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A new podcast unearths details about the life of Mexican music icon Juan Gabriel

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

His name was Juan Gabriel. He was one of Mexico's biggest stars, a prolific singer and songwriter, a Latin pop icon who racked up millions of record sales, wrote more than 1,500 songs and charted dozens of hits. On stage, he wore dark eyeliner, bright, bedazzled clothes. And his voice? It kept audiences hanging on every note.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HASTA QUE TE CONOCI (LIVE)")

JUAN GABRIEL: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: By the time he died in 2016, Gabriel, affectionately known as Juanga, was a towering success, but his beginnings in Ciudad Juarez were nothing short of traumatic. He's the subject of a new podcast from Futuro Media called "My Divo," a nod to another of his nicknames, the divo of Juarez. Maria Garcia is the host of the show, and she joins me now. Maria, welcome.

MARIA GARCIA: Hi, Adrian. Thanks so much for having me.

FLORIDO: Thanks for joining us. You know, for Latinos, Juan Gabriel was as big a celebrity as they come, impossible not to know him. But for our listeners who haven't heard of him, describe him for me.

GARCIA: Oh, my God. Well, the way I describe Juanga to some of my American friends who perhaps didn't grow up listening to him is when he was young, imagine a figure just as subversive and prolific and innovative as Prince. When he was sort of an older, established icon, imagine an even more subversive Elton John. You know, he was - picture sort of that archetype.

And he wasn't just, you know, huge in Mexico. He was perhaps Latin America's most prolific songwriter and performer. And U.S. Latinos also grew up with him. And for me, he was in the air, as you mentioned in the intro. He was raised in Ciudad Juarez, where my family is from, where I was born. He's el divo de Juarez. And so he was just sort of in the DNA of my community.

FLORIDO: You focus a lot of your reporting on Juan Gabriel's really traumatic childhood in Ciudad Juarez, and later his struggles as a teenager as he tried to make it as a singer in Mexico City. Why did you go all the way back to the beginning?

GARCIA: Well, because I wanted to do something really thorough. And I wanted the reporting to be rigorous and precise. And we found really important new details that, frankly, changed the way we think about his story. We found just a really sort of traumatic moment that he faced in Ciudad Juarez that inevitably made me think about the traumas in my own family history. And so I thought a lot about lineage and what's passed down to us as I was reporting the story.

So we braid the story of Juan Gabriel's with my own sort of, like, family lineage. And yes, definitely, like, there is some trauma in it. But there's also so much joy, you know, the queer exuberance that you see on stage and the way he liberated himself. And so that duality is there throughout the podcast.

FLORIDO: Let's talk about that aspect of him, his flamboyance. It made him this remarkable figure in Mexican culture and society, which has always harbored a lot of homophobia and enforces, you know, these very rigid views about how a man should act. And Juanga defied all of that. He was very open with his flamboyance on stage. And at the same time, he never publicly answered the question that so many people sort of assumed the answer to, which is whether he was, in fact, gay. You talk in your podcast about an interview he gave when the interviewer asked him, point blank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA: Some people say you're gay. Is Juan Gabriel gay?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIEL: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA: You seem very interested, Juanga replied with a coy smile. And that's when Juanga delivered the now-famous response.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIEL: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA: Some people say what can be seen shouldn't be asked, son.

FLORIDO: Why did you find this answer so fascinating?

GARCIA: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, it would have been so easy for Juanga to say, no, I'm not gay. And, in fact, that was sort of the status quo for a lot of queer artists at this time in Mexico. It was incredibly difficult and could be hazardous both to your career and for you as a person to be openly gay in this era in Latin America. And it would have been easy for him to flat-out deny it, but he doesn't. He doesn't. He chooses to answer on his terms.

And I love it because he's not saying no, but he also refuses to be a spectacle. He refuses to come out for the sake of satiating the curiosity of other people. And look. I spoke to people who were in his inner circle. And even in his inner circle, Adrian, there are lifelong friends who say, oh, my God, obviously, that's not even a question. Of course he was gay. He was so explicit about that with me.

And other people who considered themselves close friends of his who say, oh, my God, he was not gay. Alberto, the real person, was not gay. Maybe the stage persona, Juan Gabriel, was gay, but the real person was not gay. And I think it's because Juanga believed that maybe not everybody deserves to see your full self. And, you know, he had to protect himself. And he walked this world in a very nuanced way.

FLORIDO: As much as this podcast is about Juan Gabriel and his queerness, it's also about your own experience as a queer person from Mexico. And there is a lot of personal revelation in this podcast. Did you know at the outset how much you and your family would become a part of this project?

GARCIA: Yes and no. The thing is, you know, I believe that you can't tell a story from a place of nowhere. You know, you tell a story from the place in the world that you occupy and the lens and the blind spots and the expertise that gives you. I'm not sort of like a dry narrator here. Like, I love Juan Gabriel. I am - I'm a hardcore fan, you know. And when I think of Juanga, he's not only a hometown hero for me, but I think of my roots. I think of my family. Like, he's the soundtrack to my community. And so, one, I had to be honest about that.

But I also had to be honest about what was bringing me to him right now. Like, why Juanga at this moment? And, for me, it really was because I was thinking a lot about intergenerational connectedness, thinking about passing on my roots to my son, while at the same time, like, letting who I am authentically right now bloom. Right? I'm in this beautiful queer relationship. I want to get married. And I know I will likely be the first queer marriage in my family.

And so what does it look like to be - to pave that path in my Mexican family while holding on to everything that is dear to me from the path and the people who came before me? And, to me, Juan Gabriel and his legacy held a big lesson for me in how to do that.

FLORIDO: You grew up with Juan Gabriel's music, going to clubs in Juarez and singing his songs at the top of your lungs. I'm curious if all your reporting for this series has changed your relationship to his music.

GARCIA: I mean, it's strengthened it (laughter). Like, you know, this weekend, for example, I'm going to Ciudad Juarez, plan on meeting a bunch of my friends there. And we're going to go dancing. And we know they're going to play some Juanga songs. And then we're going to go to our favorite karaoke place, and we're going to sing Juanga songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL NOA NOA")

GABRIEL: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA: Every family party we have, we karaoke, and Juanga comes out. Like, I love him just as much as I did, if not even more than when I started this podcast.

FLORIDO: Maria Garcia is the host of "My Divo", an Apple Original podcast produced by Futuro Studios. It's available wherever you get your podcasts and is also available in Spanish as "Mi Divo." Maria, thanks.

GARCIA: Thank you so much, Adrian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.