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The Ballad of Juan Gabriel : After a disadvantaged childhood, the singer-songwriter grew to become Mexico’s biggest pop star. Now he gets as much pleasure from helping the orphanage he started as he does singing and hearing others do his songs

<i> Enrique Lopetegui writes about pop music for Calendar</i>

Juan Gabriel has reason to be happy. He is Mexico’s biggest pop star--an icon who enjoys a kingly status among people of all ages and social classes.

Not only have his records sold 15 million copies worldwide, but he has also written more than 600 songs--some of which artists such as Pandora and Lucha Villa used to launch their own careers.

But the most interesting thing about Juan Gabriel, 41, is that he has helped shatter the longstanding notion that you have to be ultra-macho to be a success in the mainstream world of Latin romantic pop. There’s a delicate, sensitive quality about him.

He was raised from age 2 in a youth facility in Ciudad Juarez in the state of Chihuahua, developed an interest in music at a young age and began his recording career during his late teens.

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Juan Gabriel became successful almost overnight, winning fans with his singing, songs and dancing and his refreshingly individual attitude and persona. Among his most popular albums are the most recent, the double set “Juan Gabriel en el Palacio de Bellas Artes,” as well as “Juan Gabriel Con el Mariachi Vargas de Tacallian” and “Debo Hacerio.” (All are available in the United States.)

In his most prominent U.S. performance ever, Juan Gabriel will sing some of his own songs Saturday at the Rose Bowl and be joined by other singers who have had hits with his music. Proceeds from the show will go to the orphanage he started in 1987 in Chihuahua.

As he prepared for the concert, the relaxed, articulate performer spoke in Spanish about his music, his childhood and his break from the Latin macho image.

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Question: Tell me about your childhood. How did you end up at a school for underprivileged children?

Answer: I was born in Michoacan, which is in the south of Mexico. When my father died, my mother moved to Ciudad Juarez. She had to go to work as a housekeeper and couldn’t take care of me at home. She sent me to an institution, where I spent most of my childhood.

I didn’t go anywhere, except church, and would see my mother maybe twice or three times a year. That’s why I think I have the authority to tell parents not to do that to their children. Give them all your love and think very thoroughly before you bring a child to the world.

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Q: So it must have been very special when you helped finance an orphanage for other young people.

A: Yes. . . . It was a great experience and it’s one reason I can say I’m proud and am at peace with myself. The most wonderful thing in life is to do something for a child because they’re children for such a short time. We can’t allow ourselves to let them live a miserable childhood.

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Q: Do you have bitterness about the way you were raised?

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A: I have no bitterness. Everything I went through had to happen that way, and the most important thing is that I’m here now helping so that others don’t have to suffer like me.

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Q: Was music always part of your life?

A: Yes, music was always there. My biggest idol was ( rock en espanol pioneer) Enrique Guzman, all the way back to his years (in the early ‘60s) with Los Teen Tops, but especially afterward when he sang on his own.

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Q: Did you ever dream in those days of being a star yourself?

A: When I was 15, all I knew was that I had to be somebody and that I could be somebody. So I exploited the only thing I knew, which was singing and songwriting. Even if my childhood had been different, I would’ve still sung. But the (hardships) gave me strength and made me realize that I must do something if I wanted to get out of that situation. I’m glad it paid off.

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Q: Because they used your songs, many other singers owe you a good part of their careers . . .

A: (Interrupting, laughing) You said that, not me.

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Q: How does it make you feel?

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A: It gives me mucho, mucho, mucho pleasure and pride that people like my songs, whether they are sung by me or my friends.

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Q: Among the English-speaking audience, Julio Iglesias is undoubtedly the most popular Latino singer. What do you think of his success?

A: I have a lot of respect for all artists, especially singers. Mr. Iglesias is a very hard worker and a very thoughtful person who dedicated every single day of his life to his career, even to the point of not spending time with his family. Whatever he has, he deserves. But I’m not particularly concerned with becoming as famous as he is. I think that in life you have what you deserve, and if I’m not as famous as he is, it’s because maybe I don’t deserve it.

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Q: You are well-respected among the new Mexican rock movement that includes bands such Caifanes, Cafe Tacuba and Maldita Vecindad, which has opened for Jane’s Addiction. What did you think of the hard-core version Maldita Vecindad did of your hit “Querida”?

A: I loved it. They invited me to one of their shows, and after I met them I saw they were beautiful people, full of energy. It was a phenomenal show, and I wasn’t expecting that dance . . . what is it?

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Q: Slam-dancing?

A: Yes! Everybody hitting each other! I’m not that old, but nevertheless I don’t think I’m ready for that. . . . Thank God I was on the second floor. I feel very close to the new generations because I’m one of their influences. They grew up or were born with my music, a fact they have admitted several times. I’m proud they invited me and let me share their art, despite the slam-dancing, which is nothing but the way they release that immense energy.

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Q: How are you able to keep such a generous attitude in the highly competitive world of Mexican show business?

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A: Maybe the fact that I don’t consider myself anything extraordinary. And I don’t believe in competing, because there’s room for everyone. You have to compete with yourself, because your duty to grow as a human being and keeping your humility is much more important than your music career. You can get money, women, travels, but all that’s an illusion.

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Q: Are you very religious?

A: I don’t believe in anything, only in myself, but I respect all people who believe in something. I’m not a philosopher, a mystic or a charismatic guy. But I am someone who has lived through everything.

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Q: Despite all the love of your fans, the media have often portrayed you in your private life as somewhat distant and temperamental. What do you say about that?

A: (Laughs) I’ve heard that before. There are different Juan Gabriels in people’s heads, and I can’t answer for all of them. But let’s set the record straight: I’m not a monster, but I’m also not as good as some people say I am. I’m human and I make mistakes. Within my own family, there were different opinions about me when I was growing up--in all respects. One sister told me I was her favorite. Another one said that . . . well, that I was not what I was supposed to be. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

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Q: Your sexual orientation? I was about to get into that . . .

A: I wouldn’t like it.

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Q: Why not? I couldn’t care less about your private lifestyle, but I find the Juan Gabriel phenomenon fascinating, considering the still rampant homophobia in Latin America and, especially, Mexico. You’re loved by everyone, even the big “machos.” But you’ve never talked about your sexuality.

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A: I have four sons. That’s No. 1. Second, in show business, if you’re male and cute and gracious, people assume you are blah, blah, blah. But people don’t understand that art itself is female--it is full of graciousness, cadence, color, rhythm. It’s full of love and grace.

No. 3: Nowadays, the important thing is to be careful. That’s what people have to worry about, not whether one is or isn’t. Watch your “bird” and watch your butt. Especially in the U.S., where there is, or there is supposed to be, so much respect for all peoples.


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