A measure of the disconnect between the Anglo and Latino populations in Los Angeles is the way in which Mexican superstar ballad singer Juan Gabriel was treated in his adopted home. As The Times relayed in an extensive 1993 profile, Juan Gabriel walked into a fancy antique store looking to spend a big wad of cash, only to be questioned by the ill-informed owner as to whether the man could afford such luxuries.
In the same profile, Juan Gabriel, who sold out the Universal Amphitheater (now the Gibson) on 39 straight occasions over 13 years, dines at a high-class Malibu restaurant and is treated less than charitably by the entire staff save the Mexican busboy, who “drops his tray and his jaw, then runs to the kitchen to tell his friends: Mexico's patrimony (as Juan Gabriel calls himself) is there, on the patio, eating a light pasta with vegetables.”
Juan Gabriel, born Alberto Aguilera Valadez, was the youngest of 10 children born to two peasants from Paracuaro, Michoacan, Mexico. After his father died when the singer was 2 years old, his mother, unable to feed her children, left little Alberto at an orphanage.
He was eventually taken in by the orphanage’s director, and in his teenage years started selling street food to earn money. While doing so, he started making songs up in his head and singing them aloud. His singing caught the attention of two sisters, who eventually invited him to live with them.
It was on a visit to an African American church with the sisters that he had a musical epiphany: “That's where I was first exposed to African American music,” Juan Gabriel told The Times. “And I knew then that if there was a God, and if God was listening, he was listening to African American music.” After moving to Mexico City at age 19, he got his first recording contract, and within a year he’d earned his first gold record for “No Tengo Dinero.”
Since that first song was released nearly 40 years ago, the wildly, wonderfully flamboyant Juan Gabriel sold over 100 million records, and remains a beloved icon of Latin music. In 1993, he performed for 75,000 people at the Rose Bowl and all the proceeds of the concert went to the Mexican orphanage that raised him.
When he died at age 66, Juan Gabriel was 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 and ranchera.