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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

It was not until late August, three months after snatching Vicente Jr., that the kidnappers finally agreed to a deal. The Mexican media reported the ransom to be $3.2 million, a sum Fernandez has refused to confirm. "My son is not a cow, an animal, or a product," he told the Televisa network. The drop-off could have been lifted from the pages of a spy novel: bundled cash, an unmarked plane and a pilot guided by a cell phone. Flying over the west Mexico wilderness, the money was hurled out the window. A new wait began. Two more weeks went by.

Late on the night of Sept. 11, as Fernandez tossed in bed, there was a buzz on the intercom. It was his ranch hand, Rodolfo, calling from the stables. Cuca answered.

"Tell Don Vicente there is a problem with one of the potrillos," Rodolfo said.

Cuca passed the phone to her husband.

"What happened?" Fernandez asked.

"It's one of the potrillos."

"Why can't you take care of it?"

"This is a potrillo that only you can help."

Fernandez threw on a shirt and ran for the door, still in his underwear. He shot out of the house and onto the veranda, eyes wide in the blackness. There, 114 days after losing him, he found Vicente Jr. As he has done since his son was born, Fernandez kissed him on the lips.

He called to Cuca: "It is a potrillo, but it's your potrillo, and he's fine!"

Vicente Jr. laughed. He appeared to be in good health. He seemed well-fed. He told his father he had not been beaten. But once inside, under the light, Fernandez got a closer look.

"What's in your hand?" he asked.

Vicente Jr. had been covering his left hand with his right one. He let go. Now his father could see. There were two fingers missing, ring and pinky. They had been amputated, with surgical precision, just below the knuckle.

"Amor De Los Dos" A Love Shared By Two

The headlines rushed to judge: "Potrillos Leave Ranch." "Violence Makes Them Flee." "Looking to Forget in Texas."

The day after Vicente Jr.'s release, he and his parents had flown to San Antonio, where he reunited with his wife and four children. Fernandez has a ranch there, one of several U.S. properties he owns and regularly visits. But this trip, under the circumstances, looked less like a stopover than an escape. A parade of popular Mexican entertainers, crime victims themselves, already had declared their intent to seek sanctuary in the north. To also lose Fernandez, the personification of all that Mexico holds dear--that, for many of his fans, was tantamount to a death in the family.

Every Sept. 16, on Mexican Independence Day, the airwaves buzz with a 24-hour Vicente Fernandez homage. Last year, more than 250 radio stations in the U.S. and Mexico participated, but the tribute could have been confused for a requiem. The honoree remained in exile. He had not acknowledged Vicente Jr.'s release. He had yet, for that matter, to confirm the abduction. When several suspects were arrested on New Year's Day--including one, "El Coyote," linked to a band of predators blamed for at least 50 abductions in eight Mexican states--Fernandez had no comment. The kidnapping, he explained, was a "nightmare." He was eager to leave it behind him.

By then, though, his actions were speaking volumes--about himself and about his nation. After all that had happened, after everything he had lost and all he had salvaged, Fernandez turned around and went back. He went back to Mexico, to the country that had spawned him, not to play for the glitterati in Acapulco or the industrialists in Monterrey, but for his people in the hinterlands: Uruapan, Celaya, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Queretaro. The shows he returned for were called palenques, which is to say they were the climax of a night at the cockfights. The concert is held in the cockpit itself, a dirt ring under a corrugated-tin roof, where the roosters pair off with razors tied to their legs. The duels are a cornerstone of Mexican folklore, marathons of drinking and gambling, infused with sexual symbolism, by turns noble, cruel, absurd. When the final contest is over and the last carcass hauled off, a custodian enters the pit with a dustpan, sweeping up the feathers and blood. Then the headliner bursts from his dressing room, jostling through the crowd, down a narrow staircase, into the circular battlefield.

"Thank you for making me feel like I'm in my home, with my family," Fernandez told the audience one night last December in Tuxtla, the capital of Chiapas, as he stood in a ring still speckled with the detritus of bird.

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