Kevin Winter / Getty Images for LARAS
Vicente Fernández, an icon of traditional Mexican music, passed away. He was 81 years old. His family’s announcement did not give the cause of death, but the singer had been hospitalized since August, after a fall on his ranch in the central state of Guadalajara required emergency spinal surgery.
While in the hospital, he had also been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s nerves, his family reported to the media. After months of constant improvement, his health had deteriorated in recent days.
Fernández was largely considered the last living legend of the Mexican ranchera, the singing style deeply ingrained in the values and traditions of rural Mexico. He sang about honor and courtship, cockfighting and rodeos, love and heartbreak, all while wearing the elegant embroidered outfit of the charro, the chivalrous cowboy of Mexico, and was accompanied by a full ensemble of mariachis.
During a six-decade career, his voice became synonymous with Mexico itself. His velvety baritone was instantly recognizable, and his songs found their way into the daily lives of Mexicans and Mexican lovers around the world: the soundtrack of weddings and quinceañeras, baptisms, birthdays and funerals.
It was also the quintessential symbol of the Mexican male. His thick mustache, dyed black long after his hair had turned white, was a punctuation mark under the brim of his shoulder-length hats. At concerts he wore a pistol on his hip and sang for hours, soaking in sweat. Just when it looked like it might be ending, he’d have a shot of tequila and sing some more.
“He sang while people wanted him to sing,” said Leila Cobo, vice president of Billboard magazine. “And I think that commitment to his fans that said, ‘I’m yours to take,’ just had a huge impact.”
In many ways, his image fit the bill perfectly and he was a product of the patriarchal culture of Mexico. But Fernández also ignored some of the expectations that Mexican culture places on its men: that they be walls of stoicism, repressing emotion. His songs exuded a rare vulnerability and, in many of them, he wept openly, gasping as he drowned in the pain of bitter anguish.
“He sang these songs with so much pathos and emotion that grown men cried and he cried,” Cobo said. “Maybe because he was such a macho man, he could cry. And that made him even more iconic and legendary.”
Fernández was born in 1940, in a small town in the central cattle state of Guadalajara. As a child, his family moved to Tijuana, where he worked odd jobs – washing cars, digging ditches, shining shoes, and laying house foundations in some of the city’s earliest suburbs.
He began singing in bars and restaurants at age 19, eventually returning to Guadalajara and Mexico City, where he convinced record company executives to record his music. His first hit, in 1969, was “Tu Camino y el Mio”, a nostalgic ballad about unrequited love.
I convey my condolences to family, friends and millions of admirers of Vicente Fernández, a symbol of the ranchera song of our time, known and recognized in Mexico and abroad.
– Andrés Manuel (@lopezobrador_) December 12, 2021
Over the decades, it would have many more. He recorded dozens of albums that sold millions of copies and won three Grammy Awards.
But he always emphasized his humble origins and felt an affinity with the poor, working and rural people of Mexico. He performed on massive concert stages, as well as in bullrings and cockfighting boxes.
And he became a major icon for Mexican immigrants in the US and around the world, who found that his music transported them to the ranches and towns they had reluctantly left behind in search of opportunities abroad.
His longevity and popularity as a singer were remarkable, spanning generations, said José Anguiano, a professor of popular music at California State University, Los Angeles. His immense popularity, even among young Mexicans and Mexican Americans today, Anguiano said, is due in large part to the timelessness of his recordings, but also to the way Mexican families have relied on his music to constantly renew their pride in Mexico and Mexican culture. .
“He was not only singing for us, but also for our uncles, our parents and our grandmothers,” Anguiano said. “So there is an immense sense of loss for what he means to the culture.”