Vicente Fernández Knew His Way Around Your Broken Heart

After four years of dating, this is what it came to for Art Castillo: sitting alone in his blue truck in Waco, Texas, listening to his girlfriend on speaker. Long distance wasn’t working, she told him. She had found another man. The relationship was over.

“I hanged up and put Vicente Fernández on,” said Mr. Castillo, 30. He played “La Cruz de Tu Olvido,” in which Mr. Fernández bellows, “As I looked at the evil in your eyes, I understood that you have never loved me.” He played it louder, again and again, until he was done crying.

“With his songs,” Mr. Castillo said, “you just feel it inside you.”

For generations, Mr. Fernández’s often sorrowful songs have served as a balm for the heartbroken. Over a career that spanned six decades, Mr. Fernández, the Mexican ranchera superstar who died on Sunday at 81, recorded hundreds of songs and dozens of albums, singing of unrequited love, scornful partners and tarnished romance.

In that time, Mr. Fernández, known to millions as Chente, became a beacon for the brokenhearted, a man to listen to when love has gone awry and all you want — besides, perhaps, some tequila — are plucky guitars, harmonized horns and someone to give voice to your most intimate feelings.

“For a lot of people with Mexican descent, his voice is home,” said Rachel Yvonne Cruz, a professor of Mexican American studies and a music specialist at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

That explains why so many people, mostly Latinos, turn to him when they are down, she said.

“When Vicente Fernández sang, he expressed all of those emotions that we keep held inside: that silent cry, that silent scream that’s happening when you’re heartbroken, when you just cannot anymore,” Dr. Cruz said. “And when you listened to him, you were able to have that release that you needed.”

Who broke Mr. Fernández’s heart? That remains a playful mystery among his fans. He married María del Refugio Abarca Villaseñor when he was in his early 20s, and the two stayed together until his death.

But however and whenever his heartbreak occurred, his fans say, his anguish came through in his lyrics.

Tu boca, tu ojos y tu pelo

Los llevo en mi mente, noche y día

“Your mouth, your eyes and your hair, I carry them in my mind, night and day,” Mr. Fernández sings in “Las Llaves de Mi Alma.”

Por tu maldito amor

No puedo terminar con tantas penas

“Because of your damn love, I can’t bring an end to so much shame,” he roars in “Por Tu Maldito Amor.”

En un marco, pondré tu retrato

Y en mi mano, otra copa de vino

“In a frame, I will put your portrait, and in my hand, another glass of wine,” he croons in “Tu Camino y el Mío.”

That was the song that helped Fernanda Aguilera.

“I had been with someone since, I guess, high school, and then you think, ‘Well, this is going to be my person,’” said Ms. Aguilera, 27, of San Antonio. But when college came and they went their separate ways, she realized that the relationship “was just an illusion in my head.”

She played “Tu Camino y el Mío” (“Your Road and Mine”), and recalled thinking: “This is exactly how I feel, but I could just never find the words. And it’s like he put the words together for me.”

On a cool March night in Oxnard, Calif., a brokenhearted Jaime Tapia grabbed some beers, invited a friend to his house and put on a Vicente Fernández playlist. Mr. Tapia was 19. He and his girlfriend of four years had decided to cut off their relationship earlier that night.

Mirroring the way Mr. Fernández had dealt with heartache in the movies (mostly with alcohol, a somber stare into the middle distance and buddies who reassure him he will be OK), Mr. Tapia and his friend kept the beers coming as they sat on the hoods of their cars.

“Just dozing off, looking at the stars,” he said. He was lonely and drunk for the first time in his life.

“A lot of the songs that Chente talks about are about breakups, being in a cantina, stuff like that,” Mr. Tapia said. “So even though you feel sad at the time, you felt good that you were bonding with a buddy and that you weren’t by yourself.”

Ranchera music “can be thought of as a sung exposition of one’s most honest emotions,” said Mónica Fogelquist, a professor of practice in mariachi and ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin.

“In Mexican culture, men are supposed to be strong, valiant, proud and void of any sentiment,” she said. “They don’t cry, and they don’t express vulnerability, including heartache. However, through music, all the unexpressed or prohibited emotions are free to come out.”

People have used Chente’s romantic tunes to try to win back an estranged partner through serenatas, a musical message of love delivered by a mariachi band in front of a lover’s window — a tradition that Mr. Fernández popularized in films.

“It’s pretty popular; we’ve been hired a couple times to help win that person back,” said Giovanni Garcia, who manages the band Mariachi Estrellas de Chicago. He added, “There’s been a couple of times where they’ll tell us, ‘Oh, I’m in the doghouse right now and hoping this will help me.’”

Sometimes it works, he said. Often, it doesn’t — even if the band plays one of Mr. Fernández’s songs.

Someone tried it on Laura Figueroa once. It did not end well.

A mariachi band knocked on her door in Chicago. Her little brother let them inside, and the musicians marched through the kitchen and into her bedroom. She was 22 at the time.

“I’m sitting there looking down at the floor like, ‘Oh my God, there’s literally a mariachi in my house,’” said Ms. Figueroa, now 39. She does not believe the band played Chente, and in any event she did not take her former lover back.

Jesus Gutierrez, 37, of Chicago said his father used to sing “Hermoso Cariño” (“Beautiful Darling”) by Mr. Fernández to his mother, Juana, when they were dating in Guanajuato, Mexico. She used to be embarrassed when telling the story, Mr. Gutierrez said, because his father, Nicolas, was “not a good singer.”

But perhaps it worked, he said, because they married, had children and listened to ranchera music together for decades. She saved nearly all of her Chente vinyl records and screamed every word of his heartbreaking songs at his concerts, her son recalled.

In 2019, Juana Gutierrez died, and Chente’s songs came to represent a new type of heartbreak for Mr. Gutierrez. He said he couldn’t play some of his mother’s favorites anymore because “it’s too much.”

But on Sunday, when he heard Mr. Fernández had died, he knew right away how he would spend his evening: the same way he and so many others had gotten through their first breakups and final goodbyes.

He scrolled through his playlist until he found “Hermoso Cariño.”

Precioso regalo

Del cielo ha llegado

Y que me ha colmado de dicha y amor

“Precious gift, from heaven it has come,” Mr. Fernández sang. “And that has filled me with happiness and love.”

Source: NYT > Top Stories

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