Since news broke that Vicente Fernández, ‘El Rey’ of ranchera music, died Sunday morning at age 81, it’s all his fans can think about. It’s the topic revisited in family group chats, Spanish news channels, in idle exchanges between friends.
Jesus Garcia Herrera, who was selling masks near Mission and 22nd streets, said he couldn’t believe the “bad news” of the legend’s death at first. “My friend told me, and I said, ‘No way,’” the 42-year-old remembered. Last night, Herrera was glued to the TV — like others, he said — to watch a two-hour program about Fernández’s life.
The Mexican icon won the hearts of Latinxs around the world, belting romantic songs and appearing in films Mission natives and migrants describe as pillars of their childhoods. He gained fame for his powerful voice that could hold notes for incredible lengths, and accordingly scooped up numerous Grammys for his talent.
He also performed at least once in the Mission District, at the Mission Education and Vocational School, and other venues around the Bay Area.
“He’s the king,” Jesús Alcantar said in Spanish as he sipped coffee Monday morning outside the 24th Street McDonalds. The 55-year-old Mexican immigrant said he’s been listening to Fernández since his childhood in Durango, first tuning in on the radio at home.
“His music is so beautiful,” he said, adding that his favorite album would be El Rey, which he believes was also Fernández’s favorite.
Angelica, 23, said she grew up listening to El Rey with her family, which has lived in the same house near Harrison and 24th streets for almost 100 years. Fernández evokes memories of Christmas, when families typically comes together to blast his songs and eat tamales. A few of Angelica’s relatives celebrate birthdays near Christmas, too, meaning Fernández’s rendition of the classic Mexican birthday song “Las Mañanitas” gets played on repeat.
Since Covid-19 restricted festivities last year, Angelica hoped the usual traditions would return this holiday. But it won’t be the same, knowing the singer is gone. “It sucks,” she said.
For Ernesto Martinez, a security guard in the Mission, listening to Fernández was a way to stay connected to his native Mexico and his roots. “It’s only myself here, no other family,” he said. “When I hear his music, I remember my family and my friends.”
It was Cynthia De Losa’s grandmother and father who exposed the 70-year-old to Fernández’s music. When she learned he died, she said, “I felt it in my heart.” Growing up, the Precita Eyes store manager and third-generation San Franciscan recalled her grandmother whisking her to the Victoria Theatre on 16th Street to watch his Spanish-language films. “I’d fall asleep,” De Losa recalled.
But when it came to his music, which played often at holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Christmas, she said Fernández’s caliber was unmatched — not even by his son Alejandro Fernández, she said. De Losa played a song, “Hoy Tengo Ganas De Ti,” sung by Alejandro Fernández and Christina Aguilera. She preferred Aguilera, who belted more emotionally; Alejandro was all right, she admitted, but “not like his father.”
She played the senior’s “Volver, volver” to compare, eyes glued to the screen of her computer as Fernández leaned back and serenaded the audience in an older concert. “He was handsome!” she remarked. “He was, like, everyone’s idol, of course!”
Tatiana, who works at UCSF Medical Center, said she saw Fernández perform in person once at a family wedding “back home” in Jalisco, Mexico. “Years ago, when I was a little girl. It was amazing. I didn’t know who he was, but my family did. There were hundreds of people there, maybe thousands. Later, when I was able to understand who he was, I was really amazed and happy. You know, that’s iconic!”
Though definitely Mexico’s source of pride, his music invigorated people across the globe.
Derio Gonzalez, 54, said he and his father idolized Fernández in their native Guatemala. As an 11-year-old, he watched Fernández win his lover back in the film “La Ley del Monte.” A beer and old Fernández tunes signaled a good time for Gonzalez’s father, and that combo became just as satisfying for him. Gonzalez saw Fernández in concert four times across the Bay. “His voice is great,” he said in Spanish. “His spirit. His heart. Sometimes, you’re feeling down. Then you put on his song, and you’re cheerful again.”
Then, Gonzalez’s eyes watered. “I was shocked,” he said. “It’s hard to believe an artist like him, and one I enjoyed, has died.” To cope, Gonzalez conjures up happier lyrics from Fernández’s songs, thinking the singer would want to be honored that way.
At Rosas Jabalí Bistro on Folsom Street, waitress and cashier Sandra can’t stop talking about El Rey. The thought immediately transfers her back to huge family parties in Colombia, where everyone came and danced; her mom was a superfan. “For this reason, I love him,” the 35-year-old said in Spanish. “No lie — I’d wake up in the morning to him singing.”
He was huge throughout Latin America: “I feel like the whole world knows him!” Her family in Venezuela raved about him, too, and that was where she saw him perform live for the first and only time. It was a usual set list of romantic songs, she said, “It was amazing! I drank a lot of tequila!” Sandra laughed, swinging her hips as she imagined it.
When she read the news of his death, she wept, and confirmed the facts with her heartbroken mom. “It’s a shared sadness when an artist like that dies, ” Sandra said. “But you know their music is going to last.”
Oh my, even I knew who this man was! Though I couldn’t understand the language, every now and then, I’d watch at least part of one of his movies on a Spanish-language TV station, as they used to say in New Orleans: “Jus’ ’cause.” (In the same way, I discovered the movie “Enamorada”, starring María Fèlix and Pedro Armendáriz, still one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen!)
iVia con Dios, El Rey!