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Homage to Mexican music icon Juan Gabriel held at San Jacinto Plaza

Andrea Valdez
Hugo Cortes interprets Juan Gabriel at the tribute event at San Jacinto Plaza.

Editor’s Note: quotes from Hugo Cortes, Teresa Quezada, Cesar Villa, and Armando Chávez were translated from Spanish to English.

The El Paso Parks and Recreation Department hosted an event on Sunday, Sept. 2 at San Jacinto Plaza in downtown El Paso to remember Mexican music icon Alberto Aguilera Valadez — better known as Juan Gabriel — two years after the death of the beloved artist.

Across the plaza, hundreds of Juan Gabriel fans got in line to buy Mexican food and drinks from food trucks parked on Main St. The coach in which the remains of Juan Gabriel were transported from Los Angeles to Ciudad Juárez was parked down the string of food trucks, as an attraction for the fans of “El Divo de Juárez.”

Spectators at the free Labor Day concert, called Remembering Juan Gabriel Forever, enjoyed an evening of live music from several local artists and singers. But it was the main event that blew the crowd away.

An evocative main performance given by Hugo Cortes, interpreter of Juan Gabriel, inspired nostalgia in hundreds of Juan Gabriel fans present. Cortes’s voice was almost perfect in similarity as Juan Gabriel’s. His looks and gestures practiced to exactitude. Cortes was at times accompanied by his wife Lilly Cortes, who has been singing and working alongside her husband for 18 years. Hugo Cortes, also known as La J.G. de Juarez, has been interpreting Juan Gabriel for over 30 years, and the death of the renowned artist was a personal loss for him.

“It’s a huge commitment,” Cortes said, describing what it feels to be associated with such a popular icon’s name. “There is a real personal connection between Juan Gabriel and I, that I can comfortably say that I am his interpreter, not the imitator. The imitator serves to mimic and ridicule Juan Gabriel. On the other hand, I interpret him and his songs. I recognize Juan Gabriel as a virtuoso. He was a composer, and excellent entertainer, a man who took control of the stage before a multitude of spectators, he had such talent for music. Who else could do what he did? There were those who were good at one thing, others at another thing, but Juan Gabriel could do it all.”

Juan Gabriel passed away two years ago, on Aug. 28, 2016. He died of natural causes in Los Angeles, California — a couple of days after a sold-out show and just hours before he was set to perform in El Paso, Texas. Fans were devastated by his death and recall what they felt when they learned that the singer had passed away.

“Juan Gabriel’s death was something that took everybody by surprise, it was sad. He represented the people from Cd. Juárez and he was our pride,” Teresa Quezada, a Juan Gabriel fan, remembers the day of his death. “Hearing [Hugo Cortes’s] voice today gives me goosebumps. It feels as if Juan Gabriel himself is singing live because he personifies Juan so beautifully and he looks just like him.”

Cesar Villa, another one of Juan Gabriel’s millions of fans, was enjoying the event and singing along with Cortes to one of Juan Gabriel’s major hits, “Querida.”

“It was something tremendous, his death. I remember I cried the day I found out Juan Gabriel had died. He meant so much to his fans, he was such a docile, kind and honest person,” Villa said. “We experienced the loss of a great musician and a great human being. [Cortes’s] voice is definitely the closest thing we’ve got to Juan Gabriel now, and in that way, Juan Gabriel remains with us.”

Cortes was also accompanied by the Mariachi Viva México, Choral Company Armonía, Ballet Folkórico Orgullo de Mi Tierra, a local modern dance group and keyboardist Armando Chávez, who personally accompanied Juan Gabriel in the music featured in the artist’s movie, El Noa Noa (1981). Chávez recalled the times in which he was young and worked alongside Juan Gabriel.

“[My colleagues] and I started off playing in Cd. Juárez in a band called Tequila So Band. Through that group, we accompanied Juan Gabriel in a series of live concerts. After that, he invited the band to participate in his film, El Noa Noa, that was in 1980,” Chávez said.

Chávez says that upon learning about the singer’s death, he was struck with surprise, as he expected to see Juan Gabriel again and be able to accompany him in future shows. Everyone expected to watch him perform in El Paso, but unfortunately, his fans were not granted their wish.

“Listening to his voice, interpreted by my friend Hugo Cortes, made me feel fulfilled,” Chávez said. “As I was playing, I felt a vibe through my hands. That was exactly how I felt whenever I accompanied Mr. Alberto Aguilera. My eyes would start to water every time I remembered him as I played.”

Chávez did not share a lot of time with Juan Gabriel in his early career when they met, as the artist had gone to Spain and launched an album with the renowned Rocío Dúrcal. From there on, Juan Gabriel and his musical influence had gone worldwide. In fact, his film El Noa Noa was translated in different languages.

The event came to an end with one of Juan Gabriel’s most celebrated songs, El Noa Noa. Named after the bar and dance hall in which Juan Gabriel began his career in Cd. Juárez — he immortalized the location through this upbeat hit. At the sound of the first notes of the song, the audience rose to their feet, danced and sang in unison “Vamos al Noa Noa, Noa Noa, Noa Noa…” Today, the song remains a fan favorite.

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Homage to Mexican music icon Juan Gabriel held at San Jacinto Plaza