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SATURDAY JOURNAL

A Life's Passion

Vicente Fernandez is Mexico's greatest living singer, revered by millions. A personal crisis casts him as a hero offstage as well as on.

May 22, 1999|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For several years, Fernandez has been hinting at retirement, insisting he will "never defraud the public" by performing past his prime. He stopped making movies in 1991, mindful that age had begun to erode his sex appeal. He has vowed to show the same respect for his voice, to go out with class, not like Sinatra or Elvis: "No one will ever be able to say, 'Ay, Chente, he's all washed up. He should have thrown in the towel years ago.' " He cannot say precisely when that moment will come, though he sometimes mentions the year 2000. He has no model to follow; all the ranchera kings before him were enshrined before they had a chance to grow old. He is not only the last of a breed, but the first to live long enough to craft his own legacy. He already has recorded 300 songs--enough for 30 albums--to be released after his faculties fail him. He even has posed for the cover art, preserving his image for when he is gone.

In show business, no matter the language, Hollywood is the conferrer of immortality. Yet the question of America, his place in it and its acceptance of him, is fraught with ambivalence: like many Mexican artists on this side of the border, Fernandez does most of his work behind a one-way mirror. He speaks little English. He has never courted a "crossover" audience. Although he has been nominated six times for a Grammy in the Mexican American category, the award always has gone to a more recognizable, Americanized performer: Vikki Carr, Selena, the Texas Tornados. The market for mexicanismo here is so vast, yet so culturally segregated from the U.S. mainstream, that Fernandez can be a hero to millions and still be virtually unknown. "What do I have to do?" he once asked in a moment of frustration. "Do I have to die?"

When his date on the Walk of Fame finally arrived last year, the scripted photo-op that usually draws a couple of hundred onlookers erupted into a jubilant street party. The morning had been cold and rainy, but fans spilled into Hollywood Boulevard for hours, some arriving before dawn. They waved hand-lettered signs and homemade collages, Mexican flags and a patriotic rainbow of balloons, green, white, red. Vendors hawked bootleg merchandise, from Fernandez T-shirts to Fernandez watches. Someone handed out free headbands: "Vicente Forever." At least eight Spanish-language radio stations from across the U.S. were transmitting live from the site, including KLVE and La Nueva, the city's top-rated in any language. As the crowd billowed into the thousands, traffic and commerce ground to a halt, aggravating the half of L.A. not in the know and thrilling the half that was.

"This day is . . . " began City Councilman Richard Alatorre, stepping up to the podium.

"Unforgettable!" shouted the crowd, nearly drowning him out.

"Simmer down," cautioned Hollywood's "honorary mayor," Johnny Grant.

While they waited in the middle of the street, several fans began to sing, soon joined by others in the crush, until they had united in a spontaneous chorus, hundreds of voices, all at the top of their lungs. They picked what is probably Fernandez's most fabled tune, "El Rey." Or "El Rey" picked them. It is another one of those songs that belongs to no one and to everyone, a song that millions of Mexicans have sung at picnics and barbecues, in cantinas and taquerias, imbuing it with all the sanctity of a second national anthem:

With money or without money,

I always do what I choose;

My word is the law.

I don't have a throne or a queen

Or anyone who understands me,

But I'm still the king.

The scene was frenzied enough that Hollywood officials decided to speed up the presentation, ferrying Fernandez to the microphone 15 minutes early. "This is not my star," he told the crowd. "It is from Mexico to all of you!"

Then he returned their impromptu offering with one of his own, "El Hijo Del Pueblo," which concludes:

I write my songs

So that the people sing them to me.

And the day that they don't,

That day I'm going to cry.

"Mexico Lindo" Beautiful Mexico

Tucked inside the stables, next to the miniature appaloosas, there is a lumpy old rocking chair covered in plaid. A pack of cigarettes is stashed nearby, hidden in the crack of a crumbling pillar. Apart from the stage, it is the one place where Fernandez feels most at peace, a seat to think and smoke and watch the potrillos be born. Whenever they clashed over music, he summoned Alejandro to this spot. Now, during the long, restless summer of the kidnapping, he came here again, slipping out of bed and wandering down at 1 or 2 a.m., shivering in the darkness, waiting for tomorrow.

"They say that when my uncle dies, this is where he'll come out at night," his nephew, Pepe, says. One of Fernandez's early records echoes that thought:

Beautiful and beloved Mexico,

If I die far from you

Let it be said I'm asleep,

And have me brought here . . .

Beautiful and beloved Mexico,

If I die far from you.

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