Nohely Chavez and Laura Tejeda never met Juan Gabriel, but the famed Mexican singer was an abiding voice in the lives of the two cousins from East Los Angeles.
For Tejeda, Juan Gabriel’s songs of heartache blared on the radio during long car trips, the dial tuned to KLOVE, a Spanish-language radio station. For Chavez, the crooner provided the soundtrack to weekend chores and her mother’s cooking.
“You’d fall asleep to his music and wake up to his music,” Chavez said.
When Juan Gabriel died suddenly last month at age 66 in Santa Monica — the day after he performed at the Forum in Inglewood — the two cousins grieved not only for his passing, but for the passage of time.
“We’re mourning the memories that he represented,” Tejeda said. “It’s deeper than just mourning a celebrity. He represented a lot more.”
The two cousins joined at least 100 gathered Tuesday evening at St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Monterey Park for a Mass honoring the best-selling artist in Mexican history.
Just before the 7 p.m. Mass, a priest released 25 doves to represent the soul of Juan Gabriel.
It’s part of a public grieving that is playing out across the Southwest and Latin America as Juan Gabriel’s ashes are being ceremoniously ferried across Mexico.
Over the weekend, his ashes arrived in Juarez, the border city where he grew up and where his hearse was viewed by tens of thousands of people. His remains were flown to Mexico City on Monday for a two-day memorial, including a display at the national theater, Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is expected to draw as many as 1 million visitors.
In Monterey Park, the celebration was more modest: The pews were half-filled as a drummer and guitarist played love ballads composed by Juan Gabriel.
Men sat silently as the guitarist sang, and older women sang along. Near the front of the church, younger women made the sign of the cross as they approached an arrangement of more than three dozen red roses topped by a red velvet Mexican hat.
Just outside the church, a dove cooed inside a white cage lined with red rose petals.
Part of the singer’s appeal was his humble origins. Born in 1950, the youngest of 10 children, he said his first memory was of his mother leaving him at an orphanage in Juarez.
As a teen, he wrote songs and sang as he peddled tortillas in the street. When he moved to Mexico City, he inked a recording contract. Barely in his 20s, he released his first gold record, “No Tengo Dinero” (I’ve Got No Money).
Wealth and fame followed, but Juan Gabriel wove in the stories of servants, vendors and other common working people.
Kris Olivas, who wore a hat adorned with a black flower, said she canceled plans to listen to live jazz Tuesday evening so she could come to the memorial.
Olivas, 63, of Boyle Heights, said Juan Gabriel’s song “Amor Eterno” is especially meaningful to her because it reminds her of her mother, who died at 94. It was her mother’s favorite song.
She said she could still remember how her mother could dance the night away, especially to Juan Gabriel songs.
“So I have to be here for my mother,” she said. “This would have meant a lot to her.”
Rosie Guerrero said she never saw Juan Gabriel perform in concert, which is why she felt compelled to attend a memorial.
“He sang about life and heartache,” said Guerrero, who lives in Monterey Park. “Some songs are just heart-wrenching. Some songs just tug at your heart.”
Even now, she said, listening to “Hasta Que Te Conoci” (Until I Met You), reminds her of her first crush at age 14. She’s now in her 60s.
“It brings back memories of being in love … of having your heart broken,” Guerrero said.
Tejeda, 25, who works in multicultural education at Cal State L.A. and attended the memorial with her cousin, said she felt a particular connection to “Amor Eterno” (Eternal Love), a song about Juan Gabriel’s love for his late mother. She said it connects her to the many loved ones who have passed away in her life, too. It’s the same for her mother.
Tejeda said she and her mother went to see Juan Gabriel perform in what turned out to be his last concert at the Forum.
At the concert, her mother began to cry when Juan Gabriel sang “Amor Eterno.”
“Love eternal and unforgettable / Sooner or later I will be with you,” the chorus goes, an English translation. “To continue loving each other.”
In the middle of the song, Tejeda said, as she sang along, her mother inserted the names of the many family members and friends she had loved and lost.
Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.
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