Guadalajara, María del Refugio “Cuquita” Abarca Villaseñor. They had a daughter, Alejandra, and three sons: Gerardo, who worked as his father’s manager; Alejandro, a Grammy-nominated singer; and Vicente Jr., who was abducted by kidnappers in 1998. He was released after four months – during which two of his fingers were severed – and the payment of a $3.2 million ransom.

Complete information about the survivors was not immediately available.

While his tours of the United States were generally discovered by the English-language press, Fernández received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and sometimes sought to leverage his influence to support American politicians. He released a 2016 corrido, or folk ballad, on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“When I come to America, I feel like I’m coming to visit family, bringing a reminder of home to those who can’t be there,” he told the Morning News. “I feel I have a responsibility to perpetuate Mexican folklore and culture, and it’s my obligation to my audience, to be that messenger.

“The message also goes to Anglos, and I know it reaches them, because I see them more and more at my shows. Mexican culture and tradition must cross borders, and wherever it takes me, I will be there.

Express-News writer Scott Huddleston, Washington Post writer Harrison Smith and The New York Times contributed to this report.

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