Vicente Fernández, revered Mexican singer, dies at 81; San Antonians mourn

Vicente Fernández, the cowboy crooner who became known as El Rey, the king of Mexican ranchera music, performing traditional songs across Latin America and the U.S. with his operatic voice and sprawling mariachi group, died Sunday at a hospital in Guadalajara, Mexico. He was 81.
His death was announced in a post on his Instagram page. After suffering a fall at his home in August, he was hospitalized for several months and diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes muscle weakness.
San Antonians with fond memories of the music legend reflected on his passing and mourned his death on social media Sunday. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, in a Facebook post, called Fernández “an international icon who brought the beauty of Mexican culture into households across the world.”
“He’ll be missed, but his music will continue to inspire for generations to come,” Castro wrote.
Anthony Medrano was one of several local musicians who gathered Sunday at the South Side studio of contemporary artist Cruz Ortiz to remember Fernández and sing some of the songs that made him a legend.
While performing with Mariachi Campanas de America in the mid- to late 1990s, Medrano performed at a ranch near Blanco, north of San Antonio, not realizing the property belonged to Fernández. He spotted a man at the rear of the property doing work with miniature horses on the ranch. He was shocked to learn it was “the living legend,” he recalled.
Singing “Volver, Volver” in front of Fernández was “one of the most exciting and terrifying moments of my mariachi career,” Medrano said.
“We were treated like family” and invited back several times, said Medrano, who has been director for 15 years of Mariachi USA, a festival of the world’s premier mariachi performers, now in its 33rd year, held at the Hollywood Bowl.
Fernández started out singing for tips on the streets of Guadalajara, a cradle of mariachi music, and rose to become one of Mexico’s most popular musicians, recording dozens of albums that sold an estimated 50 million copies. Backed by violins, horns and guitars, he sang passionate rancheras, rural anthems about cowboys, lovers’ quarrels, cockfighting and tequila.
“For Mexicans, it’s a medicine that lifts you when you’re down,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 1994, describing the genre’s power. “It cheers you. It’s not so much about thinking as it is about feeling.”
Performing live and appearing in nearly 40 movies, Fernández cultivated an image as a charro, a traditional horseman, singing in the saddle at times like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. He carried an engraved pistol and wore an embroidered sombrero and a hand-stitched suede charro suit, which he likened to “Mexico’s second flag.” Putting on the uniform before each concert, he said, he felt like an ambassador for his country.
“As long as you keep applauding,” he declared at the start of each show, referring to himself with a Spanish diminutive, “your Chente won’t stop singing.” He frequently performed for more than three hours, striding across the stage as women threw underwear at his feet and men passed bottles to him, offering him a swig between songs.
New York Times music critic Jon Pareles once wrote that Fernández possessed “a vibrato that could register on the Richter scale.” But his howling tenor turned gentle during ballads, breaking into sobs as he sang about heartbreak and longing. “I’m going to wander, I’ll try to find some peace,” he declared in “Ya Me Voy Para Siempre” (“I’m Leaving Forever”), “but if this hurt goes on, don’t be surprised if a cantina becomes my home.”
His biggest hits included “Volver Volver” (“Go Back, Go Back”), about a brokenhearted man dreaming of his former lover, and “Mujeres Divinas,” in which he sang of his love for “women, oh women so divine.” He sang from experience, he said, drawing from his marriage and love affairs as well as his adolescence in the countryside of western Mexico.
“There are other singers of ranchera music who sing very beautifully,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “but you can tell from the way they sing that they never lived on a ranch. They never knew what it was to milk a cow, to birth a calf, to shoe a horse. I’ve lived all that.”
Fernández was part of a musical tradition that stretched back to ranchera stars such as Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and Javier Solís, who dominated Mexico’s music scene in the middle of the 20th century. But each of those musicians died young — at 42, 39 and 34, respectively — and Fernández continued performing into his 70s, concluding a goodbye tour at Latin America’s largest stadium, the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, in 2016.
By then, he had received three Grammy Awards and eight Latin Grammys and been inducted into the Billboard Latin Music Hall of Fame. He had also collaborated with pop stars from Brazil and the U.S., although he refused to stray from the ranchera sound that made him famous.
“Everybody who sings with me has to sing ranchero,” he told Billboard magazine. “Roberto Carlos had to sing ranchero, Vikki Carr had to record ranchero. Celia Cruz came in with a mariachi. I accept recording with everybody, as long as it’s with a mariachi.”
Although Medrano, the Mariachi USA director, has worked with musicians at all skill levels, “there’s never been one as humble and as real as Vicente,” he said.
“I felt that we thought of ourselves as fans to him, but he thought of us more as friends,” Medrano said, noting there now are thousands of mariachi students in U.S. school systems, all singing and performing “Volver.”
“His legacy is just one for the ages,” Medrano said.
Cynthia Muñoz, a local producer of numerous mariachi festivals and concerts, first saw Fernández as a girl, when he performed at a packed HemisFair Arena in 1976. The concert, including a performance with his son, Alejandro, who was a young boy, is “a very memorable performance for people all over the world.”
“He had quite a fan base, all over Latin America, all over the United States. But San Antonio loved him,” Muñoz said. “It was so beautiful to experience such gorgeous cultural events like that at such a young age.”
His tenor voice “was very deep and beautiful, and he sang with a lot of emotion,” she said. “It didn’t matter if people understood Spanish or not. You could get a sense of how he felt about the music in his style of delivery.”
“He really did inspire so many people — me included,” Muñoz added. “He really did help shape the cultural landscape of San Antonio through his music.”
Vicente Fernández Gómez was born in Huentitán El Alto, on the outskirts of Guadalajara, on Feb. 17, 1940. His father was a rancher, his mother a homemaker. He left school in the fifth grade, won an amateur singing contest at 14 and began performing at weddings and restaurants. Around that time, his father’s cattle business collapsed, and the family moved north to Tijuana.
In his early 20s, he performed in Guadalajara and sang at a restaurant in Mexico City, trying repeatedly to land a record deal. Executives advised him to find a different career — “Go sell peanuts or something,” one said — but came calling in 1966, after the death of Solís, ranchero’s biggest star. Fernández signed later that year with CBS México, which had rejected him twice before.
He was soon going into the studio for marathon sessions, recording as many as 30 songs a night. He also became a prolific actor, appearing in at least a movie a year, usually as a singing cowboy. He retired from filmmaking in 1991, apparently having decided that he was too old for the screen. Over the next decade, his sideburns and hair turned white, in striking contrast to his signature black mustache and eyebrows.
Fernández maintained a devoted audience but alienated some fans with his behavior as he grew older. During a 2019 interview, he said that after being diagnosed with a cancerous tumor, he had refused a liver transplant out of concern that the donor might be a “homosexual or an addict.” A video later emerged showing him groping a woman’s breast while they posed for a picture, prompting him to issue an apology and say that he had touched her accidentally.
When asked in 2010 if a routine or exercise was a key to his longevity as a performer, Fernández told San Antonio’s KENS-TV that he walked every day for an hour and rode horses when he was home on his ranch. But when he was on tour, he said, “I don’t leave the hotels.”
“Still, that keeps me healthy,” he said. “My voice is well rested. When I hear the public’s applause, I don’t know where the voice comes from, but it does for three hours. You’ll have to ask God to find out how he blesses me every time.”
In 1963, he married one of his Guadalajara neighbors, María del Refugio “Cuquita” Abarca Villaseñor. They had a daughter, Alejandra, and three sons: Gerardo, who worked as his father’s manager; Alejandro, a Grammy-nominated singer; and Vicente Jr., who was abducted by kidnappers in 1998. He was freed after four months — during which two of his fingers were sliced off — and the payment of a reported $3.2 million ransom.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
While his U.S. tours typically went uncovered by the English-language press, Fernández received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and sought to leverage his influence at times in support of U.S. politicians. He released a 2016 corrido, or folk ballad, on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“When I come to America, I feel like I’m coming to visit family, to bring a reminder of home to those who can’t be there,” he told the Morning News. “I feel I have a responsibility to carry on Mexican folklore and culture, and that’s my obligation to my audience, to be that messenger.
“The message goes out to Anglos, too, and I know it reaches them, because I see more and more of them at my shows. Mexican culture and tradition needs to cross borders, and wherever it takes me, I’ll be there.”

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