Mexican singer and actor Antonio Aguilar, who delighted international audiences for years with wholesome musical rodeo shows that earned him a reputation as the Roy Rogers of Mexico, has died. He was 88.
Aguilar had endured a protracted battle with pneumonia before he died late Tuesday at a Mexico City hospital, according to the Associated Press. A viewing and memorial Mass were held Wednesday at the capital's historic Basilica de Guadalupe, where dignitaries, celebrities and fans gathered to pay last respects to an artist considered one of the country's leading cultural ambassadors.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon called Aguilar's death a great loss and expressed hope that his "legacy would continue being a seed for a better Mexico."
"It wasn't his singing or his voice that made him so memorable to us," said Nati Cano, director of Los Angeles' Mariachi Los Camperos, who backed Aguilar during shows at downtown's Million Dollar Theater in the 1960s. "It was his character, the way he treated musicians and interacted with an audience, as if he were related to each one of them."
In a career that spanned six decades, Aguilar made more than 160 records and more than 100 films, often starring as a fearless champion of the poor in dramas with revolutionary themes. In his personal life, he nurtured an image as a devoted family man, married for more than 45 years to his wife, singer Flor Silvestre, and shepherding his two boys, Antonio and Pepe, into show business at an early age and leaving a legacy through Pepe Aguilar, now a successful recording star in his own right.
In Los Angeles, Aguilar built an enormous following starting in the 1950s, first as a solo singer and then with his thrilling rodeos, which began in the '60s.
On Wednesday, Aguilar was remembered as one of the first Mexican artists to develop a fan base among Mexican immigrants in the United States and to engage non-Latino audiences here as well.
USC journalism professor Felix Gutierrez recalled a chance airport encounter with Aguilar in the early 1970s. Gutierrez was a graduate student at Stanford University when he spotted Aguilar arriving with his wife on a commuter plane in San Jose, totally unnoticed by the general public and carrying their own bags. The only ones who recognized the famous couple were custodians and other Latino laborers who were as thrilled to spot their beloved stars as others might be to see Bob Hope.
"That helped me realize there was a [cultural] gap," said Gutierrez, who teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication. "Aguilar helped build a musical bridge between Mexico and the U.S. He was a breakthrough in terms of creating a following north of the border."
Pascual Antonio Aguilar Barraza was born May 17, 1919, in Villanueva in the state of Zacatecas. As a boy, he entered the seminary to become a priest and instead cultivated his vocal talents in the choir.
With the goal of becoming a classical singer, he got a scholarship to study music in Los Angeles in the early 1940s, but he was deported and started working in Tijuana, earning $12 a week.
By 1945, he moved to Mexico City with a Lincoln convertible and cash in the bank, soon buying a nightclub, the Minuit, that came to attract cross-border celebrities including Gary Cooper and Pedro Infante.
Though he first started singing romantic boleros, Aguilar changed his tuxedo for a charro outfit and found popular acceptance singing rancheras and corridos, the narrative genre that spins tales of adventurers and revolutionaries, such as Heraclio Bernal and Emiliano Zapata, whom he later portrayed on the silver screen.
Aguilar started his film career alongside mariachi icon Infante, in 1952's "Un Rincon Cerca del Cielo" (A Corner Close to Heaven), the first of a string of movies that spanned half a century.
In the 1960s, he expanded into producing and screenwriting, though not always with stellar results. He produced, co-wrote and played the leading role in 1970's "Emiliano Zapata," an overly grave characterization that steered him away from his popular comedic musicals.
In the United States, Aguilar is perhaps best remembered for his role as General Rojas in the English-language western "The Undefeated" (1969), which co-starred John Wayne and Rock Hudson.
Jose Hernandez, director of the Mariachi Sol de Mexico, recalled working with Aguilar as a teenager during shows in Los Angeles. The young apprentice annotated the old unwritten corridos, writing notes as Aguilar hummed the musical introductions.
"He was an incredible man, very special," Hernandez said Wednesday from his Cielito Lindo Restaurant in South El Monte. "And he was so respectful of this country. He would tell all his crew, and all his musicians, 'We're going to the U.S. so we must be on our best behavior. We want the Americans to see what the true Mexico is all about, and that our culture is beautiful.' "
Aguilar expressed that goal in a 2003 interview with Imagen, his home state's leading newspaper. Aguilar recalled that promoters at first were not interested in booking his Mexican rodeo at venues like Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which he would eventually fill to capacity.
"They would tell me that the show had no value for their venues, because there was just no Latin American attraction that could draw enough people," he said. "Still, I wanted to get in. I wanted to show them what we could do, and lift high the name of Mexico."