In the annals of show-business rechristenings, few boast a better origin story than the Mexican singer-actress Flor Silvestre.
Born Guillermina Jiménez Chabolla in 1930, she moved at 13 with her family from their native Guanajuato to Mexico City because her mother wanted to live in the megalopolis. The ingenue quickly established herself as an up-and-comer in concert halls and radio, which drew the attention of producers and musicians.
In one appearance, she took on the persona of a soldadera, a female soldier from the Mexican Revolution lionized in the country’s history as amazons. A promoter took a look at the gangly teen and scoffed.
“You’re no soldadera,” he told Chabolla. “You’re nothing like a soldadera. You are a flower.”
He summarily branded her Flor Silvestre — Wild Flower — after a popular film and song of the time about a rural woman whose beauty won the love of the son of a landowner.
It proved a fitting name.
Silvestre became a movie and singing luminary during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema before marrying ranchera icon Antonio Aguilar in 1959. The two became stars with their separate careers but transformed into a supernova when they worked together in 20 films and dozens of songs that get screened and streamed to this day.
More important, Silvestre and Aguilar created a traveling rodeo that toured across the United States and Mexico for decades. Part musical revue, part horse show, part comedy act, and all about a wholesome night out for the family, their espectáculo played from small towns in the Midwest to six straight sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden to Mexicans who yearned for a taste of the motherland far from home.
Along the way, Silvestre raised two sons, Antonio Jr. and Pepe Aguilar, who launched prominent musical careers of their own and in the last decade also saw Pepe’s children, Leonardo and Angela, introduce the family business to a new generation. By then, she was Mexican womanhood personified: a mujer who had shined on her own and as an equal to her partner, then seamlessly transitioned into the role of matriarch for an entertainment dynasty.
Silvestre died Wednesday of natural causes at her family estate in Zacatecas. She was 90.
“She left the example of being a nuanced voice of the beauty of being a mother and wife,” Pepe Aguilar wrote in an Instagram post. “She left the joy of bearing witness to beauty that thinks and speaks.”
Silvestre was a potent double talent from the start. On film, her persona as an innocent-but-no-nonsense woman saw her act alongside stars such as Maria Felix, Cantinflas, and even Toshiro Mifune in the 1962 Oscar-nominated film “Ánimas Trujano.” In hit singles such as “Mi Destino Fue Quererte” (My Destiny Was to Love You) and “Gaviota Traidora” (Treasonous Seagull), Silvestre’s plaintive voice wrapped around lyrics of love and its pain and led to her nickname “La Sentimental” (The Sentimental Woman).
But she didn’t truly hit her stride until meeting Antonio Aguilar — and he the same.
They met in a radio station in 1950, each married to others. But a romance eventually blossomed the more Aguilar and Silvestre worked together and saw their careers rise in tandem.
“Her life was understood with him, and his life was understood with her,” Pepe Aguilar said of his parents in a 2015 documentary about Silvestre’s life that he produced.
The two together were magic, ambassadors to a Mexico of family values and simple pleasures. Onscreen, they produced musicals about the Mexican Revolution and campiranas (movies with a country setting). Their duets swung across all levels of love, informed by their affection for each other. They personified the heartache in “El Dia de San Juan,” a classic corrido about two star-crossed lovers, as brilliantly as they laughed it out through “Échale Un Cinco al Piano” (Put Five on the Piano), in which Aguilar and Silvestre act out a three-minute comedy of a man trying to convince a country girl to dance.
Aguilar used that chemistry to create a traveling show in 1964 that found its unofficial American base in Los Angeles and grew in size and legend every year. Debuting at the Million Dollar Theater, then graduating to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the Anaheim Convention Center and the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, it entertained hundreds of thousands of adoring fans.
The shows would usually start with Silvestre and Aguilar appearing together on horseback, she playing Dale Evans to her husband’s Roy Rogers. The two shared the stage and also received their own spotlights. When Antonio Jr. and Pepe were old enough, Silvestre easily incorporated her sons into the act. This tradition would continue until Aguilar retired in 2005, but his family continued with their own careers.
“We did the [tours] so the people could have fun, so they could enjoy the traditions,” Silvestre said in her 2015 documentary.
She never joined. It just wasn’t the same without her beloved Antonio.
“I’m ready to leave, to him, to where he is,” Silvestre said at one point in the documentary. But her love of what they did together gave her hope for the afterlife.
“Over there in heaven,” she concluded, “we’ll do a show.”
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Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covering Southern California everything and a bunch of the West and beyond. He previously worked at OC Weekly, where he was an investigative reporter for 15 years and editor for six, wrote a column called ¡Ask a Mexican! and is the author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.” He’s the child of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom came to this country in the trunk of a Chevy.