For Some 'Chente' Fans, His Music Connects Generations Between Mexico And LA
Mom, apple pie, baseball, and Vicente Fernández?
That’s how American the legendary Mexican ranchera singer appeared to have become in 2019, when Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo stepped up to the plate at home games. Verdugo chose “Volver, Volver,” a song made famous by Fernández, as his walk-up song.
“You listen to that music, and then you stand up,” said visual artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres, who remembers being at Dodger Stadium when this happened. “Afterwards, I realized that I was not the only one, that everybody else was also paying attention.”
The lyrics of the song, written by Fernando Maldonado in 1972, and popularized by Fernández that same year in his album ¡Arriba Huentitán!, aren’t patriotic or nationalist. It’s a song about returning to a long-lost love. But listeners attach different meanings to the title, which means “Return, return.”
“(The song) has this idea, that concept of returning, which is always the nostalgic feeling that sort of dominates the first generation immigrants,” said Agustin Gurza, a longtime Los Angeles music journalist.
Mariachi music, he said, wasn’t totally embraced by the U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants — but this song has a unique appeal.
“It was big among Chicanos too, the second generation,” Gurza said. "You’d go to parties, and when that happened, everyone was a singer,” he said.
The Dodger Stadium moment is one of many touchstones in Fernández’s half century-long performing career that has produced more than 100 records, tours around the world, and appearances in dozens of films. He’s had a career longer than nearly all the ranchera superstars that preceded him.
Fernández’s career could not have reached such heights without U.S. fans, in general, and Southern California fans, in particular.
On Aug. 8, Fernández, who is 81, fell at his home near Guadalajara, Mexico. He was hospitalized with a spinal cord injury and underwent surgery. While his condition has reportedly improved, he remains in intensive care at the hospital.
Fans in Southern California say the seriousness of his accident, coupled with this month’s Mexican Independence Day celebrations, have led them to evaluate Fernandez’s legacy and their connection to his music, and at the same time, to face complex feelings about traditional Mexican culture.
What 'Chente' Represents To SoCal Fans
For many fans, Fernández’s voice captures a distinctive mix of joy and pain.
“You hear it in your parents’ car, you hear it when you're at your grandparents’ house…he’s just that iconic voice of Mexico,” said Rosalie Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based professional singer and musician who’s a third generation mariachi performer.
“Chente,” as Fernández is commonly known by fans, is the undisputed king of ranchera and mariachi music. For many people, ranchera and mariachi musical styles represent Mexico as a whole — but the styles are deeply rooted in Mexico’s agricultural central heartland of Jalisco.
Ranchera is a musical style with roots that run deep into the early 20th century and late 19th century. Whereas a ranchera singer can be accompanied by a single guitar, its related genre, mariachi, is known for its large instrumental ensembles.
Rodriguez grew up in the California equivalent of that heartland: the San Joaquin Valley. She said she now realizes that she was lucky to grow up hearing Fernández’s songs soon after they were released, because her relatives would play them in mariachi bands.
These songs were a bridge, Rodriguez said, to her grandfather’s hometown in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where he was a mariachi musician. Both songs tread the well-worn ranchera path of losing your way for a woman’s love.
The songs’ appeal has not died out.
“As a performer in Los Angeles, me playing at bars and restaurants here in L.A.,” Rodriguez said, “people resonate with those songs, as songs that their parents sang and songs that their grandparents loved.”
Rodriguez is the former principal vocalist for Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea. She performed on the group's 2014 Grammy-winning album. When Rodriguez performs, she finds herself channeling some of Chente’s stage persona. He’s been a big influence on her career.
He is so commanding on stage: his energy, his showmanship, just the way he is able to... garner the attention of the audience.
Some fans see that charisma as a form of machismo that’s uniquely Mexican.
“My dad is a huge fan,” said singer-songwriter Lizette Gutierrez, who lives in Los Angeles but also grew up in the San Joaquin Valley. Her father migrated to California from Jalisco.
“I think maybe in a past life, or in like some subconscious dream, he wanted to be just like Vicente Fernández,” Gutierrez said. She remembers her father would play his records on Sundays as soon as the family got home from mass.
Then, he would channel his inner Chente.
“He would like sing and do... kind of like those facial expressions that Vicente does,” she reminisced, describing Fernández’s signature look of furrowed eyebrows, meant to emphasize a certain emotion in a song.
Along with Chente’s stage presence go song lyrics and in-concert banter that raise masculine entitlement and verbal misogyny to a virtue. As Gutierrez put it, “(Vicente Fernández is) the absolute image of machismo.”
A common theme in his songs is the singer’s desire to be free of society’s expectations (usually to pursue a woman) and relishing in the ability to climb out of the depths of heartbreak.
In my family I've always been the person to do whatever I want and that's kind of frowned upon, especially as a woman.
Rather than dismiss those elements as exclusively male, Gutierrez has interpreted them in her own way.
“In my family I've always been the person to do whatever I want and that's kind of frowned upon, especially as a woman,” Gutierrez said.
It’s she, not her father, who ended up fulfilling the dream to perform traditional Mexican music on stage. Gutierrez sings and performs under the name San Cha. Her repertoire includes Mexican traditional music, including boleros.
On stage, she said, she tries to meld masculine and feminine personas.
When Fernández was hospitalized, the news prompted Gutierrez to remember her father’s fandom — and his own brand of machismo, including its downsides: For many years, her dad was reluctant to accept her sexuality — she is gay.
While she understands that Chente’s songs did not promote toxic masculinity, the macho-centric worldview at the center of much traditional Mexican music and culture is something she struggles with.
“In a way, those are the traits of my father that... kind of hurt me,” she said.
Chente himself made homophobic statements in 2019. And earlier this year, La Opinión wrote about several instances of sexual harassment, including accusations by singer Lupita Castro that Chente assaulted her when she was 17 years old. Chente denies the allegations.
Nonetheless, there are enough elements in Chente’s stage persona and career for Gutierrez to list him as an influence.
“That kind of influences the way I see myself, like with femininity and masculinity combined,” she said, “or in ways that… I want to do away with those gender roles.”
Gutierrez hopes that the intolerant machismo she’s struggled with is on its way out. A possible sign of that, she said, is that her father has come around to telling her that he’s proud of what she’s doing.
(Fernandez) is virile and masculine and powerful, but it's not machismo in the sense that he's, you know, a wife beater.
Music journalist Gurza defends Chente’s machismo as a kind of manly pride wrapped in a thick blanket of sensitivity.
“(Fernández) is virile and masculine and powerful, but it's not machismo in the sense that he's, you know, a wife beater,” Gurza said.
To understand that sensitivity, just listen to the songs, Gurza urges.
“He does love songs that you know, his voice just becomes so soft almost whispered,” he said. “He has this ability to control his voice to where it comes out, you know, almost like a little cry.”
A Los Angeles Icon As Well As A Mexican Icon
Fernandez could not have built his career, Gurza said, without U.S. fans. They bought his records and filled concert venues. And Los Angeles has stood for decades, arguably, as a capital of Chente Nation.
The Latin music industry Chente was a part of in the 1970s and 80s could be found in Los Angeles recording label offices along Pico Boulevard back then, Gurza said. As the Spanish-speaking population grew and spread out in Southern California, touring artists like Fernandez began to command venues larger than the 2,000 seat Million Dollar Theater in downtown L.A.
“All of a sudden, you were seeing artists at the (Universal) Amphitheater you know, at the Shrine Auditorium, of course at the Hollywood Bowl,” Gurza said.
The 6,000 seat Universal Amphitheater (later renamed the Gibson Amphitheater before it was razed) was a popular stop for Chente.
Live, the emotion in his music would spill over to fans in the audience.
“Women would pull their hair, take their shoes and throw them on stage, in addition to lingerie,” while men were also overcome with similar feelings, said Arturo Ramirez, the president of the Organization of United Mariachis of Los Angeles, based in the Hotel Boyle near Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.
In 35 years as a mariachi performer, Ramirez has seen Chente perform two-hour, non-stop concerts in Mexico and in the U.S. Chente’s appeal to Mexicans in the U.S., their descendants, and to other Latin Americans, he said, sealed his success in the U.S.
“Some people (of Mexican descent) born here are more interested in what it is to be Mexican, in Mexican artists, in Mexican culture, in Mexican roots,” he said.
Chente And The Redefinition Of What It Means To Be MexicanAs another Mexican Independence Day approaches on September 16, the perennial question of what it means to be Mexican rises to the fore.
Mexico still rolls out traditional patriotic images of rancheros in wide hats, arm in arm with women in brightly colored dresses, and the sound of Chente belting out a long note on one of his many recordings is likely to echo through homes and bars.
But banda music from northern Mexico has displaced ranchera as the genre most associated with the country as a whole. At the same time, the regional identities of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez have increasingly entered Mexican popular culture.
The mariachi singer represented by Chente is no longer as much a dominant symbol of the country.
“(Mexican identity is) so vast and it is such a broad spectrum,” mariachi singer Rodriguez said, “I think that might be changing a little bit.”
But that’s not to say that the emotions in Fernandez’s songs won’t live on among the new generations.
“He expresses in a lot of songs what it means to be Mexican, and that he's proud to be Mexican. And he's proud to be where he's from,” Gurza said.
And that’s an emotion that can transcend any effort to redefine what it means to be Mexican.